How to be a Very Stable Genius

I wish this were fake news crowd

I’ve not pitched a session at UKGovcamp for a few years, but I’m hoping to pitch one this year on something that’s been troubling me for a while. How does social media and digital culture affect our state of mind, and what can we practically do about it?

A note of clarification on the title: I’m not claiming Trump-like smartness here. But in some ways, he’s emblematic of the shift I’ve seen in social media globally from the friendly club it was in the era when Govcamping was born to… well, something a bit darker and more complicated, about tribes and tweetstorms, the sharing of #blessed lives and the retreat into private accounts and spaces where h8ters, future employers and our families won’t find us.

More embarrassing to admit, I’m regularly frustrated with myself at losing useful time, sleep and positive focus winding myself up about the fun others seem to be having. And as my kids (and parents) get more addicted to their screens, I still don’t feel I have the strategies to help them get the etiquette right and protect their own state of mind. As 2018 kicks off, I’ve seen a few frustrated friends decide to take a break from social media altogether.

That’s a shame. I’m still a militant optimist, and I’ve seen the tools do good for me and the world around me. So I’d like to have a session to share challenges and solutions around:

  • how do we make social media and digital tools more generally a constructive part of a life well lived, and maintain our perspective, our generosity and our good temper?
  • how do we stay productive in a world of notifications, interruptions and feeds?
  • how have people helped their colleagues and loved ones (not that they are mutually exclusive – I won’t judge…) to build social media into their personal or professional lives in ways which help them be more cheerful, curious and kind?

If you’d like to join in, please do! And if you’re not at UKGovcamp but have a story or idea to share, please let me know.

Photo by Kayla Velasquez on Unsplash

The republic of UKGovcamp

Philip John at UKGC12

Dan Slee’s  excellent suggestion of a ’20 thoughts’ format for reflections on UKGovcamp seems to have caught on, so here’s mine – more about the format than the content, in many cases. That I think Dave Briggs and Lloyd Davis are the very finest of fellows goes, I think, without me saying.

