Public Services

No pre-planned agenda. No keynote speaker. Must be Govcamp

David Bicknell Published 27 January 2017

Defra and MoJ permanent secretaries lend support as popular public sector digital "unconference" celebrates tenth birthday


Last Saturday morning around 220 people suffered that, "It's the weekend. Why is my alarm clock going off?" feeling. They rubbed their eyes, got out of bed and made their way, perhaps a little bleary- eyed into Victoria, London to the offices of the National Audit Office.

Just over eight hours later, digitally re-energised and bubbling with ideas, they headed for a nearby pub. This is the tenth year they've been doing it: and it's called Govcamp.

If you're not familiar with Govcamp, it's a sort of conference about digital government, except it's not like a conference at all. That's why it's an "unconference."

For Govcamp, there is no pre-set agenda. Participants make their own, by pitching different sessions which are then organised into a master grid throughout the day, with sessions around 40 minutes long, all held in different rooms and usually live-blogged. The day is entirely run by volunteers and the days is supported using collaborative tools such as Trello, Google Docs, Google Hangouts, Slack and WhatsApp.

This year's event was led by Janet Hughes - best known for her work with GOV.UK Verify and for her "Be Bold" blog - who was MC for the day, coaxing and cajoling Govcamp 'newbies' to pitch.

The thing about Govcamp is that it doesn't matter how experienced or inexperienced you are at the event - or, for that matter, in digital government: everyone's equal. So newcomers who pitch are welcomed, cheered, even, for their ideas. Discussion through the 40 minute sessions encourages inclusive participation and frowns on conversation-hoggers.

This year, there were 27 sponsors , including the Government Digital Service (GDS), the Department for Transport, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, UKCloud, dxw, as well as Government Computing's parent, Kable.

Attendees who looked in on the day included GDS director general Kevin Cunnington, while two permanent secretaries even attended for the very first time in Govcamp history.

Richard Heaton, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice was there. He tweeted : "Impressed by #ukgcX - people spending a Saturday plotting a better public service, debating the ethics, scanning the future. Well done all." Arguably, though, the star of the show was Clare Moriarty, permanent secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) who pitched and led a session about making government open by design and in operation.

Clare pointed out that former Defra secretary of state Liz Truss had put Defra at the forefront of the open data revolution by driving the publication of 8000 datasets. But putting out lots of datasets "does not open data make". So, how do you move from "open Defra" to an "open culture"?

That was the gist of what Clare's session was about: rather than saying what Defra - or even other departments - should do, giving people more permission to come up with their own ideas and get on and do it. i.e. delivering government that is open by design and in operation. One suggestion was to get all the permanent secretaries together for an unconference. You can view the session discussion here

Other sessions at Govcamp covered areas such as IR35, behavioural science for better policies and processes, digital campaigns in government, agile vs public sector governance, how to deal with working in government during significant political change, and archiving digital government, how to attract brilliant digital leaders to smallish organisations with no money, and 'Govcamp2: what do we do for the next ten years.

Government Computing together with a range of procurement specialists, including dxw's Alex Jackson, Spend Network's Ian Makgill and UKCloud's Bill Mew, plus several other contributors in a lively session, discussed whether procurement is 'broken' and whether the government is losing its zeal for SMEs. I appreciated the contributions of Darwin Peltan from Pilot Works and Matthew Ford from Bit Zesty.

Points raised in the session included that there seems to be fewer and fewer bids for tenders with more money going to the largest suppliers; is there a social value qualification in procurement and what does it look like? Also considered were identifying some tangible things SMEs can ask buyers to do, such as not to list an opportunity if they don't have a budget; tell SMEs how many are on the shortlist; and to tell them if the incumbent is shortlisting. You can follow the session here

A few other facts and figures: there have been over 3000 tweets about #ukgcX so far.

And a Pinterest Board has also been set up to capture blogs, pics, and tweets of note. It's a good resource for anyone who wants to see what goes in and comes out of a Govcamp.

Looking ahead, it's likely that Govcamp's popularity is going to mean it will be an even bigger event next year and so may need to grow its funding in order to secure a bigger venue. Given the success over the last ten years and the buzz in the pub afterwards, the event's popularity will continue, with sponsors keen to be associated with it.

The only problem is that you'll have to wait 51 weeks to beg, steal or borrow a ticket for Govcamp 2018. So you'd better start plotting now how to get one! On the bright side, those who got up nice and early last Saturday morning can enjoy their lie-in tomorrow!!

* Stop Press . Defra's Permanent Secretary Clare Moriarty, mentioned in the blog, will speak on some of the open government issues raised in her Govcamp session at the Think Digital Government conference taking place at the Business Design Centre in Islington, London this Friday, February 10. Clare will discuss how open ways of working, open culture and open data can transform government. When designing for open government, there is an important place for plans and structure, but there also needs to be space for fluidity, for curiosity, and a willingness to try something new. Her session on "Undesigning for Open Government" begins at 9.55am.



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