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.

UK GovCamp 09: a sense of progress

UK GovCamp 09
Pic by Neil Williams: that's the back of my head next to Tom Steinberg

I felt a very different atmosphere at the second annual UK Government Barcamp (aka UKGC09), held at the Ministry of Justice’s offices in central London yesterday. Last year’s event buzzed with potential; all the talk was of things that we could or should do. This time, certainly the sessions I attended anyway, the talk was mainly of things that were starting to happen – or even better, things that had happened.
It’s impossible to write up any kind of authoritative account of the day: like last year, I came away wishing I’d been able to sit in on more sessions than I actually had. Some suggested there was an argument for a longer event, or maybe several shorter events – but I quite like the intensity of the single day approach, and surely it’s good to leave people hungry for more?
Paul Clarke
Paul Clarke

I started at the Directgov session led by Paul Clarke and Brian Hoadley, formally (?) launching the Directgov | Innovate programme – which they describe on their new WordPress-powered 🙂 website as: ‘to inform the greater developer community about available resources, to provide a platform to connect with one another, and to showcase new ideas with the aim of supporting and encouraging innovation.’ I’ve pressed for a Directgov blog for a long time, so it’s genuinely great to see this happening. Anything which opens the doors to ‘the community’ out there is a good thing.
Paul was frank that he couldn’t specify what would come out of the programme, but he expected that its first year would see: availability of data sets, a few experimental applications, and some hosting. The room seemed most excited by the prospect of data access – which kinda confuses me. If it’s just data they want, there’s masses of it out there – admittedly, in spreadsheets and CSV files rather than a web-friendly API. Look at the National Statistics site for starters.
Personally, I’m most excited by the prospect of a ‘sandbox’ hosting service – again, something I’ve been pushing for ages. For all the cool stuff we could do, and all the cool things people actually want to do, we need somewhere safe to put it. If nobody’s prepared to offer that, it’s no surprise to see departments buying cheap web hosting accounts left, right and centre. I’ve long argued for someone to step up to provide a service, ideally free of charge, with the kinds of guarantees government needs. It looks like this might actually be it.
Jenny Brown

Next was Jenny and Lloyd on their work with the Ministry of Justice press office. I’ve always had press offices in my sights: they should be ideally placed to see real benefits from all this online stuff.
Jenny’s been developing a ‘press office dashboard’ concept – and if they’re really saying ‘how did we ever cope without it’, you know we’re getting somewhere. It’s nothing too clever, to be honest: a customised iGoogle homepage, a bunch of Google News search feeds, a ‘starred items’ list, and a daily Feedburner ‘digest’ email. But it’s giving them things they’ve never had before – most notably, Jenny said, breadth of awareness; and there have been a few specific wins, particularly in the regional media. The next step was to go beyond the conventional media, and open their eyes to the blogosphere; but that sounded like it might be much harder work.
(It’s not the only such initiative: Steph has used Netvibes at DIUS (see his paper on the subject), and Shane from Gallomanor gave me a quick demo of a neat little application they’re developing, which does something similar. But it was great to get first-hand feedback of the apparent success of the project.)
Lloyd showed the ‘online media centre’ he had built for them: again, just a stitching together of real world tools –, YouTube, Delicious, all the obvious candidates – but this time, for the press office to create more web-friendly release material for use by journalists. It’s password protected, yet they weren’t prepared to open up comments – which, I think, is both disappointing and entirely to be expected. Maybe they need to be consumers for a bit longer, using Jenny’s work, before they start really producing.
Geek cuisine
Geek cuisine

The afternoon just seemed to whizz by. I helped out at the session on corporate blog platforms, led by Julia from DFID and Shane from FCO. I finally caught up with Paul Canning, who talked a bit about user testing. And there was a feisty session to close, on the subject of open source in government, which felt like preaching to the converted (sorry).
All of which meant I missed the session on Twitter; and almost everything on consultation, which was among my key interests for the day. Then there’s the long list of people I meant to speak to, but didn’t get the chance. And the videos I meant to capture, but didn’t get the chance. So yeah, as I say, hungry for more. Will there be another one next year? Put it this way, people were already starting to talk about it.

What should I say at Barcamp?

