It’s beginning

Five years ago on election day, I wrote a post about civil servants’ use of social media during general election campaigns, arguing that it was time to start thinking about the next election.

This time round the traditional rules and the new means of expression have managed to co-exist without too much difficulty. But we are all going to be back in another few years, and another few years after that. Next time more people might be more reluctant to close down part of their lives for the duration of the election. Next time there may anyway be fewer people comfortable with the traditional constraints of civil service expression. Next time there will be a generation becoming more prominent who have a visible online identity and history from which they may not be able to separate themselves even if they want to. Next time – or perhaps the time after that – civil servants may be less invisible, less silent and less disinterested.

Alongside all of that – and potentially amplifying it further – norms of engagement and participation will continue to change in the wider society and polity. Civil servants are necessarily part of that, they cannot stand outside it.

And if that were to happen, the whole idea of what it is to be a civil servant would start to change, with implications which go far beyond a handful of blog posts. So perhaps it’s time to start thinking about the next election before the polls have closed on this one.

Now we are approaching that next election, and I am not sure how much thinking there has been.1

The starting point is simple – or at least apparently simple. Civil servants are politically neutral. Demonstrating that neutrality is more than normally important during an election campaign. So government communications should largely fall silent once parliament has been dissolved on 30 March.2

For official uses of social media – blogs directly published by the government, twitter accounts maintained as part of somebody’s job – the result is simple. They stop.3 That pretty much covers it for civil servants who happen to be human beings, but it’s not quite so straightforward for human beings who happen to be civil servants.

There are several intertwined reasons for that, all of them more complicated now than they were in 2010, and all of them, I suspect, less complicated now than they will be in 2020.

The first is that the distinction between official and personal is getting less clear cut. Institutional accounts can close for the duration, but the position is less straightforward for accounts which are personal, but are also used for work-related activity. That creates a more blurred boundary for more people than was the case five years ago (though many were very aware of that boundary even then), but it also prompts a bigger question about the public lives of civil servants, on which more later.

The second is the distinction between current and past. There are things which it is perfectly proper to say now but which would not be appropriate during the election period. I know people who are sufficiently concerned about the risk of being quoted out of context that they are planning to delete their twitter histories. I am not convinced that that’s necessary, but twitter is mostly in the moment, so the impact would be relatively minor. For blogs, such as this one, the tradeoff is different: in many ways the archive is the blog. Much of its traffic comes from people finding older posts by who knows what circuitous routes. And even if I were to delete the whole thing tomorrow, it would live on in zombie form outside my control.

Putting those two things together suggests a compound risk, that more public statements by civil servants will retrospectively look ill-judged in the political context of a differently constituted government. If nothing else, those who seek to make mischief will have more raw material to work with.

The third distinct reason is the distinction between central and peripheral. Even five years ago, the personal visibility of most public officials was pretty limited. Back in 2009, I wrote a post about looking for people talking openly online about their work in the public sector and didn’t come up with much.4 Only a year before, it had seemed reasonable to write:

We are in a world where the technology has advanced and a few have adapted, but where most of us are still struggling to work out and apply the social norms which will govern the new world.

One part of that is in the use of social media.  Government is in a simple position here:  with some very honourable exceptions, it ignores them.

Much has changed since then.

Now there are over three thousand posts on the 74 blogs running on the platform. Blog posts have authors, and those authors constitute a much wider group than the few who used to publish under their own byline in the past. When civil servants blog for the government, that is of course exactly what they – we – are doing, but there is still an individual person and an individual voice behind them.

There are also more channels – or at least more channels being much more widely used by civil servants in relation to their work. Twitter in particular (and to a lesser extent LinkedIn) has dramatically reduced the barriers to entry. I don’t know how many civil servants there are on Twitter (I doubt that anybody does know or could know), but there are hundreds, if not thousands, who have acquired a public voice, many of them more recently than the last election.5

Those changes are recognised and reinforced by the latest civil service social media guidance, which makes the shift from tolerating to encouraging. It starts

The purpose of this guidance is to encourage and enable civil servants to use social and other digital media appropriately to enhance our work. [emphasis added]

Taking all that together amounts to some pretty big changes even in the five years of the current parliament. It seems rash to assume that change over the next five years will be less significant than change over the last five.

Nor are those changes – past or prospective – simply about quantity. Greater online visibility has deeper qualitative consequences too. Dennis Grube has recently raised the question, for example, of whether senior civil servants are being pushed into ‘promiscuous partisanship’,

the idea that civil servants are now expected to support government policy with the same fervour as if they were in fact partisans. The only difference being that they must then turn around and offer exactly the same fervour in turn to the next government when a change of government occurs.

Grube is concerned with a wider range of activities than are the subject of this post, but he clearly considers that the consequences are potentially profound:

Does it in fact matter if civil service leaders become more public figures than they have previously? I argue that the reason these changes matter is because the traditional anonymity of civil servants is linked in important ways to the impartiality of the civil service. To dispense with the former is to endanger the latter in ways that re-shape the core role of civil service leaders in a Westminster system.

