Challenges facing local government

I spent a really enjoyable morning today at Devon County Council, facilitating an internal unconference. It was a senior managers’ get together, a regular event, which normally has a proper agenda and proper presentations.

The idea was to turn things around a bit, giving all those in the room the chance to pick the brains of all the others, share what they know, admit to what they don’t, and hopefully pick up a bit of momentum to get something done.

The whole process went down well, and hopefully the Council will be using open space in the future to run this kind of event.

It was an opportunity for me to listen to the current concerns of those people who are having to deliver services in local government, what they see as being the main challenges, and what some of the solutions may be.

The following poorly-expressed points seemed to me to keep cropping up.

  • speed, agility
  • flexibility and responsiveness
  • nature of community, different (probably self identifying) groups need different approaches, internally and externally
  • complexity of landscape. No one size fits all approach. End of universality.
  • development of culture (I prefer ‘development’ to ‘change’…)
  • Collaboration across the organisation, across organisations, across sectors and geographically. Council an enabler not necessarily deliverer
  • big challenges cannot be solved in one go. Must be broken down

I probably ought to spend a bit of time writing these up into something more coherent. In the mean time, feel free to pick away at them.

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

Confessions of a justified camper

A little while ago, Paul Coxon wrote a blog post querying the long term viability of unconferences in the public sector. I didn’t respond, because I felt I couldn’t do so without sounding defensive and chippy.

This evening, the weekly Twitter chat, #lgovsm, was based on Paul’s ideas. I did decide to involve myself, and it turned out that everything I said was defensive and chippy. Ah well.

Paul’s basic point is that there are a lot of unconference type events going on – perhaps too many – and that this saturation means people will soon get annoyed that they don’t get enough out of all these events, all these Saturdays that they have to give up and so the ‘movement’ will implode and the sector will be no better off.

I think my issue here is not necessarily with what Paul is saying – he is of course perfectly entitled to his opinions. Nor am I touchy about criticism of these events – after all, I am only vaguely responsible for two a year, and there’s usually some critique of them afterwards, which doesn’t tend to bother me.

Instead, I think Paul is perhaps criticising a group of events – and I can only speak for the ones I am involved with of course – against a set of criteria (ROI, measurable outcomes etc) that we never aimed to meet – which strikes me as being a trifle unfair.

Unconferences for me are social learning events. People learn from each other. But it’s just one type of learning event, and there’s room for many. I get involved in traditional conferences too, and they can be extremely valuable when done well (e.g. when they have me speaking at them).

So here’s a quick overview of how I see this stuff and why I think that some of the things Paul is talking about don’t matter for me all that much.

1. When I am involved in these things, I have no objectives other than people turn up, sessions are pitched, people talk to one another and there is plenty of smiling. That’s it. Others may have their own outcomes in mind – good for them!

2. The content of the event is of course driven by the attendees and that can have variable results. I’ve attended some sessions at ‘camps that were frankly rubbish. I’ve attended others that were simply a room of people telling one another how great they are. The point is that I could leave, and I did.

The other point is that if people want to spend time discussing how great they are then of course that’s fine and I am delighted to have provided a space for them to do that in.

3. The echo chamber argument is true to a certain extent and not in another. The attendance of the events I am involved in grows all the time and there’s roughly a 50% churn in attendees each time. So new people come, veterans come, and they all add what they feel comfortable with. There’s a lot of agreement, because it’s a self selecting group – and again, that’s fine. But it’s not true to say it is a load of continual back-slapping, because it isn’t. There is debate and disagreement – albeit very polite debate and disagreement.

4. I feel no responsibility for anyone else’s personal development. If you got nothing from an event, then that’s a shame, but at least you tried.

5. The best people to attend an event are those that attend the event. I don’t like the idea of trying to get specific groups along – it’s a melting pot of the enthusiastic, the curious and the weird. Let’s keep it that way.

6. What a good unconference is, at the end of the day, is a room full of interesting people. What people choose to do with within the time and space that they have chosen to be in is entirely up to them.

7. There are lots of ‘camp type events going on. I guess we will now when saturation happens because people will stop going. But of course nobody goes to all of these things (I hope!!) and it’s a case of picking and choosing the best ones for you. Nobody ought to feel under an obligation to attend (unless it’s the sort of thing like when you go to the pub with your mates, even though you really don’t feel like it, just in case you miss something).

8. Sponsors see value in these sorts of events, increasingly so. Also, they don’t ask for ROI, or direct sales, or access to budget holders. They come for two reasons, I think. First, it’s to get to talk to people they rarely get to talk to – often the people who actually use their products, or products like theirs. Second, they just want to support the sector, and a bit of the sector that feels dynamic and motivated.

9. If you feel you can do these events in a better way, that appeals to different people, or more people, then go for it! Steph might even let you have some money to make it happen.

