#UKGC 21 – What is it?

A gathering of people from across central and local government, plus organisations who work with them, who have a keen curiosity to find out what is going on in their digital spaces. As the website says: UKGovcamp is the free, annual ‘unconference’ for people interested in how the public sector does digital stuff. The unconference label relates to the fact this is not an agenda put together by an invisible committee, but one that is crowd sourced. Participants pitch ideas, and then vote with their presence.

It was the 6th time I’d taken part, but there has been a long gap since my last one!

What was it in 2021: virtual, thoughtful, well organised, with some of the best conference swag ever… While the unconference tag might sound a little uncontrolled, the planning grid was an efficient work of art. This year, as GovCamp ran over 3 days, it was set up in advance with session name, owner, meeting link, notes template set up and named notetaker.

Package of material received in the post.

What I did

Although I hadn’t attended GovCamp for many years, I pitched a session. Noted though, I broke the first rule of facilitation (never do your own). Perhaps something to explore for future, if you want to present something you are passionate about, and contribute in depth to the discussion, consider reaching out to a buddy who can be the facilitator or chair the session. In my case, helped by experienced campmaker, I broke out of speaking mode into facilitating. My pitch was around exploring some of the definitions that are used widely in the digital space and assumed that we all know what is being talked about. And people contributed a wide range of helpful challenges, including:

  • If words don’t work, draw a picture – esp of complex structures and relationships
  • Clarity and concise phrases are all very well, but with complex topics you do still need footnotes – or equivalent – to say “in this context, we mean…..”
  • Many still need the art of the possible to be presented to them and worked through
  • Cautionary tales can help – what happens and how much time is spent/wasted when teams go too far in the wrong direction
  • Describe rather than label
  • Some of the really old definitions do still stand – Information Matters, transformation strategy – nothing really better yet (just more aspects, and more misunderstandings!)

Illustrating that this is a common problem, one of the participants mentioned another session pitched for later in the programme, which ran along similar lines (see below the report on TrelloJam).

What I took part in


An easy start – who doesn’t like talking about books 😊 Lots of library love shown durin this session, and I’m off to hunt for The Gone-Away World by Nick Arkaway.

Idea Panels – supporting departmental innovation

The pitch:‘Over the past few years in DCMS we’ve been running an ‘Ideas Panel’ as a way of supporting innovation and introducing user-centric ways of thinking. The Ideas Panel gives anyone in DCMS the chance to propose an idea for any area, whether it relates to new policy or service, HR or corporate issues, staff well-being , or stuff that doesn’t fit elsewhere. It then links proposers up with support to help develop, test and implement the idea. As well as being an OK way of getting new ideas off the ground, the Ideas Panel has helped introduce agile ways of working and structures for collaboration in a pretty traditional ‘policy’ dept. Sort of ‘GovCamp by stealth’. The aim of this session is to share what we’ve learned, and explore similar approaches elsewhere in govt.’

The panel in DCMS was positioned as an ‘early-stage incubator for good ideas’. It offered a clearing process and signposting if the idea was already being worked on by a particular team. For ideas with no obvious owner, the project offered early-stage development and prototyping.

Projects are timeboxed, and a feature was matchmaking with idea generators with project managers to test the idea, get feedback, and then make it happen. Their conclusions? Some ideas can be too broad; it’s not just about the ideas, it’s about the networks and connections across the organisation; and it was good for things that have no natural home.

Wide discussion followed, and the feeling among participants was that the real challenge is not in generating ideas but in making them happen! There was tangible interest in exploring whether there might be a cross government mechanism to build on the Ides Panel model.

Data Avengers Assemble! Who’s your data A-team?

The pitch: ‘In 2020, a crack commando unit was sent to digital prison by a tech court for a data crime they didn’t commit. Today, still wanted by the gubbermint, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire… the Data A-Team.

Who do you need on your team to solve problems in 2020? What skills make up a perfect A-team?’

I enjoyed this session as much for the way it was run, as for the content. Also, it complemented points made in my session on the lack of clarity on roles. My conclusion on how to make it real for people – find an analogy which works for them – whether it be superheroes, sports teams or something else!

Lots more work needed here. While the “what makes a team” part of GDS service handbook is clearly written, it doesn’t show the whole picture, especially in the context shared here about the challenge posed by getting people with the right skills and experience in place to solve complex data challenges. Participants put forward some great characters to expand on Edafe’s original cast – including Hermione Grainger (as she knows how to find stuff out and gets things done), and Captain Planet – reminding us to think about environmental impacts.