That’s an interesting echo of my thought from five years ago that the idea of what it is to be a civil servant might start to change. It’s hard to judge how far or fast that change might go, but the fact that the question can be raised is a useful reminder that the social change unleashed by technical change is frequently neither obvious nor immediate – but may still be inexorable.

We’ll be back for another update in another five years. Or perhaps sooner.

  1. Though interestingly, that post got a very prompt response from Patrick Butler at the Guardian (and a journalist commenting on a civil servant’s blog post itself is a signal that things are changing) with the thought that the very idea of purdah was already under threat:

    Purdah looks less workable now, when social media – Twitter, blogs, Facebook – is so universal. It is easy enough to silence the departmental tweets. But what about the individuals-who-also-happen-to-be-public-servants, who, in their private lives use social media to comment, discuss and argue (non-impartially) on the issues of the day, including politics. When, for example, are they tweeting in their capacity as civil servants and when as private individuals? (the same question might be asked of journalists).

  2. There is also a slightly separate argument that government communications shouldn’t crowd out coverage of the candidates and the campaign. That argument is less relevant here – and, as I have argued before, doesn’t in any case carry the weight it once did in a more monolithic communications environment.
  3. At about this stage in the run up to the last election, I set out the rules and what they might, or might not, mean for civil servants who were also personally (as opposed to institutionally) active in social media. The detail of the formal rules changes from election to election, but the principles don’t, and I have no reason to think that they will be radically different this time from last. The big difference is that the timetable is formally known much further in advance. There are also new rules on non-party campaigning, but that’s not really relevant to what’s being discussed here.
  4. I was looking for blogs then, rather than, say, people talking about their work on Twitter, not least because I had only joined Twitter myself about a week earlier – but even if I had been more familiar with it, there was nothing like the breadth of expression we take for granted now. And that was little more than one parliament ago.
  5. Being human on Twitter hasn’t always been risk free for civil servants. The likelihood of attracting critical press coverage may be low, but the impact is undeniably high.

Unreflections on an unconference

This post is unlikely to be either interesting or even entirely comprehensible unless you were at, or at least know about, Govcamp. Normal cosmic relevance will be resumed shortly. But if you weren’t there and want to persist anyway, this post and the links it contains will give you a sense of what it’s all about.

This is a rather delayed post about Govcamp as an event, attempting to find a balance both between useful reflection and tedious reliving of an event now past; and between accepting that Govcamp just is what it is and continually striving to improve it to a point where it becomes a different thing altogether. It’s not really about the content, which this year was as ever rich and challenging, though I still intend to write separately about the session I facilitated, on managing change beyond transformation.

Govcamp 2015

What are we trying to do?

If we go right back to the basics, it’s all pretty simple. We want to get a group of stimulating, like minded (but not too like minded) people together, find out what they might be interested in talking about, and then get them talking about it. There’s some history – or baggage – to quite how we do those things at Govcamp, but the doing of them seems to me to be the irreducible core of what it’s all about.

That makes it essential to have an idea of who is there and who might be interesting. It is optional to do that by massed sequential introductions. Essential to create the programme largely in the moment, but optional to pitch by open outcry. Essential that the programme is made as clear as it can be as soon as it can be, optional quite how that is done.

Could we do it better?

If there is a concept which has increasingly flowed through Govcamp sessions, it is continuous improvement. It would be odd not to apply that approach to Govcamp itself. So while I have some sympathy with those who counsel against unproductive navel gazing (and indeed have so counselled myself before now), I see no reason why Govcamp should not adapt and improve. Looking back, it’s clear that that just happens in lots of ways: there is a different mix of people talking about a different mix of things and with a different sense of context and priorities. After my first Govcamp in 2010, I wrote:

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.

One way or another, I spent quite a lot time this year talking about transactions, government not just as a service provider, but as a service. Admittedly, I didn’t talk much about personal data, but that’s not because it wasn’t being talked about. More subtly, but I suspect much more importantly, I felt a small shift in the group culture this year which was hard to pin down, but is really important. The slight sense of beleaguerment that has been apparent sometimes in the past has faded away, leaving both greater self-confidence and greater realism.

But the very fact that this year’s event felt more coherent and engaging to me than the last couple doesn’t in itself answer the question of whether more could be done to make it better. So here are a few slightly random personal thoughts about what might change and what doesn’t need to

Ending introductions was brave – and right

Every Govcamp before this one has started with every participant introducing themselves to the assembled group. Even done amazingly quickly, it still takes a long time. I have argued before that, despite the obvious inefficiency of the process, it was still worth doing. This year, without making any fuss about it, the organisers just dropped the idea altogether. Jonathan Flowers thought that that was an interesting experiment but that we should go back to having them. I think it was an interesting experiment which changed my mind completely – essentially because I can’t think of anything about the rest of the day which worked less well because we hadn’t done the introductions. Moreover, as Glen Ocsko points out, the process has severe limitations in its own terms.