  1. No royalty: we’ve been queasy about ‘keynote’ slots for the likes of Chris Chant or Mike Bracken, and while they invariably deliver interesting stuff and I’m glad they made the effort to come, I’m coming to the conclusion that format isn’t what UKGovcamp is about.
  2. Leave the crowd wanting more: two days was a fun experiment. One would keep up the energy levels more, and make it a more manageable endeavour.
  3. There’s a right size: it’s a great venue, and while we weren’t physically squashed, 260 people is a very big Govcamp. 130ish on day 2 felt quite laid-back. 200-220 would be just right.
  4. The grid needs managing: if it’s a one day event, with that many folks, we need to think about the grid a bit more. Tim Davies getting it online was a masterstroke, but we still had sessions in the wrong size rooms, and avoidable clashes. Thinking caps on, there.
  5. Talking is doing: the ‘doing day’ concept on Day 2 wasn’t quite right, even though some great things did get done. What makes UKGovcamps special are the serendipitous conversations and real-world encounters of online friends, not apps built or hard skills learned.
  6. Porous boundaries are what really matter: ditto, those serendipitous encounters are possible because the normal barriers between central and local government, supplier and commissioner, senior and junior, don’t intrude. So it’s a shame the name badges had organisations and not Twitter handles on them, for that reason alone.
  7. Moral support matters: we don’t put enough emphasis on the value of Teacamps, Brewcamps, Govcamps etc in just bringing likeminded folk together and winding up their their springs. Of course it’s a worth a Saturday if it gives you the courage to face the next 12 months with a grin and Twitter-stream of encouragement. Talking in small groups beats listening in big ones, mostly.
  8. More kids please: thanks to Maya (4) for being our youngest (and frankly, best behaved) govcamper. We need to find ways to make it easier to bring kids along; they suffer us checking Twitter at home when we should be playing with them, after all. Kids should never be barrier to govcamping.
  9. We’re building up some lovely oral and visual history: five years on from the virtually pre-hashtag #ukgc08, we’re building up a phenomenal archive of govcamping on Flickr (this year’s special thanks to David Pearson, Ann Kempster, Harry Metcalfe and AShropshireLad) and in the last couple of events, audio, thanks to the splendid Cathy Aitchison, who was quietly interviewing folk throughout – her lovely 2011 interviews are here.
  10. Govcampers change: from the very start of day 1, some seasoned govcampers set up camp in the corridors, and barely ventured into sessions. For them (me included), we got a huge amount from chatting to friends old and new, without necessarily doing the full grid-sessions-timetable thing: “a year’s worth of meetings in a day” as I heard someone describe it
  11. There are plenty of (better) places to hack: UKGovcampers are a different crowd. We didn’t really expect a hackday, and we didn’t get one.
  12. Microsoft have ‘got’ it: whilst SharePoint and IE are tough to forgive, Microsoft’s UK Government team in Charles Eales, Ian McKenzie, and Dave ‘Mr Bing’ Coplin, have got behind the event in just the right way. They’re spending thousands supporting UKGovcamp, approaching it with humility and good humour, and I for one salute them.
  13. You can’t go wrong with retro sweets: I’m no affiçionado, but our supply of Maoams didn’t last long, and elicited some squeeing.
  14. The Govcampers are way ahead of the politicians (and policy officials?) on open data: while the consultations and speeches are talking in vague generalities about the commercial potential of open data and the political imperative of transparency, it looked like the debates at Govcamp 2012 had moved on to data cleanliness, real-world semantics and public engagement with data and data portals.
  15. WordPress is a way of life now: There wasn’t the traditional Simon Dickson session from what I could see, but there were sessions throughout the two days which touched on WordPress – from its role in ‘radical’ website deployment, to how to make it mobile. It’s out there, people are getting on with using it. I didn’t even get to present my slides on ‘5 strategies for managing WordPress multisites’, which I’ll have to blog here at some point – but we’re at that sort of level now, I think.
  16. We need our own pub: Saturday’s whole-pub experience (admittedly with smaller numbers) was a lot more pleasant than Friday’s. Bravo Hadley for finding us such nice places, and we need to bargain on almost everyone turning up to Govcamp (a free event, on a workday… truly remarkable).
  17. The rules of Open Space are there for a reason: time is limited, and when I found myself in sessions which weren’t quite doing it for me, I exercised the Law of Two Feet now and again. We should make really sure all Govcampers and session leaders are cool with those rules, so everyone gets to the end of the day feeling in control.
  18. There are still some tyrannical bosses out there: a sad but spirited email I received on Friday morning read: “I’m sorry, I’m not going to make it today. I will see you tomorrow though: luckily the boss can’t dictate what I do on Saturdays”. If Fridays remain part of the programme, maybe we need an alternative prospectus for use by such Govcamping heros to persuade recalcitrant bosses that it’s the most productive day out of the office they could possibly spend.
  19. We need more govcamps: and there’s going to be another healthy pot available, as there was in 2011, for people to run their own events either based on an area or an interesting theme. More details about how to access it soon.
  20. We’re growing up and calming down: I didn’t expect the brainstorm on a digital maturity model/assessment tool to be as well-attended as it was. We came up with a load of stuff, from digital literacy and organisational engagement to staff policies and the basis for decision-making. But as Shane has remarked, the crowd this year didn’t feel as nervous or angry as we did back in 2008. Happily, things have moved on.

Photo credit: David Pearson

Coming up with maturity model for digital in the public sector

maturity models

Hands up who says they work in ‘new media’? Me neither. While we’re not quite in a digital by default world, this stuff has been around for a decade and a half. Even in the public sector.

One topic I’d like to think about at this week’s UKGovcamp on Saturday (the ‘doing’ day) is whether we can come up with a way of thinking about public sector digital activity in terms of a maturity or capability model, that could be applied to help teams and individuals set goals and maybe even benchmark their effectiveness. For instance, it might:

  • Help teams to think about how sophisticated the organisation is at adopting and managing social media as part of official Communications and day to day communication
  • Provide some material for people thinking about their CMS features and procurement, to factor in the kinds of activities and processes those tools should be supporting in 2012
  • Offer insights into team size and structure, what the roles are in managing digital projects effectively (I’m deliberately not saying ‘digital communication’, for now)
  • Give everyone some ready-made benchmarks to help evaluate impact, and if not hard numbers, then at least an open-source process for getting to an assessment of digital effectiveness

I’ve got a small commission – a day’s paid time – from the digital team at the National Audit Office (update: actually, this was never actually used) to contribute towards managing the process of collating this, writing it up and sharing it for the benefit of their own team and others. We’d really appreciate input from a wide group on what a maturity model might look like – and indeed, whether it’s the best approach to take.

