My fifth govcamp, and a new venue south of the river. This year our hosts were IBM, and despite the grey weather outside, the meeting space was bright and shiny, and filled with about 150 people.
The has been a lot of talk in digital/tech circles about the lack of women at events like this, so it was good to see this broke the pattern, with almost equal numbers of men and women standing up to pitch for sessions. I pitched two, and was almost on the chart to run both at the same time…… but this was spotted last minute. After that potential clash, the grid worked well for me this year, and I found something interesting in each slot, with not too many unbearable choices to make.
Steph had set up a live blogging platform: which worked excellently well for me during my first two sessions, but then there was a wifi glitch. Resorted to offline note taking, which hopefully makes for a more succinct and reflective blog now.

My five sessions were on personal/professional identity in a digital age, the evolution of digital teams, how to discuss failing fast and lesson learning, the successes of govcamp and what might come next, and finally an overview of the Open Government Partnership.

I liveblogged the first session here – a packed hour, some of my highlights were:
– Having a name that is a “google unique” raises all sorts of questions. Examples of linking between blog, twitter account etc, whether this is explicit or implicit, accidental or deliberate.
– Question – how we know when we are interacting with someone that it really is the person we think?
– When making links between data stores, how to make sure that John Smith in one is the same as Johnny Smith, or J Smith?
– Is identity some thing we have, and choose to project, or is it something that is accumulated around us and reflected back?
– Discussion around the difference between assertion, and validation.
– Even if you want to keep identities separate, it’s becoming increasingly hard to do – even for those with a certain level of technical know how.
– Back to big data question, the big providers who are joining up and using the masses of data they have about you. Surely a point will be reached (soon?) when something big happens that will make it real to people and cause mass concern, but by then, will it have gone too far to do anything about it?
– Issue that traces in the real world may linger, but fade in relatively short time. – Digital traces hang around indefinitely and are findable in all sorts of ways.
– Digital makes it so much easier to triangulate.
– Back to public sector, low levels of clarity as to what levels of identity are genuinely required, needs to be more discussion about this as services are designed. [ Absolutely agree]
– Civil servant example, distinction between barriers, and what people are allowed to do or say, and the right of freedom of speech.

Next up was the session I pitched on digital teams – what peoples experience was now as to the skills and activities covered, and how they saw things evolving in the future. Again, live blogging worked so my full notes are here. There is fuel for a full blog post from the session, and its something I’ll continue to think about, but for now, my edited highlights were:
– Look at digital team as a consultancy, go the team for advice on how to use it, and to keep an eye on innovation and change.
– Reputation is a significant issue, it’s different when you are in a self selecting group eg on Facebook, but within an organisation, there do have to be rules. Digital teams can have oversight of this and share best practice.
– Is delivery fragmenting across government – after web rat will we need twit rat? No sense of coordination and anyone looking across the whole picture, or a department, let alone the whole of government.
Comment: some departments do have that as part of the role of their digital team.
Further comment on reflection – does this matter if people have the skills and licence, and are engaging with the communities they need to, and both sides are aware of the relationship – why worry that there is no central control?
– Lot of people still say “I’m not technical” need to challenge what that means.
Is this a dilemma for now, and in a certain amount of time, digital skills and tools will be commonplace?
– What might teams do in the future? Good at building relationships, identifying local forums, finding connections, working with marketing teams (or whatever they evolve into). Goes way beyond broadcast model.
– Comment: recent digital strategies contain a lot around upskilling and creating capacity. Lot of talk about setting up digital teams, but these are actually a different beast from what we in the room may mean when we talk about a digital team, these new ones are about developing services, new techniques, agile development etc.  In some areas, this service focus is because that’s what people want. Danger or risk though that its seen as a single model and that is all that is needed – oversimplistic?
– “Digital” as a term is becoming overloaded, being used for so many things, and all to mean different things. (Much like agile) So, what might the new terms be?
– Difference between digital champions, some are there because you have to have one, some are there because they are passionate. Elsewhere there are passionate people who are not in a position to make things change.
– Quote: digital teams should not go off in a teenage huff complaining people just don’t get it. Another useful role is in evaluation, and providing evidence, with numbers attached, especially when those numbers are closely related to money – costs and savings.

NOTE: Interesting serendipitous related blog noticed Sunday :  Why every organisation needs a digital comms specialist:”In essence: We all need to be doing more of this digital communications stuff from the hard-bitten pr to the frontline officer. There shouldn’t be a digital comms team and a traditional comms team in a different part of the building.
There should be one. Which doesn’t mind if frontline people use digital too. But this is the tricky bit. Every organisation now needs a digital communications specialist to help make this happen.”

And update: Ann Kempster has also blogged about this topic- think we’ve hit on a hot topic!

