Things we learnt at #UKGC12


Wow!  What an end to the week last week!  For those of you who didn’t know, last Friday saw one or more from the WLLG team making our way to the Microsoft offices in London Victoria for the fifth UK Gov Camp, an ‘unconference’ with no set agenda, no guarantees and no limits.  The participants set the agenda themselves, pitching their ideas for things they’d like to present or like to talk about, and those who find at least one other person to speak with do just that.  The wonderful ‘rule of two feet‘, which means no-one gets offended if someone leaves a session before the end, allows participants to never find themselves in a useless session and to put it simply, great things happen.

We strongly recommend you take a look at some examples of blogs (here, herehere, here, here, here and here) , twitter conversations, pictures and anything else that have been shared since the end of the first session and throughout the two day camp any time you are lacking a little motivation or inspiration.  In fact, the nigh-on legendary Dan Slee thought it would be good for participants to share some of their initial thoughts and opinions of the day, so to follow suit here are ten things we learnt from #ukgc12.

People care

No, really, they do.  If they didn’t care about delivering great public services then there is simply no way they would have invested their own time and sometimes money to trek halfway across the country in order to sit in a building talking with other public service people.  There is no way at all that these conversations would be passionate and inspiring, and there is no way that many of these would lead directly to projects, concepts and work which would benefit more than those directly taking part.

People knock public servants in ever increasing numbers and sometimes there are occasions when they are right to do so.  However, if the attendees of those two days truly make up any percentage of staff then there is a lot of heart and energy being put in up and down the country to improve the lot for the rest of the population; you can’t put a price on this.

Innovators do more than tech

Historically, govcamps evolved from a need to look at digital innovation and explore how tech could enhance the work of the public sector.  This was certainly represented this year, with one person mentioning that there was enough tech in there to power NASA (and ironically for an event held in a Microsoft building, most of it appeared to be running on some form of iOS), but it wasn’t exclusively so.

Sessions were run on delivering the news, local democracy and social care among others, with conversations taking place in hallways, corridors, seated areas, cubby holes and nooks and crannies that Microsoft probably didn’t know they had.  Wherever you looked, real people were making real links and discussing real solutions to real problems.  This wasn’t debate about a theoretical response to a hypothetical problem – innovation was happening all around; that’s what happens when that many great minds start bumping into each other.

In some ways localgov is behind the curve, in others not so much

Sitting in one session I found myself amazed at some of the work being shared and accepted as commonplace by some of the people there; things that in my own fairly advanced council we are only beginning to consider.  some things move very quickly indeed, and it is surprising how in some areas, organisations which I would consider ponderous actually seem to act with speed and agility which belies their bureaucratic structures and history.

Then of course there are other areas where local authorities not only have all the cards but know exactly how to play them.  We may not always play them correctly and sometimes luck has its own way of influencing things, but councils should not despair if they find themselves in the wake of others; let’s understand our strengths and work on our weaknesses.

Even the most adventurous are still somewhat risk-averse

ukgc12 was attended by many of those whom I consider innovators – those who will not accept impossibility or mediocrity, those who ask for forgiveness rather than permission and see opportunity around every PID.  However, even these wonderful individuals have their own pressure points, those things which cause them to lean back a little and speak the dreaded words ‘let’s just think about this for a moment…’.

The built-in small ‘c’ conservatism is a hard habit to shake, and some are still absolutely wedded to their own ideas of what is right and correct.  The unwillingness to use software which wasn’t built in-house and which isn’t tied to at least a five year support contract means some shy away from what others see as agile and useful tools.  We may all want what is best, but our definitions of best still vary significantly at times.

It is possible to be excited by work

Having done a similar job for more years than I care to remember, there are days when it’s easy to feel as if you are going through the motions.  Each ‘new’ project which is suggested by a consultant or as a result of a manager attending another course is actually a rehash of something that was tried years ago, just with the letter ‘e’ or ‘i’ put before it.  Excitement was something which went out as Chaka Khan came in.

But actually it needn’t be that way.  After spending just a short time in the company of those who are attacking their work as if they are worried they won’t be able to achieve all of their plans in the space of one short career, the feeling is infectious.  As Mary Poppins once said, if you find the element of fun then the work becomes a game; not in a trivial way, but in an enjoyable way.  Find the fun and you may just find yourself looking forward to the office once more.

Talking is good, doing is better

Look around your average conference and you will no doubt see a dozen people who are able to talk a good talk, who can charm others and who appear to know the right words to say at any point in a conversation.  See them at the next conference and they’ll probably be saying the same things but to different people, differing only in their opinions if they’ve read someone else setting out a different and trendy opinion.

The real people who you want to speak to are those who don’t just talk the talk but code the code; those who understand both what is needed and have an idea for how to make it actually happen.  ukgc12 wasn’t about getting together and sharing some lovely ideas before going back to the day jobs; it was about setting up opportunities to actually do something as a result of what you learned and who you connected with.  If you went and you are yet to have considered something you want to do or do differently, perhaps you should set aside some time to do so.

Twitter makes networking so much easier

In the good old days, if you wanted to connect with someone you would swap business cards after a quick networking chat before contacting them a few days later to stay in touch and perhaps set up a meeting.  With the wonderful world of Twitter, all of a sudden this process became obsolete.

