Take home pointers and a newbie’s view of Govcamp 2014

UKGovcamp is an annual unconference where participants lead the agenda on all things data, government and digital.  Held this year in City Hall, home of the GLA (and with a fantastic view of Tower Bridge); the conference had a truly buzzing atmosphere and plenty of newbies in attendance.  Following a similar format to my 2012 and 2013 Govcamp posts, I have included 3 learnings and 3 challenges, followed by a view from our very own newbie in attendance, one of our Account Managers, Louise Cato.

A photo of GovCamp 2014
A lovely pic of GovCamp 2014 in impressive City Hall (photo by Alex Jackson http://www.flickr.com/photos/aljackson/)

What did we learn?

1) Policy making should have clear achievable outcomes

Sounds obvious right? However, I’d argue it’s necessary to take a step back as often as possible to ensure the purpose and proposed outcomes are still within focus. I could list many more here, but the following 2 key points in my opinion should be consistently considered;

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • What is our organisational capacity to act on the results?

Government departments are often at risk of opening up to conversations they aren’t ready to have yet, occasionally consulting on outcomes they couldn’t even implement. Ensuring this doesn’t happen or is caught early, often comes down to organisational readiness from the onset. Going to consult? – Plan early.

2) We shouldn’t shy away from documenting the full policy making ‘journey’

In an engaging session run by Anthony from Demsoc, the group considered whether it could be possible to document the whole story around a policy change, all starting from the heading of what you are trying to achieve (note the theme ;).

The session also cited a couple of examples of where this had successfully happened previously, including the ‘Red Book for Evidence’ run by NESTA.  The red book is an excellent example of this idea in action and is full of supporting evidence for whenever a legislation change is proposed, so that those interested can scour it and confirm the credibility of the evidence supporting the policy.

3) Don’t let the tools determine the focus – use them as an enabler

During Govcamp break out sessions, conversation will often turn from ideas to “how can we achieve this then?” with attendees often citing examples which have previously worked in their organisation. As a provider of such tools, we are always keen to ensure our customers are ready for the inevitable processes which are needed to enable it to work. It’s all about people, processes and tools.

Consultation works most effectively when a variety of methods are used, but are these methods always clearly communicated and documented?  A successful example of consulting early and in an open manner was the Spending Challenge Dialogue. Acknowledgement and transparency about who was welcomed and took part in the conversation, alongside how responses will be weighted is also key.

What challenges did we identify?

1) How can we use/translate Agile methodologies in Government?

After running my first unconference session on this during BlueLight camp back in April 2013, I couldn’t help but think that the challenges and learnings of using Agile in a Government context are only really just unfolding. Dxw work regularly with Government departments to run Agile projects. In their session they discussed the idea of starting with the principles of Agile, in particular citing the need to ‘indoctrinate’ the customer into an Agile mindset approach from the outset. If this simply isn’t suitable, is there an argument to talk Waterfall and act Agile?

The great advantage of Agile is that you realise early if something is not working as you had planned. Linked to this point, projects may fail if they were the wrong scope originally. Let’s remember not to get too carried away; as Steph Gray from Helpful Technology mentioned, shoe-horning projects into Agile processes when this isn’t the best method is often worse.

2) Can we create a culture which recognises risk and failure in a positive light?

Risk and failure are often taboo words in most organisations, but should they be?

A tip for problem solving that we practice in Delib is: Always have the option to ‘do nothing’. Sound like a cop out?  Trust me it’s not, it really helps to weigh up whether you should carry on (at all) with what you are doing.

3) What’s next for the open data agenda?

The open data agenda is much talked about in unconferences, and this year particularly.  There are three major puzzles that crop up:  What’s the next phase in the open data agenda? What is the published data being used for and, more importantly, is it useful?

For some organisations, exposing data publicly has proven an opportunity to review how the data is structured – offering the chance for internal and external improvements in the handling and delivery of the information. From a service delivery point of view, it provides a window to see how things are going and to report back on deliverance. We need to ensure that opening up data to some individuals isn’t an end in and of itself.

