Friday is the new Saturday

If you were to ask me what has been the single most influential thing to have happened in UK digital government in recent years, my answer would be the annual BarCamp / UKGovCamp. That first event, in late January 2008, helped form a community of civil servants and external suppliers; and demonstrated a desire, on both sides, to use modern technology’s new opportunities to do Government better.
So much so, in fact, that people willingly gave up a Saturday to come along. In the civil service, that’s pretty much unheard of.
To me, that was its defining characteristic. We all had something ‘better’ to do: social life, family duties, supermarket trips, even just sleeping off the exertions of the week before. In my own case, it’s the weekend of my wedding anniversary. But we all felt this was more important.
Last year, I picked up rumours suggesting that some people had claimed a ‘day off in lieu’ to attend. In some respects, that’s a compliment to the continuing success of the event, and its perceived importance in the government webbie calendar. But it felt at odds with the idealism of the day. I didn’t like it.
And so to this year (or rather, next year)’s event. Tickets for UK GovCamp 2012 went on ‘sale’ on Monday – and promptly ‘sold out’ (of the initial allocation) in just a few short hours. Clearly it’s seen as being more essential than ever – which is good. But something has changed. Something significant.

GovCamp is back, BACK, BAAAAAACK for 2012 and it’s bigger and badderer than ever.
Not just one day of fab conversations, networking, sharing tales of woe and mass tinkering – but two!

  • FRIDAY 20th January sees the usual GovCamp experience of crowdsourced unconference sessions where delegates talk about the stuff that interests them
  • SATURDAY 21st January is the all new GovCamp Doing Things day, where everyone attending can dream come some cool stuff to do, whether it’s collaborating on the best social media strategy EVER, running some training sessions on creating video, or build some useful app or other with some data

Will Friday be the usual GovCamp experience? No, I don’t think it can be. It completely changes the ‘ask’.
The vast majority of the civil servants will, presumably, have had to ask their boss’s permission to attend. That means they’re effectively attending in an official capacity. In theory at least, they will have to be careful what they say. Gone is the freedom, both formal and perceived, of attending in your own time.
Myself, as an external attendee coming from a distance, I’ll have to make alternative domestic arrangements, to get the kids to school. I’ll have to pay for a weekday, on-peak train ticket. And of course, I’ll be sacrificing a normal working day, costing me a notional few hundred quid. A day when most clients, current or potential, will be at their desks. My phone will have to remain switched on.
In Steph and Dave‘s defence, there is still a Saturday element – although at first glance, it looks like a completely different event, and aimed at completely different people. It isn’t the only *Camp being organised on a weekday: a week from now, I’ll be en route to Paris for a vendredi WordCamp. And of course, I ran my own Word Up Whitehall event on a Monday – although I’d argue, the rules of engagement there are slightly different.
If it’s a sign of the GovCamp ‘movement’ growing up, then I suppose it’s a positive. But it’ll be sad if, in doing so, we’ve lost the thing which put its motives beyond any doubt.

Meet the new boss: Chris Chant at #ukgc11

This year’s UK GovCamp, held on Saturday, felt markedly different to those in previous years. Still the same warmth, spirit and enthusiasm as in previous years – making it the only ‘government computing’ conference worth attending. But this time, things seemed much more serious. Partly due to its sheer scale, much larger than in previous years; partly because of the impressively lengthy list of commercial sponsors. And partly because, for the first time, we had a (de facto) keynote speaker to begin proceedings.
Regular readers will have seen various posts in the past couple of weeks about the appointment of Chris Chant, the new (‘interim’) head of digital stuff for government. One such regular reader, it turns out, is Chris himself: I remember at least two namechecks for Puffbox in the course of his talk. Mind you, I didn’t exactly help by introducing myself at the start as being ‘Directgov internal comms’ – although I’m not sure everyone got the joke. 😉
On one hand, it was the perfect opportunity for Chris to meet the community most committed to the work he’s now tasked with, and get us onside early. But equally, the audience’s passion could have posed a threat: say the wrong thing, and things could have turned nasty. So it’s entirely understandable that Chris seemed to take a while to settle into his flow: the first ten or fifteen minutes were a little dry, and seemed almost scripted.
But gradually, perhaps sensing the warmth in the room, with a character very different to the IT conferences he’s more used to – he warmed up. The anecdotes became more personal, the language more emotive and ambitious – not to mention fruity.
I won’t go into much of the detail – largely because Chris was at pains to stress he was speaking in a personal capacity, and that much of what he said was provisional, pending sign-off, etc etc. Suffice to say, there’s a significant document in the works already, which should see the light of day in a month or so. His focus, as I suspected, was on technology and its management – there wasn’t a lot said about the ‘digital engagement’ side. But I’m perfectly comfortable with that: technology is where the savings are to be found, and the improvements are to be made… and that’s where his priorities should lie.
So what did I think? To be honest, I don’t think I could have been more impressed. He said everything I could realistically have hoped he would: greater use of agile methods, a restated commitment to open source, etc. And whilst he didn’t set the room on fire, he came across as a serious man with a strong track record, experience of the front line, no fear of big projects, and perhaps most important of all – measured ambition. He didn’t over-promise, but left little doubt that he was capable of delivering. (Sorry Chris, I’m sure you don’t need that pressure.)
Even better, Chris seems to have gone away with a decent opinion of us:
[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/cantwaitogo/status/28792749482311680″]
Chris, welcome on board. We’re friendly, we’re on your side, and we’re here to help. Yes, even Puffbox – especially Puffbox. Let’s do this.