After lunch my first session sketched out the scenario that we are hearing a lot at the moment about how important it is to fail fast and learn from it, and in particular in the entrepreneur/start up world failure being seen as a badge of honour. This is all good, but what happens in reality – in particular in the public sector, when people want to do that, but it is blocked.
Highlights from this discussion were:
– To develop a culture where people are comfortable talking about what is done when things go wrong, its good to do it internally first, or at least among a community who understands that you are sharing in order to learn
– In exploring the idea mentioned above re startups, they are talking about failure from a position of success: they have the scars, and have learned, and have since had success
– There is a school of thought that says “Don’t talk about it until you can clearly state what the learnings are” but what if that means a long gap in between issue discovery and sharing. If sharing could be ongoing, then perhaps lessons could influence other projects?
– Difference between useful and useless failure, so the question is whether we can get very quickly to a position of useful failure
– Focus on small incremental improvements, and talk about each step and say what you are hoping to achieve, and why you are doing what you do
– Make sure all levels of an organisation are involved, so senior people completely understand (avoid the scenario where seniors say that people must do something, then are aghast when they do)
– GDS are in a powerful position at the moment, and could do a bit more publicity of their revisions and changes based on feedback, instead of only talking about string of successes
– Don’t underestimate the power of actually showing people what you are doing.
– Don’t confuse the art of the possible and cheap throw away pilots, with the fact that to build and deliver something secure that will work for the whole of a process WILL actually cost money, and may take considerably longer to develop, so balance that there will be failures and challenges when translating those pilots into real products
– Interesting comment about having a portfolio approach to projects, as when several things are worked on at the same time, there will be both successes and failures and it is easier to walk away from those that don’t work, while if you just have one shining star main project that your career depends on, then you are less likely to be prepared to walk away from it
– Fear of negative press coverage does drive the fear of taking risks and the fear of talking about anything that has gone slightly other than perfectly

And finally there was an interesting question about whether there is any evidence that projects where failure and iteration is part of the process actually do achieve better results at the end? And that programmes run in this way do receive more funding?

Penultimate session was around celebrating the successes of gov camp and wondering what might happen next.
People talked about the value it gives, for individuals, the confidence to challenge and a support network you can call on. Many of the spin off camps were mentioned – regional, and thematic, such as blue light camp, the more informal teacamps, and if I heard right, brewcamps. (not sure if these are teacamps with beer, or an analogy for tea?)

A fascinating discussion followed that questioned whether the sort of people who attend these events then had almost a duty (or at least were in the ideal position and could have a stated ambition) to use the knowledge gained to bring about real change at the highest levels. There were many views, not least the question as to whether one particular self selecting event can really claim a mandate, but the counter was that it’s good sometimes to have a set of things to follow up. One persons shared statement is another ones manifesto, lots of cultural baggage and interesting anecdotes here!!

A point that struck a chord with me (and echoed other sessions earlier in the day) was that outside the immediate network of active digital enthusiasts, there are many people who think they get digital, but still haven’t really got the restless curiosity that characterises digital innovation.

Two opposite examples were described – one person who was inspired by gov camp to leave local govt and go freelance, another who went back into local gov, and now talks about these sorts of issues, but is the only one in his organisation. Which brings us back to the original contention: how do we get more people exposed to this sort of event and make explicit the permission to go out and innovate, and make changes based on using technology to meet user needs.

Shining a light on issues and using the sorts of technique stalked about is ultimately what will bring about change. Some can be left to chance, and that is the direction the community is evolving in. Once you reach a certain period of maturity, then perhaps something else can emerge.

My final session was on the Open Government Partnership – something I was faintly aware of, but had no clear picture of what was actually happening. Rather than give background – which is here: the key points for me is that this agenda could be a real hook on which to hang all sorts of he kind of innovative and transformational things that digital can offer to improved participation among communities, decisions which affect all our lives being made with real input from those directly affected, but, at the moment it appears to be a fairly London centric talking shop, trying to reach out, but with not many people involved.
Looking at the site, their aims are written in fairly impenetrable government-speak, so I wonder if effort could be made to pull out some really clear and practical examples, and perhaps that would lead to more people understanding what was happening, and therefore deciding to get involved?
One participant commented that it sounded like something the Open Data Institute was doing – a challenge to local authorities which actually had a pot of funding available for innovative examples, and another person suggested perhaps a weekly chat around a unique hashtag to address some key questions might spread the initiative out beyond those currently involved.

Despite best intentions to make this blog more in the style of the “20 things I learned from this event” posts that appear regularly, I’ve failed – too many interesting points, things to follow up and classic quotes I don’t want to lose!

Thanks @lesteph and @davebriggs for excellent organisation, and IBM for hosting – and to all those who gave up their Saturdays to share, think, entertain and record.