Reflections on Local Gov Camp – new blog (#localgovcamp)

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.

Toby Blume

Chief Executive

Urban Forum

Twitter: http://twitter.com/tobyblume/ 

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8 thoughts on “Reflections on Local Gov Camp – new blog (#localgovcamp)

  1. Maybe what we need is a #localvcscamp?I’m thinking a get together for local organisations who perform similar functions to the #localgovcamp ers but who would class themselves ‘in the voluntary sector’. I’m sure many people in local CVS’ and local community development roles are grappling with similar questions around use of technology, relevancy of opendata and even ‘what *is* twitter!’.If the local VCS can get its head round these questions then won’t this make closer cross-sector collaborationthe smoother?I’m in. Who else?

  2. Hi TobyI’m really pleased you posted this. I think it’s an important challenge and one that all of us need to reflect on.I have flitted in and out of local authorities over the past 15 years (currently out).One the local government side I think there is a need for some reframing. Local authorities are part of the power structure, it may not feel like that from the inside, but you just try to set up some new allotments… I’m not sure this is properly understood from within the institutions.This is deeply engrained in the structure of local government. Councils are, to some extent, set up not to be too responsible. Citizens weren’t necessarily demanding effective public health but we would all agree it has been a good thing now it has been imposed on society by local authorities.One of the aims at the (smaller) ShropCamp event we organised up here in Shropshire in April was to bring together a wider range of groups: social enterprises, community activists, small businesses along with public sector types. I think the event was much less comfortable all round.For me that lack of comfort is important. It is these interfaces between organisations where the really important stuff happens (and where the gaps can form). But a bit of comfort is important too.

  3. Another vote for comfort. I think we the outsiders can often forget how damned hard it is working in local government. A simple affirmation that there are others facing the same challenges is sometimes helpful in itself, I suspect.With respect to systems designed by geeks for geeks – I’m not sure that’s the only possible problem there. Hackdays will tend to produce prototypes designed by geeks for geeks, for sure. But systems are generally commissioned, by procurement processes. I’m not saying more voices aren’t useful in system design. They are, absolutely they are, and I try and build a great chunk of user-centricity into every project we do. However, in our working lives, outside of hackdays, geeks tend to produce to a commission rather than for themselves. (You can see how "by geeks for geeks’ stung, can’t you…)

  4. I think there is a place for lots of different kinds of events, those for insiders only, where people on the inside can feel comfortable, and those bringing together people from different backgrounds to share experiences and work across boundaries. I’ve been at some of the latter kind of event where the local government people have come across as very defensive and waiting to be shot at, even though no one has gone along with that intention. Those people probably needed an "insiders" event to warm them up.That said, I would have estimated that a fair proportion of Saturday’s attendees (myself included) were not local government insiders, but friends and supporters of local government.

  5. I think the unconference thing might come from tech and IT circles – I have a lot of friends in that world and that’s where i first heard the term used. you’re right though – these things are just marketing innovations. like action learning sets or some other reinvention in name only. behold the coming of the social media overlords!

  6. Good post Toby and one that resonates across a number of areas i am working in. For me digital engagement sometimes struggles to make a connection with grassroots needs in communities and doesn’t start where they are at. My sense is that if we scraped back the layers of technological and institutional barriers that are discussed at these events, and started from the point of view of a regular community activist, and her/his community group, and what they might need from social media to support their objectives it might just level everyone (and therefore make us all feel much more comfortable in the process?)….

  7. @Paul – i think that could be an itneresting idea…but what really excites me is bringing people across sectors together to innovate. Less so, creating a VCS space to replicate LocalGovCamp. but i’m openminded! :-)@Ben – i think you’re right…and i’m heartened to hear some of these (sometimes awkward) conversations are taking place at other localgov camps. it’s not easy…but change rarely is. We need to start (somewhere!) building trust and relationships that harness the potential and latent resources in communities within the public, private and not for profit sector. @Harry – i think we all need challenge and comfort. i used to do a bit of an exercise in action learning sessions where we’d have a continuum with ‘hit me’ and ‘hug me’ on it…so people could express what they were after at any time. Sometimes we’re up for the challenge (‘hit me’) and other times we feel the need for support (‘hug’)….but it varies at different points even for the same individual.i did say, i wasnt trying to be demeaning about geeks…i’m a policy geek and it’s a badge i wear with pride! :-)@John – i think that’s right. and there’s a space for lots of different events and for people to be warmed up, in fact, maybe i ought to have been warmed up first…as a localgovcamp newbie! @Gethyn – you’re probably right. just fiind it quite amusing…You know, i actually consider myself a ‘friend’ of local government. i spend a lot of time encouraging people to recognise the hard time local gov is having at the moment and to see that there are lots of people who are really trying to help. I offered up these reflections in the spirit of honest and constructive engagement. I realise that some people, particularly if you dont know me, will not have that context and could easily take my comments as ‘one more person bashing local government’…that’s not my intention and i hope, with my reflections on the session we had on visualisation, (which i just need to write up) i will display my more optimistic side! thanks for the comments everyone. i’ve found your reaction and thoughts really insightful and valuable….toby

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