My GovCamp wishlist (and yours)

A week and a half to go until this year’s UK GovCamp, bringing together 150 (ish) people prepared to sacrifice a Saturday to drop by Microsoft’s London offices, and talk about the web, government, and what happens when you force the two together. Messrs Gray and Briggs promise it’ll be ‘so awesome it’s untrue’ – for which I’d love to hold them to account, but I’m not sure how.
So, anyway, it’s probably time to start thinking about what I can contribute to the event – and what I want to get from it. Let’s tackle those in reverse order.
I want to hear from the new CEO for Digital. If widely-circulating rumours prove to be correct, the Cabinet Office has just appointed a new Director for Directgov and Digital Engagement. The timing couldn’t be more fortuitous. You couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to introduce yourself, explain your philosophy, and meet the gang. It would seem rather odd not to take it. Sold out or not, I’m sure a ticket could be found.
I want the Cabinet Office to tell us about Drupal. At the very least, their move to a multisite Drupal environment will make for an interesting case study. But my instinct is that the commitment to Drupal goes deeper than that. I’m expecting Downing Street to cross over to the same platform soon (although I have no inside knowledge on that); and if we’re serious about Martha Lane Fox’s proposals, you have to assume Drupal will be the platform on which the future super-supersite is built. I doubt we’ll get an answer to that specific question, but I’ll be listening out for clues. (Note: 9 people on the guest list from CO.)
I want to see the meat on the bones. Since the election, there’s been a lot of tech jargon flying around, but not a lot of visible progress. There’s going to be a skunkworks, and an app store, and everything’s going to be in the cloud. Apart from a full house in Buzzword Bingo, what the heck does it all amount to – in real life? Can someone please tell me what a government App Store actually is – specifically, what’s ‘on sale’? who does the selling? and who does the buying? Who are the skunks, and what will they be working on?
I want to feel reassured. Frankly, the last six months have been a bit slow, with the biggest developments being the departures of senior people – John Suffolk, Jayne Nickalls, Andrew Stott, Matt Tee. We’re all feeling the chill of the spending freeze; there is understandable anxiety at talk of centralisation; and nasty tactics by the Big Consultancies to protect their positions in the long term. This doesn’t feel like an exciting or indeed a safe place to be right now. I hope I’m wrong. Inspire me, gang, please.
I want our generous hosts, Microsoft to announce that they will use a third-party, open-source HTML rendering engine in future releases of Internet Explorer. Yeah, well. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
As for what I can contribute…
Advanced features in WordPress v3.0 / 3.1. Six months ago, I wrote a post about the significance of the new functions in WordPress v3.0:

The most significant aspects … only become available to those prepared to get their hands dirty in the PHP code. You won’t see them, or perhaps even know they exist, until you start hacking. … And as such, that feels like a subtle departure from the previous scenario, where a ‘power user’ could accomplish almost everything via the WordPress interface and a few plugins.

In other words, WordPress is now able to do a lot of things that many people won’t ever have heard about, or seen in practice: multisite setups, custom post types, custom taxonomies. And in v3.1, which shouldn’t be more than a few days away, we’ll have complex multi-taxonomy queries and post formats. So I’m wondering if there might be interest in a hands-on demo of some of these concepts – using sites I/we’ve already built, or taking a vanilla WP install, and wreaking some havoc with it.
Project Defra. I know Simons E & W talked about this at the Word Up Whitehall event, but I know there’s been quite a bit of subsequent interest in it. If there’s interest in a reprise, or perhaps a more detailed hands-on run-through, I’m sure we can oblige.
Something else. If there’s something you’d like me to lead (or contribute to) a session on, please do let me know.