Future scenarios

The pitch: ‘How can we use scenario planning as a way to anticipate different futures and better be able to prepare for future shocks but also simulate those futures – be at a policy or service level? How can we open up how we scenario plan to our partners and communities? What tools & methods can we share that help us do this well online?

This session started well – but tailed off hugely once the session leads tried to get participants involved in actually creating a scenario. Conclusion overall though: government is not generally good at this. Many factors – including perhaps trying to tackle too much – scenarios work better when clearly drawn and defined, and get the right mix of people to work through them and contribute. The session was a good example of a good Govcamp conversation though – and meeting others with interesting experience.

Essence of two of the discussions: Challenges around Wicked Problems – are we using these kinds of approaches enough in government at the moment? (Don’t think so.) Scenarios too far from reality can be problematic, as can scenarios too close to reality (i.e. what will happen- making it harder to come up with different alternatives).

Question around how to account for policymakers and decisionmakers who haven’t had lived experiences of the citizens they serve. How do you account for low imagination, or inability to put yourselves in someone else’s shoes, or optimism bias.

Beyond the functional practice – a reflective session

The pitch: ’Human centered design and person centered design are all the rage in government but which humans do they centre? People working in public services who are interested in greater social justice may find their individual ethical standpoints at odds with long established cultures and ways of working. What things do we do which, intentionally or not, reinforce inequities? How can we recognise and reverse things we do that might further marginalise people who are already underserved or regularly excluded from government design or participation? Leah and Katie will introduce the session outlining their different journeys to learning about ‘design justice’ which includes ‘Humble yourself. Design with, not for’.

This session was on design justice (not a how to manual – although the presenters did share a list of resources for us to follow up after, including material to read or watch – eg ‘if you have 5 minutes, if you have 60 minutes).

The heart of this practice is “a vision for design practices which are led by marginalised people or communities”. This chimes with a lot of the work done in programmes I’m close too – where co-creation can sound like a hollow aspiration, but great efforts are made to ensure real partnerships develop between the people with the ideas and those whose lives the idea is meant to affect. The session had me thinking about this pilot we ran in Rwanda, and how the outcomes can be different when you work really closely with people.

Interesting to explore the principles that the design justice community have put together – and hear reflections from participants on how asking different questions as the start of programmes and policy work might lead to different outcomes.

How can we make awesome digital (postit) walls with the resources we’ve got?

The pitch: ‘A big part of my UR evangelism in the ‘before-times’ was putting up a big, gorgeous wall of assets with my email address next to it, so anyone who wanted to stop and look could send follow-up questions. It was pretty effective! Has anyone found a way to effectively digitize this kind of visual engagement process, and get senior interest? Has anyone got alternative approaches to UR evangelism that they’d like to share?’

I (and others) slightly pushed this one off track with comments about working ‘in the postit note wall way’ with remote teams. Someone summarised: 2 questions here – how to create awesome digital walls (the tech) and how to get people to look at them – in the “stumble across” way that actual walls work.

Participants shared a range of tools they have used, including Trello, Miro, excel, and whiteboards in Teams. And asked the usual comments about which were available on departmental systems, and which were free to use. The intriguing reflections came around sharing regrets that the shift to remote working meant we had lost serendipity – bumping into people, catching snippets of conversations and yes, seeing those walls! How might we recreate that sense of random discovery using social media tools? And there were ears pricked up when examples were shared of prototyping in Minecraft, or holding gatherings in online role playing games.

Also good to have the sobering reminder: “A huge problem is fatigue – everyone is online for their day jobs. The shiny newness of all these tools has worn off”

Don’t understand digital, too busy to understand digital – a Trello-jam

[the one that sounded like mine, but was much better pitched!!]

The pitch: ‘Can we harness our collective wisdom to co-create an open Trello ‘induction’ to digital essentials for policymakers and senior people? I had a go at starting something. Together, can we make this better’

How to explain digital to senior policymakers who still might say: why can’t we just build an app, what is the cloud etc. The design brief is set by these people which is why it is a problem.