With Twitter you are able to nigh-on instantly connect with someone and be arranging meet-ups and swapping ideas before the day has even finished.  In fact, you don’t even have to meet them face to face, it can all be done with a few tweets.  Of course, that may not be as much fun, so a good way of combining things might be to tweet someone whom you have wanted to meet and know is in attendance to arrange to meet over lunch or between sessions; in short, networking in a Twitter-friendly crowd has made things a whole lot easier.

Beta.gov looks cool, but…

As you may have heard, on the Friday Mike Bracken fantastically gave us the chance to hear about the next generation of government website, which promises to take the great but slightly archaic Direct.gov and bring it up to speed with a slicker design, modern features and simplified and streamlined content.  This is no small task, and looks like it is well on the way to producing a truly improved user experience.

Perhaps it’s the Veruca Salt in me, but all of the day’s discussion had pushed me to the position where I wanted more.  The concept and the screenshots all looked great, and I can only begin to comprehend the gargantuan task ahead to pull all of those CMS’s and resources into a single, coherent web presence.  With that caveat, I still looked on and wondered whether or not, by the time it is finally developed, beta.gov might be a 2012 solution unfit for the 2015 world.  Hopefully these fears will prove unfounded.

Staying anonymous is hard

Long time readers will understand why it is that we at WLLG Towers feel the need to hide behind our well disguised alter-ego, but it’s at events like this that things become difficult.  Throughout the entire camp, we found ourselves walking past people without a nod whom we regularly debate on Twitter, listening to speakers we massively respect but who don’t know our day-to-day identities and wishing we could reveal ourselves (although perhaps without the required trip to an empty phone box to change out of our Clarke Kent clothes).  We even chatted to plenty of these people over the course of the camp directly, struggling but succeeding in not giving the game away.

To all these people – sorry!  Perhaps one day we might follow the lead of FOIMan and come out of our hiding places, but for now we’ll stick to as many Twitter conversations, blog comments and e-mails that you can throw at us, and hope that you enjoy speaking and working with the real us’s as much as the fictional ones.

I only work part time

And finally, I only do part of a job.  On the negative side, I realised that I only spend a fraction of my time doing those things which I want to do – coming up with these sorts of projects, having these conversations and both inspiring and being inspired by others.  The rest of the time is spent on the more mundane but still necessary tasks needed to keep my own little corner of local government ticking over.

But from a more positive angle, for some of my role I really have achieved what Mary Poppins said: for some of the time I really have found the fun and the game.  As long as I remember these more fun and interesting projects whenever I find myself filling in RAG reports or writing long and comprehensive risk assessments, perhaps I’ll realise that I’m actually quite lucky indeed.

So thanks to everyone who took part or helped organise this or any other govcamp – we hope to be able to see more of you at the next one!

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at:welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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7 Comments on “Things we learnt at #UKGC12”

  1. Dan Slee Says:

    Nigh on legendary? Nigh on knackered, more like ; )

    You’ve got me scratching my head a bit now wondering if I said hello. If I didnt: ‘hello.’ And please continue your excellent work. I think I’m on a roll if I’m writing something every week. You lot? You’re on it every day to a standard that Dan make me laugh, smile, make me want to do and make me want to shake my head.

  2. Dan Slee Says:

    Nigh on legendary? Nigh on knackered, more like ; )

    You’ve got me scratching my head a bit now wondering if I said hello. If I didnt: ‘hello.’ And please continue your excellent work. I think I’m on a roll if I’m writing something every week. You lot? You’re on it every day to a standard that makes me laugh, smile, makes me want to do and makes me want to shake my head.

    A really good round-up, this. It also makes the point that its often not the sessions themselves that live on but the discussions in the corridors and at lunch.

  3. ermintrude2 Says:

    Love the post. I attended on the Saturday (and I think the WLLG ‘rep’ went on Friday!). I had never been to anything like that before and wasn’t sure I would have a ‘role’ as such as a frontline practitioner without any managerial control to ‘make changes’ but what I did find was a little niche where the area I am in – not least direct user contact on a daily basis – was useful.
    I think it’s been very eye-opening for me. As for the anonymity, I told the people I’ve ‘known’ through twitter who I was and introduced myself but I really do know the struggle with that – that was one thing that I was nervous about.

  4. johnpopham Says:

    Great post.

    I don’t quite understand your need for anonymity. If you were slagging off local government it would be understandable, but you are celebrating it. Does that make you want to hide?


    • Thanks John, and a good point well made. As you might guess this is something we’re increasingly struggling with…

      We do (consciously) celebrate local government but we also litter the expression: ‘in our local authority’ throughout our writing. We also comment on politics (see yesterday).

      The concern (and we admit this might be unfounded) is that if the blog becomes non-anonymous then people will react differently to us in the office and/or that we’ll be asked to stop blogging… The first one might harm our careers (which we value) and the second would stop the blog (which we value).

      Not sure we know the answer but we’re certainly working it through…


  5. [...] there are hundreds of really good summaries all over blog land. We linked to some of them on our post this week and one of the non-attendees amongst us was taken with this post from a self-described [...]


  6. [...] my colleagues did after govcamp I will detail my top takeaways below but before that I would like to make a personal comment. [...]


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