Field notes

Notes from ukgovcamp 2017

My day began rather fortunately. I’d flat out forgotten to switch my alarm on the night before, so sleeping through much of the morning was a likely eventuality on a Saturday. Thankfully my body knew it was time to get up and saved me from a tardy arrival.

ukgcX: The title has progressed on to Roman numerals, a marker of some enduring success for the whole concept. This felt like a symbolically important stage of maturity, which manifested in two explicit ways.

Firstly, entry to the (free) event was managed by a somewhat controversial ticket lottery system. While succeeding in making the event more accessible to the uninitiated, and removing the ticket scramble stress, it did tilt the playing field towards the idly curious at the expense of the demonstrably committed. The smattering of unclaimed tickets may have been a consequence of this. It was genuinely delightful how often someone uttered the words “this is my first govcamp”. On the other hand, there were a number of notable stalwarts missing. It’s a difficult problem though, and there’s no obvious solution to maintaining the ineffable character of the event, while continually incorporating all the new faces.

The second visible sign was that of the sprawling pitching line, longer than ever this year. This is symbolic of a truly healthy culture, one in which seemingly everyone feels comfortable setting out their stall in the market for discussing ideas. The only problem is practical — it starts to resemble a market with more sellers than buyers (or rather, more speakers than listeners). As a consequence, the number of session slots ran out and pitches of dubious connection were merged. Again, the mechanics are starting to run up against some hard physical limits. I decided against pitching given the sight of the stuffed session grid, though thankfully the topic I had in mind was pitched by others, which led to my favourite discussion of the day.

I started the day by exercising ‘the rule of two feet’ (rebranded somewhat more sensitively by ace compere Janet Hughes as ‘take responsibility’). Caroline Jarrett pitched a quiet session on ‘conversations and chatbots’. It was a topic I was interested in but a session based around silent written reflections may have suited my temperament more in the afternoon than first up, so I headed upstairs for an inevitable session on Agile (even when not explicit, the number of sessions that address it are a reminder that the fundamental culture war in the public sector remains ‘continuous, iterative, user-centred, technologically-enhanced, actively-designed’ services, vs everything that isn’t that). There were some useful shared examples of different team cultures and blameless trust-based working, though the session itself slightly awkwardly attempted to straddle three disparate pitches.

My favourite session of the day was on the limits of civil servant political impartiality. The crux of my (unpitched) thoughts were that the notion of complete personal neutrality in political matters is both a polite fiction that’s no longer fit for the modern workforce, as well as something which is a practical impossibility in our highly networked society. Others spoke passionately and intelligently about the relationship between policy and delivery, personal ethics and professional responsibility, and comparable situations internationally. Given that 2017 heralds the aftermath of 2016’s political eruptions, this will remain a topic of great salience.

After re-caffeinating during the lunch break, the afternoon started with my only session on a local issue, in the form of a well-rounded discussion on the future of the planning system. This was a topic relevant to my professional interests, having spent a lot of time in the last year or so working on things to make it easier for residents to be informed about the planning activity in their local area. My personal instinct is that it’s an area sorely lacking service design, because it’s a system that most citizens find impenetrable to get involved in — with even those who are highly engaged struggling to get clarity about what local planners take into consideration when making their decisions. Euan Mills led the session with some interesting work done at Future Cities Catapult to look at the data needed to construct a planning system for which outcomes could actually be set and measured (and the dearth currently available). As ever, the struggle with address data caused consternation:

Next up was a discussion on the state of the network and the next ten years of govcamp. Too big a topic for 45 minutes really (aren’t they all), but an opportunity for a good discussion of the growing pains I mentioned at the start of this post. There was some attempt to quantify the impact of govcamp in its first decade. Attribution is tricky here — govcamp is a focal point for a lot of different activity and thought that doesn’t necessarily fit into clear boxes. If the primary objectives are upskilling and expanding the network, then the massive oversubscription to this year’s event is probably a good KPI if you ever needed one. I think there’s a danger in trying to corporatise it though — as Stefan Czerniawski articulated, the value is in ‘being useless’, in providing an environment for unexpected and creative thoughts to materialise, in a way that could be stifling if you tried to codify it. I think I see the main challenge in the future as spreading the knowledge to the broader reaches of the public sector/services. Central government is well catered for (though by no means perfect, or safe from retrenchment), but this is less true for health, housing, local government, and so on. There were a handful of people from these areas present, but they were all under-represented (local government presence in particular seemed quieter than in the past).

I ended my day with a ‘failcamp’ session, an AA-esque mildly cathartic opportunity to tell our less successful stories, and celebrate some well-intentioned whoops-a-daisies. There’s something deeply reassuring about hearing the failures of successful people, knowing with the benefit of hindsight that setbacks don’t have to be derailing, and to keep going.

So that was that for another year. Time to live out some other people’s yesterdays via the recorded wisdom from the sessions I missed, then see what I can take back to reality on Monday morning. Hello 2017.