I attended LocalGovCamp this weekend along with 200 other people interested in how digital innovation can be used to transform public services and local government more generally. It was the first one I’d been to and although I knew (in standard ‘unconference’ style) there was just a blank piece of paper for an agenda, I didn’t know what to expect. [As an aside…when did ‘open space’ events become ‘unconferences’ and why? Anyone know?]. I knew a few people, but there were a lot more who I felt I knew from communication we’d had on twitter – and one of the best parts of the experience was getting to put faces to a load of names and avatars. [I’m not going to name them all though, as I know I’ll miss someone out if I do!]
Nonetheless, I did feel like a bit of an outsider at the event (as I suspect did others). I don’t work in local government. I’m not a techy and don’t work in digital. So, going up to Birmingham on a rainy Saturday to talk local government and digital innovation didn’t make an awful lot of sense on the face of it….
But, as readers of my blog will know, I am very interested in the potential for opendata (in particular) to empower citizens and communities – to hold the state to account, to improve their understanding of their areas and to strengthen public service design and delivery. I also feel quite strongly that unless non-techies get actively involved in talking about and shaping the opendata agenda, it won’t end up achieving its potential. In short, if those of us who don’t inhabit a world of QRs, GIS and CSVs don’t pipe up and talk about our hopes, ideas and ambitions, we’ll get a system designed by geeks for geeks. [No offence to geeks intended…]
I went to sessions on a range of topics including using digital games, ‘beyond engagement’ and opendata. Some of the discussion was fascinating…some of it was interesting, but for reasons I hadn’t anticipated. I found my initial feelings of being ‘an outsider’ unexpectedly reinforced by some of the conversations. The issues weren’t ones I particularly recognised and from my perspective felt, at times, somewhat insular. There were challenges in engaging service directors and senior managers, convincing colleagues of the benefits of social media and digital innovation, data integrity and quality….all important issues, but ones which I felt slightly excluded from.
I don’t know why I should have been surprised by that, since it was after all a local government event for local government people. It was entirely appropriate that the discussion was on the challenges people within local government face in developing digital innovation in their authorities. However, I do spend quite a lot of time with local government people and talking to authorities. But the conversations I have are focused on involving citizens, working with the voluntary and community sector more effectively and so on. I suppose, at least from the perspective of someone working in a local authority, they tend to be more outward focussed then internal matters.
My feeling though, is that in the current climate, one of the most effective ways to unblock these internal obstacles is to change the way we do business. And the way I would advocate doing that is by taking as our starting point a fundamental question; how can we work effectively with citizens to improve local outcomes? My belief is that if we do this, we quickly recognise the inadequacy of some of traditional systems and processes and we create a momentum to develop new ones. These traditional systems are precisely the obstacles that, I believe, many localgovcampers are grappling with. Perhaps I’m being naïve to believe that this is a realistic way to change things…but my experience tells me that when citizens and VCS groups become engaged, they begin to make demands that Councillors and Officers find hard to resist.
I did try to make this point a couple of times in discussion – but I felt that either my point was misunderstood, or people did not (for the most part) believe, as I did, that this is a useful strategy. I do want to point out that this is not a criticism levelled at any individual or the event as a whole…and it’s far easier to be wise when you’re not immersed in the detail and the very real challenges people face. The one time when I did feel I was on safer (and more familiar) ground, was when I was running a session on visualisation. Perhaps this is because I’m only comfortable when I’m in control…I don’t know. I’ll write about that session separately, as I fear I’m already rambling on a bit.
I was challenged by the experience of LocalGovCamp – which I had not been expecting – and I think this is a good thing. I was forced to reassess my perspective on how the challenges that those leading local government digital innovation face. I met great people, had fascinating conversation and have lots of things to follow up on. When you encounter the ‘unexpected’ you are forced to re-appraise how you look at things. As a stimulus for innovation, it doesn’t get much better than that.