Camping trip

Westminster Cathedral tetraptych


Another year has passed. Another Govcamp beckons. Every year it is much the same, because the basic model of an event with emergent content and structure works and works well. Every year it is very different, because the mix of people and the things they want to talk about changes. And even if they didn’t, there are tens of thousands of routes through the day – you really can’t experience the same event twice (or the same event as anybody else there):

We started the day with forty potential sessions, and by the end of the day forty actual sessions had happened – with the complaints I heard all being about the agony of deciding between the eight sessions going on in any given time slot.  That, by the way, has a consequence which is not always recognised – a choice of eight sessions, five times over gives 32,768 different combinations:   it’s a fairly safe bet that, quite literally, no two people experienced the same event.

So as a reminder to myself – and perhaps for the benefit of new and returning Govcampers – I have assembled a few thoughts from past Govcamps. The starting point and the most important is that I like Govcamp, for a long list of reasons, many of which contradict one another:

I like govcamp because I meet people I know

I like govcamp because I meet people I don’t know

I like govcamp because there are lots of people who were there the year before

I like govcamp because there are lots of people who weren’t

I like govcamp because there are sessions about things I am interested in

I like govcamp because there are sessions about things I didn’t know I was interested in

I like govcamp because I can walk out of sessions I didn’t know I wasn’t interested in

I like govcamp because I can create the sessions I want to be interested in

I like govcamp because I don’t have to be in a session at all

I like govcamp because there are so many parallel sessions that it’s unlikely that any two people experience the same event

I like govcamp because there are so few parallel sessions that the rate of cross-fertilisation remains high

I like govcamp because it is starting to have history and in jokes

I like govcamp because it reinvents itself each year

Govcamp is also quite useless, which is its profound, but often misunderstood strength.

That uselessness is not a weakness, it is the very essence of what Govcamp is and how it works… So, as ever, Govcamp was useless. But it is a very special and rather compelling form of uselessness. If we could be this useless more consistently, who knows what could be achieved.

This year Govcamp is back at Microsoft, giving everybody the opportunity to compete with Paul Clarke for the all time most stunning photograph taken at a Govcamp award. His winning entry from 2011, as yet unchallenged, is at the top of this post. Even at Govcamp, it’s worth being distracted from what’s going on in the room by what can be seen on the outside.

Tomorrow, I might pitch a session on putting the continuousness in continuous improvement. Or I might not. But whatever 200 individuals decide to do, the collective impact will be another day to like, exactly the same as, and totally different from, all the ones before.

Interesting elsewhere – 22 January 2015

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

Day 1 – Postbureaucrat
Whoever walks into ministerial offices after the 7th May, it’s likely there will be new faces with big ambitions and even higher expectations about how digital tools can help them win stakeholder, media and public support.

Falsehoods programmers believe about addresses

The challenge for web designers in 2015 (or how to cheat at the future)
Most of those won’t work if you try them on a laptop browser, but they will on your phone or tablet if you use chrome or firefox. This is partly the point, the technology is here, not in the tools that we use to design things for the web (laptop browsers), but in the place where users are spending more time.

Written evidence – Sir Stephen Laws KCB, QC (Hon), LLD (Hon)
The UK constitution is currently best analysed in terms of politics. The most important balancing and control mechanisms within the UK constitution are all essentially political, rather than legal. The doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty is no more than the articulation of a political fact of life, namely, that in the last resort politics always trumps law.

Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes
Many large organisations, in both the private and public sector attempt to reduce a small risk to zero risk, yet in the no doubt well intended processes they create, the overall costs to the service escalates. Many organisations don’t place sufficient value on time. If time had been a measured factor in coming up with this process, it is probable that a leaner procedure would have been devised. Finally, often a lack of trust between the politicians or those in positions of authority and the rest of the workforce results in too many prescriptive procedures, adding to the overall cost of the service.

The Innovators – lessons from the digital revolution – davebriggs -
People and computers working together in a kind of symbiosis is where the real sweet spot in digital innovation lies, rather than in artificial intelligence. Instead of trying to make machines that act like humans, we should leave the computers to do what they are good at – crunching through data and calculations – which frees up the people to do the creative, intuitive bit that machines struggle with so much.

