Its taken a while for me to gather my thoughts following yesterdays event. We’re going through a period of great uncertainty in central government web teams – lots of exciting developments in technology, lots of ambition in communicating often complex information, but also a niggling sense of looming thunderstorms – or possibly an earthquake might be a better analogy. So, I signed up for the 4th annual govcamp with a need to re-energise myself  and meet up with lots of like-minded people.

The event itself is always a good milestone. I attended the first, at which there was a real sense of anticipation – so much experimentation going on, tons to share and even more to learn. The second was accompanied by more of a sense of calm – dare I say more grown up? – there was less of a breathless, shiny faced feeling of newness, and more focus on sharing real life implementation – although still lots more to learn. I missed the third (extremely bad sense of timing re. holiday planning….) but was quick to put 22 January 2011 in my calendar.

And, thanks to the excellent planning and organisation of @davebriggs and @lesteph plus the generous hospitality of microsoft in opening their London office to us for a whole Saturday, the event itself was a good experience. Almost 200 people, many of whom I already knew, and lots more who I recognised from my twitterstream, plus new names and faces, combined to generate a real buzz which lasted all day. The planning chart filled up quickly, and as is always the case it was extremely hard to choose which sessions to attend.

UK govcamp planning chart

UK govcamp planning chart

Relying on the fact that sessions in the main room were going to be well attended and reported by others, I opted to miss Chris Chance (hope there will be lots of opportunities to hear his vision in the future) and started in the bluntly named “why is consultation still shit?……”  led by Steph and Tim Davis.

Steph gave an introduction which covered the evolution he had gone through while at BIS – creating some of the layered consultations which I think became a model of good practice which many other departments (including my own) learned lots from.  However, his and Tim’s cry was that even now, several years after demonstrating what was possible, too many government consultations are just seen as an ‘end of process’ exercise, a gesture on the road to launching a new policy, so that you can say that you did ask people about it – and too many are still absolutely non transparent – a pdf, an email address, and never anything heard about whether your effort in taking part made any difference at all.   So – why haven’t the more engaging efforts become part of the mainstream?

There were many interesting interjections about the whole process of democracy, how consultation might work with local communities, what about the effect caused by vocal minorities, the difference between polling and consultation, and the difference between consultation and engagement. Someone mentioned a paper they are working on about digital engagement in the public sector which sounds very interesting – one to watch for.

Discussion went to and fro for almost an hour, but the conclusion was uncertain. Those there had a good sense that engagement is the way to go – build a community of interest, listen to what is important to them, and use that to drive policy – or if that is too idealistic, at least use your knowledge of particular communities to make sure they are invited to comment when you want to gauge opinion. Also, when you do consult, make sure you feedback –  at the very least in general terms, even if you dont have a mechanism to respond to individuals. However, those in the room were clear that this sort of engagement would only happen if policy makers were bought into it as a process – and most thought we were some way off that.

My next session also focused on the question of consultation. William Heath and Paul Clarke talked about a new project which is due to launch tomorrow, so we were sworn to secrecy about releasing the details before then, but the essence of it is a consultation exercise which makes innovative use of wordpress to try and make the actual mechanics of running a consultation and making sense of the hoped for many responses, (in this case a high proportion of free text)  as easy for the officials as possible. I shall be watching its progress with interest.

The session after lunch was a bit of a leap in the dark for me. Titled “Lessons learned from going Agile in local government” Michele Ide-Smith led, and has shared her slides – but for me there was a difficult balance – most people in the room knew a lot about this technique and were familiar with all the jargon, which made it tricky for those new to it (or maybe I was the only one??) to leap in and get the basics straight.  From what I gathered though, this is a technique that works extremely well for some projects, and is absolutely different to the ‘waterfall’ model which in my experience often means that while everything looks planned and controlled, when you get to the end of a project (if you ever get there) what you get may not actually be what you wanted, or it may have been, but because it took so long, the world has changed and you dont want it any more!  I’ll do a follow up post wit my notes – as I took lots, and want to a bit more follow up research. One regret is that I didn’t stay for the next session, which was about applying what is essentially a software development process/technique to a policy environment.

My next session was a discussion about the social side of govenrment data. Led with lots of enthusiasm by @hadleybeeman who introduced linkedgov and the ideas around fixing the many problems from typos to glaring errors in the data by mobilising both the producers and users of data to get involved.  Lots of comments and examples followed – around incentives, finding out what people actually wanted, the values of socialising data within organisations, how visualisations of data helped, and an interesting point about getting data issues into curriculum activities. Hadley replied that she had already had some very general discussions on this last point, but enthusiasm tended to be around gaming elements – as this tends to be closer to the sort of projects students do at the moment.

Finally, a session with lots of familiar faces about possible futures for the GCN – government communications network.  Again, I think I’ll do a separate follow up post on this one – as I hope it is one that will evolve very quickly over the next couple of months – and from my very early days with networks for intranet managers and web teams across the public sector, I know how valuable reaching out to colleagues can be. Just because these days there are many more channels to choose from, it doesn’t mean that a space which focuses on the specific challenges facing colleagues in communication work across the public sector doesn’t have a value. I look forward to working with some of my most inspiring and enthusiastic colleagues to seeing if we can support and encourage something useful.

And what didn’t I manage to see? besides Chris Chance, sessions on using flickr, local archiving of digital projects, more on wordpress, public servants blogging (now that is definitely one to follow up!) , paper prototyping, the new government skunkworks and as mentioned above, one which followed the session on lessons learned from using agile, to say nothing of the product/project demos which all sounded interesting: mylearningpool, the global datapoint and the simpl ideas platform! Lots of reading to do as people publish their notes. Hunting for the hashtag #ukgc11 is one way, or look at the buzz aggregator put together by Steph.

I echo all the points made in Allotment 5 1/2’s blog post – a day like yesterday IS inspiring, there are some amazing, committed and talented people, both inside and around the public sector who simply want to make things work better. One person can’t do it all by themselves, but if there are enough of us left, surely the digital innovations that have been shown through 4 years of govcamps wont die away, but will continue to make things better?