Digital roles came up in this one too, including the scenario where progress in digital can lead to resentment in other teams. Some see teams starved of funds and people, yet see digital getting “all the resources it needs” 

How might we build this forward:

  • Best blogs resources
  • Showcase the outcomes
  • Make it easy
  • Make it attractive
  • Make it scary

What I wish I’d taken part in

(but couldn’t because of calendar clashes – either parallel sessions where you have to choose or overlaps with work. At least on Saturday I only had to toss up between a session or a walk outside!)

Building Public Trust

The pitch: “The pandemic has exposed deep rifts in society, including very vocal lack of trust in the media, government and science from some. When the dust settles on the COVID response, how can we build back trust?

  • What does this mean for our services and data?
  • Are we open enough? Too open?
  • Could we share our work and data more? Or differently?
  • What’s going well and what can we do better?

Sounds like a fascinating and timely session, and from the notes, there were lots of questions and reflecting – including around how much the pandemic has changed how people perceive government services, and how little is generally known about who does what. Positive comments I saw included that new partnerships and communities have been formed, trust must be earned (and ways of doing that), and telling stories with data is vitally important.

What is strategy

The pitch: “What really is strategy? And how can we help our organisations to think strategically? We’ve all heard of doing a SWOT or PESTLE analysis which might be useful tools but don’t make strategy themselves. In the private sector, strategy tends to be about beating the competition and securing your space in the market and developing the next big product but the public sector faces different pressures.

So what really is strategy?

I’d be interested in holding an open conversation to share ideas, tips and tools (and lament together about times where strategy is needed but doesn’t get buy in)”

From the notes, this was a wideranging discussion. Some lines that caught my eye: Strategy shouldn’t be seen as an end point – has got to be a journey that you’re always undertaking. Worth trying to work out if people are trying to talk about strategy, vision, policy or something else – language matters and is always worth revisiting.

One perspective on this:

  • Vision – what the world will look like when you’re done / the glorious destination
  • Roadmap – the pedantic list of things you need to do to get there (also known as an action plan)
  • Strategy – the choices you will make to reach your vision and build your roadmap

And another:

  • Policy: a set of fundamentals that together determines a set of roles for the organisation to perform as an intent, action or to hold as a position
  • Vision: our desired future state
  • A theory of change: a compelling hypothesis that subsequent experiments will validate
  • Strategy: a coherent and contextual plan to deliver outcomes
  • Outcome/mission/objectives: that which has lasting value in realising the vision
  • Tactics: the supporting activities in the strategy which increases the likelihood of success

And the final line in their notes: Tactics without Strategy is the fastest way to failure, yet Strategy without Tactics is the slowest way to success. You need to cover both, otherwise you get nowhere.

Building community – 5Cs

The pitch: “Building Community with the 5Cs – A framework I’ve designed to help kickstart any community. A practical workshop to work through peoples ideas of what communities they want to start or work on.”

And the presenter’s 5 Cs [slightly edited]:

  • Create: create from a selfish need, such as gathering like minded people, which then ignites something wider for a selfless good
  • Connect: join with others to create the community together. Think about how you want your community to connect (virtual, in person)
  • Collaborate: lots of options – how people in the community will work together, or with others – whether they be sponsors or other networks. Are they hired, or is it broadly informal?
  • Consistency: underrated but important. For example hold events or activities regularly to cement reputation and for members to find you
  • Care: Every community manager needs this. Why do you care? Why do you care about the people? Why do you care that it exists?

How to draw toast – the importance of understanding your users mental models

The pitch: “We all think differently, which is really important when we consider how we design digital services for our citizens and customers. Designing services that only fit the way one type of person thinks (ie: yourself!) can lead to a confusing and frustrating experience for the end user.

In this workshop, we’ll demonstrate how visualising a problem can help uncover the many ways our minds are different at understanding and organising information, and how it can help a team solve complex systems problems”.

Really like the way this presenter broke down her pitch into easy to follow steps. Main takeaways?

  1. We all have a mental model of how a task should be done – they are all different
  2. Visualising a problem can be really valuable when you are trying to design a solution
  3. Adopting a systems mindset is valuable to ensure the user experience doesn’t become fragmented

Inspired by the Tom Wujec TED talk: Got a wicked problem, first tell me how you make toast.

Complexity and Systems Change concepts for government

The pitch: “Like service design and agile before it, the maturing fields of complexity theory and systems change offer new opportunities for positive change in government. But do we really understand the concepts form those fields (e.g. emergence, non-linearity, networks, self-organization, adaptation, etc) well enough to apply them practically in policy making and delivery contexts?