10. It might be that nobody will want unconferences any more, which would be fine by me. They are a pig to sort out, and other than a bit of goodwill, aren’t terribly productive. But it seems to be that for the moment, there is plenty of demand and plenty more people who want to be involved, and plenty of interest in more specific, focus events.

Unconferences are an important part of the learning mix for any sector, but it’s important not to think of them as more than they are, nor to ascribe overly high expectations for what they might achieve.

By the way, UKGovCamp is back on 19th January 2013. See you there?

LocalGovCamp next weekend!

Next Saturday (14th July) sees LocalGovCamp coming back to Birmingham!

It’s a great opportunity for innovators across local government to get together, share problems and come up with solutions. It’s also an honour (and occasional inducer of panic) to be able to put the event together.

I was ably assisted this year by those titans of the local government web world, Si Whitehouse and Dan Slee, who were my eyes and ears in the West Midlands – thanks guys.

With over 100 people signed up, we’re up to capacity now, but there’s a waiting list on the Eventbrite page if you fancy sneaking in last minute if others have to drop out.

Also props to Vicky Sargent at Boilerhouse for designing and organising the printing of the t-shirts.

Many thanks to the excellent sponsors who are helping to make this event happen:


Talk About Local


…and of course, Kind of Digital have chucked a few quid into the pot as well.

Am looking forward to seeing everyone next Saturday (and Friday night too – news of curry to come soon…) and those that cannot make it can follow the action on the hashtag #localgovcamp.

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

Going hyperlocal

I had an enjoyable time on Saturday at the Talk About Local unconference, where lots of people involved in hyperlocal websites get together to share stories and experiences and to figure out answers to tricky questions.

There tends to be two angles with hyperlocal – the future of local journalism stuff which I tend to find rather dull; and then the community activist side, which is a bit more interesting.

I enjoyed the session organised by Vicky Sargent on neighbourhood planning and hyperlocals. We’re supporting a local neighbourhood plan initiative with web stuff – see A Plan for Holbeach – and of course there is our site for NALC too.

Vicky has a web tool coming out soon to support local groups in putting together neighbourhood plans – which ought to be pretty useful and I’m looking forward to seeing more on that.

Philip John – a Kind of Digital team member – ran a session proposing the Hyperlocal Alliance, which sounds like a great initiative and you can find out more about that here.

I didn’t run any sessions – I’m not really a hyperlocalist myself and was mainly in listening mode – but I have kicked off a project to openly collaborate on a hyperlocal handbook. Do join in!

The home of GovCamp

Over the past few years, a number of events have happened which could loosely be described as ‘GovCamps’ – taking the barcamp idea of open space style ‘unconferences’ and governmentising it a bit.

Starting with Jeremy’s efforts in 2008, we have since seen two subsequent national level govcamps, and several local versions, in Birmingham, Lincoln, London and Cheltenham.

The next one takes place in York on 12th June – find out more here.

It’s always occurred to me that the GovCamps are something that public sector folk in the UK could really be proud of – proof that a decent number of people are interested in improving things, and that they aren’t afraid to give up their Saturday to do it.

So how to best shout about this activity? Best thing to do is build a website. We had a Ning network – but that was very much dominated by the national, January event, and had a stupid domain name ( – will be closing at the end of the week) which didn’t come close to describing what it was all about.

So, I had a quick play with WordPress and BuddyPress and produced – a simple social site where people can find out about the GovCamps, see which ones are happening and which are being plotted.

Go and take a look, and get involved! I’ve even written up a 10 point plan for running your own event.

LocalGovCamp London

Thursday’s LocalGovCamp in London was superbly organised by Anke Holst and her team.

I was involved in one session, which was to by about internet culture and whether that’s the interesting thing local government ought to be taking on board, rather than stressing about whether or not they should be using Twitter.

The Kulture Show

Flickr credit: Arun Marsh

Rather than just have me drone on for 45 minutes, I thought it would be more interesting to get some views from elsewhere, so I persuaded Huddle’s Kunal Contractor, IDeA’s Ingrid Koehler, and Microsoft’s Dave Coplin to join in for a bit of panel-type session.

It went pretty well, I think it had a different feel to a lot of the other discussions that I’ve been involved in at unconferences. There was plenty of interest and contributions from those in the ‘audience’, which was really nice.

Afterwards, David Wilcox grabbed us all for a chat, in his usual social reportery way:

There has been a great deal of discussion about the event, on Twitter and on blogs, etc – SocialMention has it all covered.

UK GovCamp 2010

The UK govcamp event is happening on the 23rd January. Everyone should have had an email who has a ticket to come – if you think you ought to have had something, but haven’t, please let me know!

It’s an unconference, so if you are coming, please do come prepared to talk about something. Discussions are taking place on the event network, so dip in there if you are feeling low on inspiration.

For those that can’t make it, we’re hoping to have a bunch of active social reporters there on the day, recording words, pictures, sounds and videos. We’ll find a way of pulling them all together for your multimedia pleasure – probably again on the network site.