The idea would be to brainstorm at UKGovcamp, take the ideas away and write them up into a draft structure, get more feedback on them here, and then publish a methodology or framework of some kind under a Creative Commons licence for anyone to use and take forward. Hopefully we’d make it flexible enough to work for anything from a Whitehall department to a district council, and something that anyone who’s reasonably switched-on digitally can deploy without needing to bring in an expensive consultant (or even a reasonably-priced one).

Who’s up for helping with that?

UPDATE: Here’s the notes from the UKGovcamp discussion

Walk a mile in our sandals

guardian ukgovcamp

I’ve written a piece for the Guardian’s Public Leaders Network on UKGovcamp, as part our plan to broaden the reach of UKGovcamp in 2012:

Informal, social-media driven events like UKGovcamp and the recent WordUp Whitehall have an important role in bringing together SME suppliers, open source specialists and government digital teams to share practical experience and make connections. Participants in the January 2011 UKGovcamp heard a presentation from Defra, which had recently replaced a static 20,000 page corporate website with an open-source platform based on WordPress, working with long-term Govcampers, Puffbox Ltd. Since then, a trend has emerged with the Departments of Health and Transport joining them. DfT alone recently calculated savings of £150,000 per year on CMS licences and a 70% reduction in hosting costs.

One public sector IT conference is much like another. CIOs from large organisations talk about the impact their innovative strategies are having on the bottom line. Vendors talk in buzzwords about their new ‘turnkey’, ‘as-a-service’, ‘2.0 products’. Panels of shining case study speakers talk about the successes they’ve achieved… though you come away somehow unsure how to emulate it. The coffee’s OK, the company is passable. It’s a day out of the office.

UKGovcamp isn’t like that. It’s an ‘unconference’, or a free-to-attend event without a predefined agenda, where the sessions are proposed and agreed at the start of the day. They’re written on scruffy post-it notes and added to a big grid on the wall. Govcamp participants consult the grid throughout the day to work out where they want to go next, and there’s plenty of time for the informal hallway chats which, let’s face it, are the best bit of any conference. The so-called Law of Two Feet applies: people move freely between sessions which interest them, tweeting, blogging, snapping pictures and filming as they go. What emerges is always a high-energy, dynamic event which leaves people buzzing with new ideas and connections for weeks afterwards, because they’ve been talking and hearing from their peers inside and outside the public sector, rather than listening to the great and good.

The first UKGovcamp took place in January 2008, initiated by Jeremy Gould, a civil servant from the Ministry of Justice. The 2012 event – the fifth in the series – will be the biggest yet, with around 250 participants over two days. For a second year, Microsoft UK are providing a venue for the event at their London Customer Centre, keeping the Govcampers in food and wifi, and taking the jibes about Internet Explorer and Windows with good grace.

The 2012 event is shaping up to be a new style of Govcamp, following up the traditional mix of presentations and discussions with a new ‘Doing Day’, where participants work on practical solutions to the issues being discussed. Nobody knows quite what will emerge, though it may involve the hacking together of new web apps, collaborating on writing policies or strategies, or training colleagues in new skills.

Govcamping has grown into a year-round movement of smaller events (think: LibraryCamp, Shrop(shire)Camp, Localgovcamp) as well as monthly, informal ‘teacamp’ get-togethers in London and Birmingham where the talk is of social media and the new public sector IT, amidst the tea and Victoria sponge (none of it publicly funded).

If this all sounds a bit hippy and Californian for a UK public sector audience…. well, come and walk a mile in our sandals. The combination of tight budgets, consumerisation and socialisation of enterprise IT, and politicians’ expectations of digital-by-default public services has clearly shaken things up in the last couple of years. The Cabinet Office is leading perhaps the most credible effort in a decade to bring more open source and cloud-based tools into the public sector, tackling the gnarly barriers of procurement, open data and IT security head-on (their open data team are submitting a regular blog to the Public Leaders Network).

