26 January 2010
Saturday was UK Government Barcamp day. A day of fast moving fun, filled with energetic and enthusiastic people who thought that giving up their weekend in the cause of better government was a sensible and desirable thing to do. There was a huge amount of energy on the day, represented and amplified in the twitter traffic (not far short of 2,000 tweets, and it hasn’t stopped yet) and a burst of blog posts appearing through Sunday and Monday, to say nothing of Paul Clarke’s pictures which, as usual, reveal an assorted gaggle of nerds, geeks and oddballs to be the heroes of our age.
Let’s get the basics out of the way first. A barcamp – or unconference – starts with a blank agenda and invites the participants to suggest sessions. It’s one of those ideas which sounds utterly crazy until you try it, at which point it becomes apparent that it just works. So 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.
Slightly to my own surprise – I hadn’t thought of it until 30 seconds before suggesting it – I proposed a session on how we connect the interaction layer to the transactional layer. It is getting that connection right which is often what actually gets things done for people and which is often (usually?) based on systems which so far pre-date Gov 2.0 that at a rough guess their age profile is not dissimilar to that of the people in the room on Saturday.
It was a good, rich discussion, which really started to fly when Harry Metcalfe linked some of the issues we had been talking about to volunteered personal information and the power of user-controlled data and was boosted further by some splendidly provocative suggestions from Tom Steinberg and Simon Dickson. Better still, I was able to use one of those thoughts in a piece of work I did on Monday morning – though so thin an edge of the wedge that the crack created is probably not visible to the naked eye.
So I can only put down to my natural perversity the fact that both that session and the equally challenging and creative discussion in Paul Clarke’s excellent session about how to experiment with innovation in the hardwired state left me feeling more than a little uneasy. It took me the best part of another day to work out why, and I am not sure that I have completely pinned it down even now.
There was a fantastic group of people at barcamp. Energetic, passionate, generous with time and expertise, eager to make a difference, and in many cases a track record of creative difference making which I can only admire and envy. My guess is that the two biggest sub-tribes they fell into were those who weave applications out of data (often from outside government) and those whose trade is social media (often from a communications base and from inside public sector organisations). It was hugely refreshing and encouraging to spend time among people for whom the positive power of new media and new technology were recognised as a force for good and who were determined to make government work better, regardless of whether government showed any desire to be made to work better, and it is absolutely right – absolutely essential – that such a group re-energises and encourages itself.
But in calling this event UK Government Barcamp a bigger and bolder ambition was being expressed than that. I can’t speak for local government – it’s not my background, and I didn’t go to any of the sessions specifically focused on local government issues – but central government was mostly not there. I found myself in several conversations being the closest thing there was to the voice of a policy civil servant, thought that’s not particularly what I think of myself as being (or what, I suspect, most of my policy colleagues would see me as being). I found my concerns about personal data and transactions and about government as service provider rather than information broker feeling a bit on the margin (and for more on the sorts of issues I am referring to here, see my recent post on Vogue and the welfare system, the posts linked from that one, and indeed this blog in general).
None of that is to criticise the event which did happen. I found it stimulating, enjoyable, challenging – and reassuring. Those needs won’t go away. But satisfying just those needs also won’t bring this thinking into the mainstream and won’t unlock the radical and transformational force for good which it could have.
So I think there is a choice to be made. I am sure there is a place for a UK Government Social Media Barcamp next year – I would sign up for it as I suspect would pretty much everybody who was there on Saturday. But is there also an appetite for something which is actually a UK Government Barcamp, accepting the breadth and implications that title implies?
To do that would be both harder and easier than I suspect it looks. The easy bit first: I picked up a slight flavour from some that an unconference format wouldn’t work for a broader group and was a peculiarly geeky thing. That’s understandable given recent usage, but though the first barcamp happened only in 2005, the first unconference I went to was several years before that – and was made up of all the senior civil servants in the Cabinet Office. The atmosphere was remarkably similar with lots of energy, excitement and creative thinking, which is particularly impressive given that none of us knew what we were letting ourselves in for (and that participation was not exactly voluntary).
But that same Cabinet Office conference also illustrates the hard bit. Few of the actions and conclusions survived the post-event energy sag, and it didn’t take long before the power of daily pressures and organisational structures reasserted themselves. Conferences – even unconferences – cannot exist in isolation from the world they are seeking to influence, the event itself can be only one part of a much bigger process. That should be much easier now than it was, because we have better tools and better awareness, but easier still means hard.
I don’t have any instant answers to that: we can encourage them to emerge over time. Nor is there the slightest chance of getting there in one great leap. Perhaps a manageable step for the next event like this would be for every participant to bring a colleague (or a customer) with them who does not have the same shared background and assumptions, as a way of bringing a bit more friction as well as a bit more breadth. Or perhaps there are other and better ideas. Holding an unconference might be a good way of teasing them out and letting them grow…