But finding out who people are really matters

Getting rid of the session doesn’t mean not caring who else is there. On the contrary, having a sense of who is who (and which human being are related to which twitter handles) makes a real difference. In another experiment this year, we all had name badges with words to ‘ask me about’ and ‘tell me about’. I didn’t have a single conversation in which anybody took the slightest notice of what was on my badge (or I on theirs). So that one, I think we can drop. The simple thing I would like instead is ludicrously large name badges that help connect names to faces at a range of more than three inches. And person to twitter translation matters, for reasons this exchange (and explanatory picture) make clear:

Pitching could be better

Creating an agenda out of nothing is hard, but it’s the glue which holds everything else together, and critically it’s the only information anybody has about what’s going on and therefore what choices to make. That makes it doubly unfortunate that the agenda setting session doesn’t work very well. The process rewards the strong of voice, the firm of queue, the certain of topic. Those who pitched, and especially those who pitched early, were distinctly more male than those who didn’t. And after all that, nobody can remember (well I certainly can’t remember) forty pitches clearly enough to make good decisions about which sessions to go to in any case.

Govcamp agenda

I don’t want to lose the spontaneity, partly for the wholly selfish reason that I like not quite deciding what to pitch more than a few seconds in advance. But I do think a bit more structure would help and, having abolished the introduction session, we shouldn’t be apologetic about using some of the saved time to improve the way the agenda emerges. There are a couple of quick and easy things. I really like Jonathan Flowers’ suggestion about clearly distinguishing between sessions which are about describing achievements from those which are about asking for help or promoting debate. I also like his suggestion about being unapologetically overt about sponsor-led sessions – though I’d have them running sequentially rather than in parallel. But that won’t be enough. There is something bigger we need to do too.

I don’t pretend to have fully thought this through, but I think the core issue is putting less emphasis on the pitches by session proponents and more emphasis on supporting session participants in making choices. So here are four possible stages. It would probably take longer (though it might balance out), but it would be worth it.:

  1. Capture ideas: There doesn’t have to be a single way of doing that. Some could be logged in advance, some pitched on the day. What matters is that each ends up on a physical or virtual card which is a sufficient basis for deciding on what’s interesting.
  2. Find interest and connections: Make all the cards visible, then let people play with them. Give everybody a few dots to mark cards which look interesting. Bring cards together which might create a flow. If your card isn’t getting much excitement, or you can see another session doing essentially the same thing, feel free to withdraw or amalgamate.
  3. Create the agenda: Almost everybody goes off for coffee and gossip networking. A few hardy souls map cards to rooms and time slots.
  4. Share what’s on offer: All being well, we have an agenda with a slightly more logical structure (though no need to overdo that); a better fit of sessions to rooms, and greater clarity of what each session might actually be about.

Keep both feet

The law of two feet states that it’s perfectly acceptable to walk in and out of sessions at any time, for any reason or without any reason at all, without that reflecting badly on either the session or the walker. Jonathan tested the idea to destruction by spending one slot going to every session for five minutes. To nobody’s surprise, including I suspect his own, that didn’t turn out to be a very good idea. He also observed that the law isn’t widely used. That may well be true, but the power of the law of two feet does not come from everybody exercising it, it comes from granting legitimacy to those who do. Above all else, it reduces the cost of making mistakes, which makes it possible to be less safe in making choices (though as Jonathan also observes, better informed choices at the outset reduce the risk to be mitigated, which is another reason why investing time in making the agenda more effective is well worth it).

There’s no need for a grand finale

Unconferences are intrinsically egalitarian and informal. They don’t lend themselves to easy summary, grand perorations, or ending with a rousing call to action. And that’s absolutely fine. It’s not hard to find events where people stand at lecterns and present slides. Some of them are very good events with interesting people who are well worth listening to. But unconferences evolved to complement those events, not to replicate them.

So I was surprised and a bit disappointed to find that the last session at Govcamp was a conference presentation, not  an unconference session – the more so as there had been no prior warning, making it effectively impossible to exercise the law of two feet. That’s no reflection on the speaker or his message – it is the format which jarred badly not the content (though it would be interesting to debate some of the content too).

Such a session might just work if there were a single clear framing of audience and purpose, and thus an authoritative leadership voice. But one of the joys of Govcamp is that it is too eclectic for that. There isn’t a leader of the UK public sector digital community, because while there is a lot of community, there isn’t anything close to a single thing. Emily Turner’s Govcamp reflections bring out the reality of what in some ways are growing differences of context and experience, which no one perspective fully brings together.

Those who do the work make the choices

It’s easy to carp from the sidelines about how things can be better. But I have been involved with enough events to know that making them look effortlessly relaxed takes massive amounts of preparation and real hard work. I am prepared to give those willing to make that commitment considerable licence to make the choices they feel they need to to make the event work. In this case, James Cattell, Nick Halliday and Sarah Baskerville in particular did a fantastic job. I don’t agree with all the choices they made, or will make, but I make no criticism of them at all for making them, and I am deeply grateful to them and all the other camp makers for creating the conditions for such a stimulating day.

Photographs by Alex Jackson and David Pearson, licenced under Creative Commons

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.