In this turbulent new environment, the informality and openness of govcamps are the key to their success. By leaving job titles at the door, mixing people from different sectors with different agendas and experience, they become a source of contacts, inspiration and good old-fashioned moral support which promises to help deliver real change in public sector IT.

This article is published by Guardian Professional. Join the Guardian Public Leaders Network free to receive regular emails on the issues at the top of the professional agenda.

Announcing MailCamp: effective email marketing in the public sector

Just a quick one to pimp MailCamp11, a free show + tell event about email marketing in the public sector, now confirmed for 12 May at the Dept of Communities and Local Government.

Everyone’s on a budget, and wants to make their digital channels work harder. Social media matters, but nothing drives traffic and reminds people what you’re doing like a good email newsletter or alert. But we’re all busy, and optimising our newsletters and email alerts often isn’t top of the list.

The long-promised spin-off event from UKGovcamp, MailCamp is a one-off show & tell event on 12 May for people interested in how the public sector uses email marketing, newsletter and alerts to engage its audiences. Come along to a free afternoon of ideas and stories, bringing your own examples, tips and questions.

To find out more and register your interest in coming along, check out And spread the word!

UKGovcamp: 5 days to go

The biggest get-together of folk in the UK with an interest in how the public sector uses technology happens on Saturday, just 5 sleeps away. The list here says 204 people are coming, not counting our sponsors and hosts. Gulp. It’s just as well we have a proper grown up in charge of getting us all organised for the opening session.

Here’s a few things you might find useful in the meantime:

  • Stay tuned to the UKGovcamp site and jump into the UKGovcamp 2011 group or follow the #ukgc11 hashtag on Twitter where people are starting to talk about session ideas and more.
  • In terms of logistics: yes, there will be wifi and should be projectors in most rooms. Remember to bring a Mac->VGA adapter if you’re presenting from a MacBook, and people with spare 4-way extension leads are likely to be very popular.
  • The event registration opens from 9.15am, with kickoff at 10am, and will run until around 5pm. The venue again: Microsoft UK Customer Centre, Cardinal Place, 80 Victoria St, SW1E 5JL (that’s the entrance near Pizza Hut, not the one nearest Victoria Station)
  • The day itself will be run on ‘open space’ principles, without a pre-planned agenda etc etc. But given some of the people who’ll be there, we’re keeping one room aside this year as a ‘Demo Room’ with a bit more of a schedule. So for example, if you’d like to see Huddle in action, or kick the tyres of Delib’s CitizenSpace you’ll be able to go along at a predefined time and chat to the team behind those great apps. If you’d like to demo an app, it’s not too late – just drop me a line and we can get you on the running order for that room.
  • For years we’ve banged on about ‘but how do we get this stuff in front of the real decision-makers?’ To an extent, I’ve always tended to feel we should just get on with it for now, and those guys can catch up in their own time. But we’ve got a great bonus opportunity this year to showcase some of the ‘highlights’ from GovCamp to an invited audience of senior IT folk in government, at a smaller, separate follow-up soirée on a weekday evening hosted by Microsoft during February. So keep that in mind if you lead or participate in a great session on Saturday…
  • I’ve put together a quick aggregator for UKGovcamp stuff, and we’re hoping to be able to livestream the main room during the day for people who can’t be there in person. Fingers crossed on that one.

Finally, spare a thought and a click for our tremendous sponsors – 16 so far – who have really stepped it up a gear this year. The great news is that as well as having the normal Govcamp experience with t-shirts, nibbles and all that jazz, we’ve been able to build up a little kitty to keep the Govcamp love going on throughout 2011. Under the auspices of MoreOpen, we’ve been able to help our friends at ShropCamp get off the ground, and we’ve got a thematic Govcamp on email marketing in the public sector on the cards for Spring too thanks to the generous GovDelivery. But there’s more in the pot, so if you find yourself inspired to Govcamp in your part of the country or part of public sector, let us know and we might be able to help get the ball rolling.

Remember, if you now can’t come to UKGovcamp but have a ticket, please let us know and we’ll offer it to someone from the waiting list.

Phew, I think that’s it. See you there!