Back from the Christmas break, and thoughts are turning to the second annual UK Government Barcamp at the end of the month. I’m told the venue is about to be confirmed; and already we’re seeing people concerned at not being able to get a ticket, despite the fact ‘tickets’ haven’t yet been released. Regardless, it’s probably a good time to start thinking about what I’m going to talk about.
I guess people are expecting a session from me on WordPress, and what I’ve been doing with it lately. But I did a fairly generic session on the same subject last year, so I’m trying to think of a new angle on it. And anyway, the amount of times WordPress comes up in conversation these days, with government colleagues and others, maybe people know enough about it now. Or maybe that’s just the conversations I tend to have.
So, dear readers, over to you. Is there anything you’d like me to talk about? I can demo the new v2.7 interface, which many people won’t yet have seen. I can do a walkthrough of any (or all) my recent work, if that’s helpful – be it technically or editorially focussed. Maybe something about use of WordPress in the longer term: upgrading, hosting, extending. Or if people would value a ‘from the very basics’ session, I’m happy to oblige. Let me know in the comments, or contact me directly.
And if I may, I’d like to throw out a few ideas for sessions I’d like to attend myself.

  • I want someone to lead a discussion about consultations, on a really fundamental level. Off the top of my head: we’ve had Harry M’s efforts to make consultations more visible; and Steph‘s experimental work at DIUS – has either initiative had a demonstrably positive effect, either qualitatively or quantitatively?
  • What about the explosion of government content on YouTube? Does anyone have any tips, tricks or even metrics to share? What tools are people using to shoot and edit the footage, and what are they doing to ensure it gets seen?
  • And I want to know about the various attempts to ‘engage the unengaged’ internally… specifically press offices. I know of at least two explicit initiatives to get press officers onboard; what’s happened with them? Are the dashboards and/or ‘saved searches’ helping?

I’m also planning to use the Barcamp as an excuse to redesign, subject to other commitments in the next few weeks. The work-in-progress design is, let’s say, quite dramatic; everything more or less in the same place, but very different ‘screen furniture’. You have been warned.

Barcamp is back

At the time, January’s BarcampUKGovWeb felt like a breakthrough moment. Civil servants, specialist consultants, activists and volunteers coming together – on a Saturday, crucially – to share ideas and experiences, with the common objective of improving government web activity. And you know what? Looking back on it, you can trace so many good things from the past year, be they tangible deliverables or just personal connections, back to Barcamp. It worked.
So let’s do it again. 🙂
Announced last week by Tom Watson, we’ve set a date of Saturday 31 January 2009 for the second UK government Barcamp, and it’s great to see so many people rushing to sign up already. It’ll be the same basic Barcamp mix of talks, demos, discussions and (no doubt) drinks… with an expectation that everyone comes prepared to contribute, and ideally, to lead a session of their own. The more informal, the better: just stand up, and tell us about something you’ve done lately. And the truth is, in the past year, we’ve all done a tremendous amount worth talking about. This is our chance to share what we’ve learned.
If you’re reading this blog, you’re the sort of person who should be coming along. Simple as that.

Thoughts from Barcamp: just do it

The mere fact that Saturday’s BarcampUKGovWeb happened at all would have been enough in itself; but the assembled group of influential, inspirational and interesting people made for a fantastic day. At one point in the afternoon, I remember looking at the schedule and getting depressed at the countless interesting sessions I’d missed. It’s been a long time since I thought that of a (more conventional) conference. But I left with a slightly empty feeling: lots of questions, some of them very deep indeed, but no simple answers, and very few ‘action points’.
The best lesson I can draw from the day’s proceedings is this: Just Do It. The day itself was proof. We all arrived with a common purpose, but no specific agenda. The framework was set in advance, and proceeded to fill itself. We all got stuck in, and it just worked.
You’ve got Steve Dale’s example of just getting a Drupal installation into place, within a fortnight, to shock the client into a response. Or the MySociety approach of accepting ‘The System’ can’t or won’t deliver, and just getting on with it. Or my own WordPress-based crusade, I suppose. How to decide if Twitter or Seesmic has a role in government? – start using it, and let’s see.
Since Saturday, I’ve heard of one person who’s started a blog, and one person who’s decided to get to grips with Facebook. Dave’s (relatively simple) Pageflakes example has drawn some interest. I wonder how many had ever edited a wiki before signing up for the event? These are all baby steps, but they are the only way people will get the big picture. (Welcome aboard, guys.)
I firmly believe ‘the shift’ has happened, and government risks being left (even further) behind unless it exposes itself to the new world out there. COI’s Transformation / Rationalisation isn’t a bad thing in itself: the worst excesses needed to be reined in. But if we can agree what not to do, can we start agreeing what we can or should do?
Let’s start small: a Directgov/COI blog, please. Then maybe a WordPress (MU?)-based blogging platform for Civil Service uses (like Microsoft did). A tie-up with Basecamp or London-based Huddle, to encourage lightweight project management methods. But the best idea of the day came (I think) from Graham from DIUS: a parallel version of Directgov in wiki form, allowing external experts to suggest improvements which might improve the ‘real’ version. Sheer genius. Let’s just do it.