Thoughts from Local GovCamp 2017

This weekend, Local GovCamp 2017 (the UK’s largest unconference on all things digital and government) was in Delib’s home city of Bristol for the first time.

We’ve attended UK GovCamp and Local GovCamp for many years, and we have a good history of staff blogs from earlier this year, 2014, 2013 and 2011.

Although I’m not unfamiliar with government/tech type unconferences, (I help organise Open Data Camp), this was my first ever Local GovCamp and I was really looking forward to attending. I missed the Fringe Friday, so it was just the Saturday ‘unconference proper’ for me – which, like all unconferences, started off with a long list of really interesting sounding pitches from a real variety of people.

I opted to start the day with a session called “Are we still innovating?” which was a great discussion, and, for me, certainly set the theme for the day. Whilst there have clearly been great leaps in recent years, there are still some major issues and frustrations which are sometimes felt keenly by those working in or with Local Government (I say this as someone who has been both the Local Gov customer and supplier in the last 12 months). In the spirit of Local GovCamp, this first discussion touched on some of the frustrations and disappointments but focused on the positives.

I’m a big fan of the unconference “Rule of two-feet” which encourages attendees to get up and move around between sessions, so was able to make the most of the packed agenda. Throughout the day I was in sessions about using NLP to improve communication within the context of Agile coaching; lessons on ideal team size learnt from working on a submarine; GDPR; chatbots and council websites; the risks and opportunities of Artificial Intelligence; and two different sessions on innovation within the context of digital government. And this doesn’t include the interesting conversations I was in, or overheard, in the corridors!

There was certainly plenty to think about following such a packed day, and my main takeaways are as follows:

Local Government is certainly still innovating

It can often be hard to take stock of how far we have come when change is such a constant. But having looked at the takeaways from the previous Delib blogs, it is clear to me that plenty of the ‘hot topics’ for innovation from 2011 or 2013 are now becoming much more par for the course, if not yet business as usual everywhere. For example, terms like ‘Digital by Default’, ‘Agile Working’ or ‘Open Data’ are now discussed as norms rather than ‘new’ things or ways in which government is innovating.

It is (still) really hard for Local Government to easily buy the right thing

There are all sorts of really good reasons why we have procurement rules for the public sector. However, there was a clear consensus that procurement processes can really hamper innovation, and can also be a real barrier for SME’s seeking to engage with Government. This was also touched upon during one of my ‘overheard corridor conversations’: “…Yes of course we need to keep innovating, but that doesn’t mean we don’t also all need to engage more and better with existing things like G Cloud that could really support innovation if more councils and suppliers engaged with it”.

We need to bring more people into the conversation

One of the session pitches was “Help! I’m an Elected Member!” which drew a big cheer from the crowd, (seemingly it is quite rare for anyone other than Officers to make it to these kinds of events). Certainly, there was a desire to find better ways to spread the word and share successes more broadly, and some were worried that there was a risk of only ‘preaching to the converted’.

It’s all about the people

Perhaps a cheesy way to finish up – but I’m afraid in my experience, it’s true. Anyone feeling disheartened by the challenges and frustrations of Local Government would do well to attend Local GovCamp and see how many brilliant, knowledgeable and dynamic people there are out there working hard to bring digital transformation to Government in all corners of the UK. And, yes, we do need to keep innovating, but judging by Local GovCamp last weekend, I have no doubt we will.