Reflections on Localgovcamp 2015

“It’s really difficult to build a self-regarding clique when new people keep coming to Localgovcamp”

I loved Dave Briggs stand up routine as he kicked off the unconference on Saturday morning, and as I laughed I was thinking how close to the bone the humour was – I loved the two days of the Localgovcamp Fringe and the Unconference itself, in large part because I really enjoyed meeting the people I’d connected with last year, and the people I already followed on Twitter – it’s really energising and heartwarming to feel part of a group of fellow travellers, all with shared purposes and beliefs.

But it was also brilliant to meet lots of new people, and to be joined by Helen Adams, one of our brilliant product managers who’s been with us all the way on our journey to become a more digital organisation, but had never been to Localgovcamp before. Seeing her making connections, sharing our learning, taking away ideas and committing to work with other Localgov Digital colleagues to do things that will benefit us all was as much of a pleasure as doing those things myself.

This year I was able to balance sessions where I shared my views and our learning from doing digital in Bristol, and sessions where I was a total newbie, listening and absorbing new concepts. In some of these sessions it was quickly obvious to me what practical actions I should take next, often centred around following up on connections with other councils who have already tackled the problems we want to address. On the other hand, Esko Rainikainen’s “Blah Blah Blah Blockchain” session was great but basically blew up my brain and left me needing a lie down in a darkened room with some painkillers πŸ™‚ I think we need those kinds of sessions sometimes. It’s good to be reminded where the edges of our comfort zones and knowledge lie.

Some specifics I want to mention:

  • The first session I went to was on Pipeline and breaking barriers to collaboration. Phil Rumens was trying to crowdsource solutions to the big issue that whilst 100+ councils signed up and listed projects, nobody had done anything with them, neither keeping them updated nor linking up with others to collaborate on shared solutions. We had a good discussion ranging from practical ideas for making Pipeline a bit more social (“someone has listed a new project in service area X that you have followed”) to ways of crowdfunding a community manager post. Everyone agreed that we need a mechanism that supports councils to stop re-inventing the wheel at every stage, from user-research, user story generation, through design, coding and delivery. Through the day in most of the sessions I was in, somebody would say “why aren’t council’s sharing, isn’t that a massive waste of money?” and I repeatedly pointed back to Pipeline as a tool for getting us all focused on opportunities to work together.
  • I was really looking forwards to the opportunity to hear from Dave Briggs and Paul Brewer in the Government as a Platform session, and to contributing my perspective. A number of us had blogged about the concept and practical implications of it over the last week, and wanted to explore further. (My post also links to Dave’s and others’). Personally I think it was a good discussion, that aired a number of perspectives, allowed lots of people to ask questions, and some people to try answering them πŸ™‚ For me, this is one of those complex and multi-faceted topics that will need many of us to engage, test our thinking and practical consequences in dialogue and improve the way we define and articulate the idea. There isn’t going to be one single way that GaaP plays out, but I suspect some approaches will be more successful in action than others. Some things will be implemented in choices of technology infrastructure, others in changes to methods of connecting with citizens in the democratic process. I think there were really strong links to the ideas that emerged from the Localgov Digital Makers event on new ways of citizens engaging with politicians, and participating in local democracy. I kept hearing people say that councillors were less connected to the views of real people than the new forms of community organising, user research and “algorithmic governance” are enabling. We can do something about this… At the end of the session Paul Brewer made a good point – whilst some of the debates about Government as a Platform will take years to refine and affect the way we think of and operate local government organisations, others have to make a material impact on the cost structures of our councils right now, this financial year and next.
  • In the GaaP session, in the fringe event on Service Design that Futuregov ran, and in later sessions I found myself saying the same thing several times – those of us who have heard, experienced and understood the power and value of the user needs led service design approach have a responsibility to lead and promote it in our councils, and to shout loudly about our learning and successes sharing them with other councils. I think this is true of everyone, no matter what their role or level of authority, but it’s especially important for those of us who have power and accountability for change, design and digital. We need to mix humility and a willingness to recognise and share the mistakes we make, so that we can all learn from them, with a commitment to sharing actively – marketing our successes so that others can build on them. I’ll be the first to tell you what we’ve found difficult in Bristol, but I’m also hugely proud of the things we’ve achieved. (In fact, quick plug, we went live with our 8th digital service on Thursday evening, one that Helen’s team had delivered to provide a Council Tax Tenants “tell us you’re moving house” – have a look at our services site if you’re interested and get in touch if you want to find out more. Our new website is also in private Alpha and we plan to go into public Beta in the next month.)
  • My final reflection is on a small moment that for me encapsulated the spirit of Localgovcamp. It happened when I was sitting and listening to a discussion about the potential for a single digital platform for libraries, which I’d gone to simply to learn and understand an area I’m not well versed on. Some of the discussion was around how much money was wasted on 100s of library management systems, and 100s of separate websites, and wouldn’t it be better to have one national platform. I decided I’d butt in and express my view that a single platform approach is just not practical because unless the Government changes the law on councils being independent legal entities, there is very little incentive for them to agree to one product. Pretty much immediately a quiet voice from my left said “I just don’t agree with you” – to which I responded “brilliant, disagree away!” Rose Rees-Jones then articulated really clearly how a well designed service delivered for one social landlord led to many others adopting it because it was “so good people preferred to use it”, and Sym Roe added to the point by pointing out that if we focus on agreeing standard interfaces, and use service contracts (in the technical sense) to ensure consistency when we interact with those interfaces, then we can build a common platform, piece by piece, service by service. I can get behind a single platform when we define it like that! So my point is that Localgovcamp creates a context where people who have never met before are willing to speak out and share their thoughts, listen to different points of view, reflect and learn.

All in all, my second Localgovcamp was worth the time and effort, and has topped up my resolve to keep on thinking, doing and sharing as part of the Localgov Digital network. Please sign up to Pipeline, be open to learning from others, take a lead in promoting user needs led service design in your council, and consider how Government as a Platform could transform the role of local government in your locality.

Oh, and watch out for that blockchain… πŸ˜‰

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3 thoughts on “Reflections on Localgovcamp 2015

  1. Lorna Prescott says:

    Great reflections, thanks for sharing Gavin.

    I really like the description of single platform as a common platform built incrementally, I’m fascinated by discussions and experimentation with platforms (both tech and otherwise). And like you, I’m keeping an eye on developments with blockchain πŸ™‚

  2. Really interesting blog. In the process of writing a paper for Scotland around the subject of open data, open sources and open government. Would value a chat?

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