This session will establish some basic definitions for the concepts and then go into a discussion of how they could be practically applied in our day to day work.”

Really wish I’d been at this one! Recommended material to follow up: The Clock and the Cat Podcast (complexity in public sector) – especially episode 8. And read about the Cynefin framework. Also mention of Three Horizons, and Pace Layers.

The final point noted really made sense to me: “What I’m hopeful systems thinking might do is give me some language and frameworks to express patterns and challenges I can see happening but can’t quite name.”

Towards ‘One Civil Service’ – what does that mean for how we work?

The pitch: “The CS Reform programme is underway and a strong push from the consultation was for us to become more like ‘One Civil Service.’ What does that mean for our ways-of-working (online)? Should people be ‘findable’ across Department boundaries? Should we drive towards more common tools for common tasks? Should we be able to search for a document in another department’s system?

There’s lots of persuasive arguments towards ‘more sharing’ – but how do we square that with legal and constitutional barriers based on the sacred roles of a Secretary of State and their Accounting Officer?”

The session covered lots of the tools and attempts at creating a platform or directory that have gone before, and talked about why they failed. Infrastructure seen as a barrier – and there are a handful of bottom up options (GovCamp and OneTeamGov seen as good examples) but no official options.

Interesting quote: “… everyone sees it as someone else’s problem therefore nobody wants to invest in it.”

Open-Conversation – a new way of policymaking?

The pitch: “In this session, I’d like to identify and discuss various digital tools and approaches to policymaking that are more open, transparent, and effective. So far I’m thinking along the lines of using online tools such as Kialo (a debate platform), mindmaps, or even social media apps like twitter to better identify and break down problems, and openly and collaboratively come to effective solutions. I’d like to hear from you – good idea, or fraught with dangers? How is it already being done? Can we do it better?

The notes record a handful of demos: sharepoint, Strat Nav (bespoke tool internal to a department), Kialo, Mind Manager, twitter.

Notes reflect a broad mix of feedback ranging from: different tool for different purpose, to “not comfortable using ‘all these new whizzy tools’ ”.

Government is political. We need to be more ready to talk about that

The pitch: “Civil servants (and in different ways, others working in the public sector) stand aside from politics and aim to make things better regardless of the political environment in which they are operating. But in a vortex of political crises, is that a sustainable (and ethical) position? When does being apolitical slide from being a mark of professional pride to being a mark of disengagement from reality – and what are the stops along the way?

These are questions without easy solutions, so the point is not to attempt to the find the one true answer – and not just because it isn’t there to be found. It is more to make asking the question a legitimate – and perhaps essential – part of professional self-reflection.”

Another fascinating and timely discussion. To summarise: Working in government is intrinsically political. This is a good thing but we can’t outsource ethics, and we can’t wish the political element away. 1) Does there become a point where political leadership cannot expect civil servants to follow it? 2) Where is that line drawn? Answer to 1 is surely yes – but 2 is much harder.

Other comments resonate: You need to surface your bias, and mitigate it where you can. It’s not possible for a human to be utterly impartial about things – we are political, we are passionate, but we also have to be accountable and open to scrutiny.

Everyone wants a target operating model

The pitch:‘Moving towards service-orientated organisations means changes to the way people are organised, running costs are understood, and services are delivered. Suggesting an open chat with anyone who’s work is taking them into organisational design spaces, operating models, or more broadly from digital into non-digital stuff.’

Summarised expertly in a single tweet : Useful links on operating models and org design (headlines: Map the as-is; The story, not a static future state; Work through actual problems; It’s all about conversation, not a perfect picture; This stuff is hard because it’s hard (h/t @TamFinkelstein); Measures over targets; The illusion of future stability)

And this (also via twitter) “There’s something else here which is the present obsession with predicting the future. Which prevents us from seeing what is actually going on right here and now.” (which was one of the many responses to this: The illusion of future stability is the root cause of lots of failure in efforts to transform organisations: discuss )

And finally…..

First, something I spotted after the sessions: A tweet thread recording a session on celebrating and sharing the tips and tricks we’ve used to get through the last year.

So – that was it! A smorgasboard of ideas, reflections, challenges, suggestions and discussion. As a quote at the end of the last session reported above: This stuff is hard because it’s hard, not because we’re stupid. It sums up some of GovCamp – and how reassuring there are people from all parts of public sector willing to come together – even (or especially?) on a weekend – and think things through.

Original source – Julia’s Blog

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