Once again, GovCamp was an opportunity to meet people working in a similar field and with similar aims, but refreshingly varied views. Many thanks to all the hard working GovCamp 2014 organisers for bringing us geeks together!

GovCamp for the uninitiated – a newbie’s view

Having worked in digital democracy for all of 3 months, the thought of going to an unconference with the premise that I might be expected to actually say something insightful, whilst surrounded by most of the data/digital experts working with and in government, made me mildly anxious.

I arrived early (so early that the doors weren’t even open – I may be new, but I’m keen), so I had plenty of time to waft about, taking in people’s conversations and trying to pick up what the trends of the day might be.  I heard snippets of suggestive phrases, things like “big data”, “open policy” and “tech cities”.

NB: One of the other key talking points was the lack of coffee available on site – it seems GovCampers are united by three loves; technology, transparency and caffeine.
image of bingo card game from gov camp
DXW game to play during GovCamp, I didn’t win 🙁

If, like me, you’ve not been to an unconference – here’s how it works:

  1. Take 250 eager people with various roles, ideas and experiences and put them in a big room
  2. Make them stand up and introduce themselves (terrifying)
  3. Ask people to come up the front and pitch ideas for sessions – each idea is voted for using the tried and tested method of audience applause
  4. Give bewildered attendees a chance to assimilate all the information and decide which sessions to go to
  5. …and disperse!

Our first chosen session was “What do you want from your Agile supplier?” As a supplier who does Agile, this seemed fairly appropriate and it was interesting to hear the difficulties faced by government and other suppliers when initiating a project.  As Rowena has highlighted above, an Agile method can allow room for failure and subsequent correction, but the very fact that failure is mentioned can cause problems. It takes good communication at the outset and throughout the project to make the progression clear.

Session 2 “Making open policy real/enabling better policy” was fascinating – I was even close to piping up at times.  It was run by Anthony from DemSoc, with Ade Adewumni from GDS, Andrea Siodmok former Chief Design Officer at the Design Council  (and now for Cornwall Council) and Esko Reinikainen, co-founder of the Sartori Lab.  Many great ideas on how we can make open policy work, with quite a bit of talk around evidence-based policy making, although this really is only one part of open policy.  We were also pleased to hear many people mentioning best practice consulting and transparent public engagement as part of the process, but again, even we realise that this on its own does not constitute open policy either. You need more than just vodka and tomato juice to make a decent bloody mary.

Drawings from Open Policy session
Just some of the collective scribbles from the Open Policy session

A particular point from this session was that all policy-making is not equal – some policy proposals will only have a few possible outcomes, whilst others may need more of a free-range of ideas.  However, we all agreed that consulting on a variety of options, of which only say 3 would actually be considered in practice, is not a transparent process and, arguably, a waste of everyone’s time. Giving people the range of possible outcomes from the start will give them scope to submit their opinions and ideas within the reality of what can be achieved.  And if the policy paper really is a blank sheet and anything goes, then the mighty power of the crowd could generate some seriously interesting ideas.  Here’s a link to the civil service page on open policy and policy reform for further reading.

Session 3 we stumbled into rather late as we had hoped to get into Jukesie’s talk on publishing stats on the web, but he was somewhat oversubscribed!  Instead we arrived in a room, halfway through another conversation about how government display data.  I’ll be honest here, I was mostly lost throughout this discussion as I had no context on which to base any of the chat, but it was clear there was a drive to display top level data at a local and national level in an interesting way.  I think the ONS have started to do this brilliantly – as evidenced below, which was one of their infographics used in the Eastern Daily Press.

ONS infographic showing percentage of young adults still living with parents
ONS infographic – making data more user-friendly

I spent session 4 chatting in the foyer with Zak Mensah, Technical Development Manager for Bristol Museums. It was great to hear about how they manage such a small budget to deliver big interactive projects across the museums in Bristol.  Their work to digitally archive all documents will be of true benefit to the public for years to come.

I learned that this is what GovCamp is also about, it’s there to bring people together to discuss important things locally and nationally… and it doesn’t matter if you do that in a conference room or a corridor.

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