Improving GovCamp #ukgc14

TL;DR there’s some debate about how we might make the annual barcamp for public-service types even better. I have some opinions…

For those who don’t know…

  • This is my first contribution to a debate that I first saw starting on Friday morning about how to do UKGovCamp better.
  • UKGovCamp is the annual big unconference for people interested in government and the web – it started out as BarCampUKGovWeb in 2008. It seems I did sessions on something called a “Social Media Cafe” and did a demo of some web service called “Seesmic” 🙂
  • It’s happened, by the sort of tradition that springs up so easily in such circles, at the end of January, in London (except when January has been too snowy).
  • It’s great, people love it. The original description was “creating a shared understanding and commitment to the vision for UK government web activity and helping establish the UK government Digital Network to bring together the community of webbies within central government and the wider public sector.” It did that and the balance has since shifted more towards the wider public (and increasingly voluntary) sector, especially our friends in Local Government.
  • It’s also great that people want to improve on the experience and that anyone can get involve in the improvement. The best way we have available at the moment is to keep talking through our blogs and twitter and the mailing list.
  • Disclaimer: I believe I’ve attended all the camps but for the last three (four?) years I’ve facilitated the day(s) in return for a (discounted) fee (leading open spaces is one of the few things I do for a living). That doesn’t mean I’m in charge and I don’t believe that should give me any more or less influence over how things are improved. I don’t think it means much more than that I have a commercial interest in the event’s continued success. You can think what you like of course.

Three virtues – NEA

  • I think that a key reason that UKGC and BarCamps in general have succeeded is that they share the virtues with those of the internet that Doc Searls and David Weinberger wrote about in World of Ends – ie NEA, that is “Nobody owns it, Everyone can use it, Anyone can improve it” Seriously, if you haven’t read that article (it’s been around for about 10 years, what’s your excuse?!) go and read the whole thing.
  • Nobody owns it
    • Not Jeremy Gould, not Steph Gray, not Dave Briggs, not GDS, not me. I think it helps to look at the World of Ends article and think about what it means if we think of UKGC as an “agreement” not a “thing”.
    • One way that people or organisations can exert influence that makes it look like they own it is by putting more focus on the work of organisation rather than on the day itself
    • The way we restore that balance is by giving huge power to the people who turn up – the openspace-based format we use means that nobody gets to dominate the agenda and even things that were decided beforehand can be thrown out on the day.
    • We also maintain the balance by being unorganised 🙂 Suggestions that I’ve seen of expanding the event by creating local events and co-ordinating between them suggest the sort of organisation that can quickly and easily turn into a self-serving machine.
  • Everyone can use it
    • This is one of the ripest areas for “improvement” – not everybody can come. We want more people to be able to come. We want more diversity in the attendees.
    • But we still want it to work. And we don’t want to put people off who’ve attended before because it’s going to be so different. So how do you do that? Well just as the way to grow the internet was not to give everyone an account on ARPANET but to build other interconnected networks that used the same protocol, I think we need more public-service unconferences – either focused on niches of interest or generic but happening in other places at other times. Let UKGC get on with being the national government barcamp that it wants to be and create others to do the thing that you want to do. Remember, nobody owns it, that means you can do it.
    • I often hear talk about why it’s on a Saturday and talk about doing things in your “own time” or “work time”. Not everyone recognises such a distinction – my work time is my own time 🙂 But again, if you want an event on a weekday make it happen – that’s what #commscamp13 and #mailcamp have both done.
    • I also think that it’s important to recognise that it’s not just for those people directly employed by a public body – many discussions are based on the assumption that attendees are either civil servants or local government officers. I think what makes it good is that anybody could turn up.
  • Anyone can improve it
    • How do you “improve it”?
    • The best way to improve UKGC is to turn up, be helpful, present something you know or have done or want to find out about, and go to other people’s sessions and be an active participant.
    • The other way is to create workable useful new “agreements” or traditions about how we do things, just as long as they embody the NEA virtues themselves.
    • Here’s some that I’m thinking of:
      • There’s a BarCamp rule that we don’t adhere to because it sounds a bit too directive. This is “no tourists” ie if you come along, you’re a participant and you should be up for presenting just like everyone else, there’s no presenter/audience/organiser distinction. I think we could be stronger on this and encourage as many people as possible to contribute a session however humble.
      • I also believe in regular rotation of organising roles and the infusion of new people as much as possible – this is facilitated by keeping things simple and making sure that each person only has a small job to do.
      • I’d like to see more rooms (so more spaces on the grid) and more flexibility on the length of sessions. Hour long sessions with 1/5 of the group there can easily create a traditional conference vibe where one or two people talk to the masses all the time and these things feel even more difficult to escape no matter how much you want to use the law of two feet.
      • We do individual introductions plus 2 or 3 tags as a speedy warm-up – this has benefits beyond the sharing of information, it’s a social thing, but it can be merged with pitching if *everyone* pitches something!
    • And there are some things that just won’t work
      • I generally say “no” to “improvements” to the agenda setting process – what I think we’re aiming for is the Open Space ideal, anything that takes us in that direction might get my backing.
      • No keynotes, no visiting celebrities, no stars. Nuff said.
      • I’m in favour of us reaching as wide an audience online during the day as possible, except when to do so constrains what happens in meatspace.
  • The most important thing for me is that using the open space-ish format gives us enough leeway for change on the day, if we want to make improvements, the best way is to try them out there, for real, with everyone getting a say in whether they think they’ve worked or not.
  • We can do whatever we want to do.

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