Unexamined Privilege is the real source of cruelty in Facebook’s “Your Year in Review” | Jeffrey Zeldman Presents The Daily Report: Web Design News & Insights Since 1995
If we keep throwing only young, mostly white, mostly upper middle class people at the engine that makes our digital world go, we’ll keep getting camera and reminder and hookup apps—things that make an already privileged life even smoother—and we’ll keep producing features that sound like a good idea to everyone in the room, until they unexpectedly stab someone in the heart.

How Markets Crowd Out Morals | Boston Review
Markets are not mere mechanisms; they embody certain values. And sometimes market values crowd out non-market norms worth caring about.

Optimism, Technology and (Citizen) Diplomacy | NAKED DIPLOMAT
If digital information is the 21st century’s most precious resource, the battle for it will be as contested as the battles for fire, axes, iron or steel. Between libertarians and control freaks. Between sharers and exploiters. Between those who want transparency, including many individuals, companies, and governments. And those who want privacy, or as its critics call it, secrecy. Between old and new sources of power. The next wave of technological disruption will be faster and greater than anything we have ever experienced. But we can and must be ready for it.

Sharing about sharing

The problem with now having two blogs is the need to decide which posts belong where. I’ve just written something on my new blog about sharing between apps and how the power of mobile devices is not necessarily in their mobility. But it might just as easily have gone here, so it seemed worth adding a pointer.

There are still plenty of things it is easier to do with a full size computer. Writing blog posts is one of them. But the balance is shifting and the power to do things differently is happening somewhere else.

King Canute was buried at sea

King Canute is famous for thinking that by his royal command, he could hold back the incoming tide. King Canute is famous for demonstrating the limitations of even royal power by showing that he could not hold back the incoming tide. His attempt to show humility and the limits of power became a story of his arrogance and his deluded belief that his power was unlimited.

Early in the days of online government, the focus was on the percentage of different services which could be done online. As it turned out, that wasn’t a particularly smart way of measuring progress, let alone of setting targets. For if the target were to be the availability of every service online, that must include deeply obscure services, used by tiny handfuls of people, in circumstances least conducive to online activity.

Burial at sea started to get used as the limit case example, the reductio ad absurdum of service based targeting. It showed not that it was or should be a high priority to make burial at sea an online service, but that a literal interpretation of a 100% target probably wasn’t going to turn out to be the smartest approach. Alan Mather is on the record making that point in characteristically trenchant terms as early as 2002 and I remember using the example a year or so before that.

A few years passed. Directgov came – and went – without ever covering burial at sea. New faces arrived as GDS started to develop what was to become But burial at sea was still there as an example to think about in deciding how far along the long tail it was sensible to try to get. Reflecting on it then, I concluded:

I will be fascinated to see whether they find a way of creating the right long tail, and of stopping the tail being so unwieldy that it trips up the dog

Now a few more years have passed. Michael Cross has just written a piece about two decades of digital government strategies, describing in understandably critical tones the sequence of strategies since the first in 1996. Most of it is a perfectly good summary of what happened and a telling reminder of just how short – and tactical – the life of a strategy can be. But in the middle of the story, there is this arresting paragraph:

Modernising Government was put into action by the newly created Office of the E-Envoy. The following year, in a brief flurry of interest, Blair brought the 2008 target forward to the new European target of 2005 and threw money at grandiose and disconnected plans to drag public services into the digital age, regardless of business case or take-up. A classic example was the e-enabling of the process for applying to conduct burials at sea.

It was indeed a classic example. But it wasn’t an example of grandiose and disconnected plans. It was an example of how the need for prioritisation was recognised early on, with the dozen or so burials at sea each year being a long way down the list. By 2002, the list had in any case got much shorter. For the spending review that year, a list of ‘key services’ was agreed between Cabinet Office and Treasury for priority funding and attention. It was a short list, and burial at sea was not on it.

None of that much matters now, of course. As a mistake it is so minor as to be hardly worth the correction. But it amuses me that, Canute like, the example of a thing sensibly not done has been remembered as an example of the folly of doing it.

Meanwhile, things have come a long way since those heady days of the targets set in 2000. Pragmatically and steadily, information and services have gone online, and now you can find out about burial at sea on More than that, it is even possible at least to begin the process of applying for the necessary licence online, not through a grandiose dedicated service, but unceremoniously by including burials as a special case of waste disposal.

King Canute, meanwhile, is buried at Winchester. Not every headline is accurate.

Marine Case Management System