Three weeks into my new role at Delib I was lucky enough to be sent to the OneTeamGovScot event in Edinburgh with my colleague Megan, put on by the good folks at OneTeamGov. The event was a chance for policymakers, service designers, digital professionals and cross-sector experts to come together to discuss a range of subjects, from accountability, to citizen engagement, to artificial intelligence, and much more. It was my first unconference, which gave the attendees the chance to pitch their own session ideas and build the timetable for the day themselves. Having attended some big corporate conferences in the past, with quite rigid timetables, I really liked the idea of the audience being able to structure the day.

Linda Hunter provided fantastic illustrations throughout the day

Kicking off with some lightning talks were some of the volunteers from OneTeamGov, covering topics such as policy, service transformation through digital and using design to make the world work for us.  We then had a welcome from Sarah Davidson, Director General for the Scottish Government, who said to “put a bomb under your ambition”, a line which really resonated throughout the day, before it was time for some sessions.

Devolution of power and shared accountability – Manira Ahmad, NHS National Services Scotland

The first session we attended was held by Manira Ahmad, Head of Local Intelligence for NHS National Services Scotland. There was a lot of talk around data and accountability, as well as a heavy focus on power and ensuring everyone in society is empowered to engage with democracy, including those who are usually unrepresented and not proactively involved. People can have all the passion and will to participate but if they do not have the power, they will not be able to influence change. 

Scotland – great stories, how do we get action? – Richard Whatman, Consultant

Richard started out with a thought-provoking question: how do we actually get stuff done?! In large organisations it can often take a long process to make any small decision, and so we discussed how this could change; it was agreed that there needs to be a change in culture in these institutions to avoid the frustration of decisions taking longer than necessary to be made. We spoke about how shared experience can foster confidence that doing things differently can work and change can happen. There was also a lot of discussion around failure and how mistakes should be celebrated. Someone used the phrase “proceed until apprehended”, which was met with a nervous laugh from the room, but essentially meant that people should be able to take control of their work, and not seek permission and approval on every small thing they do. People were very keen on having safe (or dangerous, perhaps?!) places to discuss things that have gone wrong, learn from them and support one another.

Citizen engagement and consultation – Barbara Chalmers, Final Fling and Chris Connolly, Scottish Government

During this session we spoke a lot about engagement and empowerment of citizens. Everyone agreed that engagement should start long before consultation, so that views can feed into the whole cycle from an early stage. Keeping communication channels open could be a way of helping this, as well as managing expectations so that people understand that even if they do get involved, the outcome won’t always be what they wanted, but that it’s more likely to benefit them if they have their say. Someone mentioned that consultations are often centred around the banning of things but that we should encourage positive change and trust in governments, not only involving key stakeholders but a wider cross-section of society. Megan mentioned the Break the Silence campaign which the Ministry of Justice ran using Dialogue, where victims of male rape were able to anonymously suggest ways of helping people who have experienced abuse. This led to £1million being provided to specialist rape support organisations in England and Wales, to help victims through dedicated phone lines, support centres and an online community.

Why do you need a website? – a collection of disgruntled people

This session was an interesting one to attend from a small company’s point of view because it was mostly attended by people working in government or other large institutions who were frustrated with the technology they have to contend with in order to do their jobs. People thought that it would be more beneficial to collaborate with people who have already created useful technology, rather than compete with them and add another website to the internet where it may not be needed. It was clear that people wanted to see an improvement in digital experience in the public sector, with better IT systems and support and without bad tech getting in the way of people performing their jobs well.

Artificial intelligence – Michael McTernan, Bemo Ltd

We started this session by giving our names, why we were at the session and one word to describe how we feel about AI. There was an interesting spread of words, starting with some students from Glasgow School of Art saying things like “opportunity”, “smart” and “great” and then moving around the group to some of us saying “daunting” and “scary”. This exercise demonstrated well that AI is increasingly becoming more of a reality, that we all interact with it all the time, but that we have varying levels of knowledge of it. We discussed how the use of AI can make us more capable and can assist greatly with the analysis of data, but that it must be controlled well, and ultimately requires a human element for that. A lot of people seem quite wary of AI and the question of whether we can trust it was raised: Megan told us about an example of a US military drone mistaking a wedding party for a gang and shooting at people. Whilst this is a slightly dark example, it goes some way to justifying why people are slightly scared of the prospect of moving even further towards AI. There is also the issue of it putting people out of jobs by automating processes, which was an understandable concern. We all seemed to agree that we should use AI for things it’s good at such as data analysis, but keep a firm human hold on it.

The day came to a close with Ken Thomson, Director General at the Scottish Government, telling us all to “keep calm and start a revolution”. We had to write down what we had learnt from the day, and what we would do tomorrow as a result. We then screwed up the pieces of paper, threw them up and around the room and had to catch someone else’s, sharing our thoughts and actions with fellow attendees (thanks to Dougie Shirlaw for the video). It was quite a moment and such a brilliant way of concluding the day (before heading to the pub!). Of all of the conferences I’ve been to throughout my career, the OneTeamGov Scotland event was probably the most engaging and the most involved I have ever felt at one. It was a great open forum where nothing anyone said was wrong or judged and you could talk freely about some really interesting subjects. Instead of one or two people stood on a stage talking at an audience, it was group discussions that were inclusive of everyone and motivating. I met a lot of new people, ate a LOT of cake and came away from the day feeling positive. Massive thanks to all of the volunteers for having us and we’ll be sure to attend again! If you’d like to catch up on the event or have any questions, feel free to find me on Twitter: @Keri_OD.