In case you hadn’t heard, Saturday 21 June saw the fifth sort-of-annual occurrence of the awesomeness that is LocalGovCamp. Not sure what it is? Take a look here to get the lowdown, and while you’re there take a look at some of the brilliant blog posts that have already been coming up as a result of so many fantastic people coming together in the same place at the same time.
I’m really heartened by the number (and quality) of the posts, along with the thinking behind them. LocalGovCamp seems to have enabled people to reach out towards concepts and ideas which have been tantalisingly intangible for a while, talk them through with others and coalesce them into actionable, exciting plans and inspirational thoughts. It’s relit a lot of fires, and captured the essence of what is so amazing about many of the best of local government.
Over the years it’s become something of a tradition to record a few of my own take-away thoughts from camp events, so in no particular order here are my own recollections from the day now that some dust has settled.
Collaborating on collaboration
The first session I went to was a session on collaboration, and helping people find both each other and good ideas. It was slightly ironic that, whilst the discussion centred around how we all want to see ideas, research and people brought together to enable collaboration, there were actually a lot of competing options which don’t play nice with each other. Lots of people have bought into, and make use of, some pretty big online tools but none of these tools seems to have really cracked it, nor do they work together as a matter of course.
Also, no matter how good the tools, there is still far too much needed around changing the culture of openness, transparency and honesty. Despite what we will all say to the contrary, none of our organisations are truly transparent by choice. We never shout about the things that went wrong as well as the things that went right, we never say “we made a mistake on that” and we never by choice put ourselves in positions where we can be criticised.
Finding people and resources would definitely be hugely valuable, but we collectively need to be more honest about our work and work aloud more than we do at the moment, from conception of projects through to delivery and evaluation. Nobody wants to read pages and pages of case studies saying how wonderful other people are and how they achieved amazing things; we want warts and all. We want to hear that other organisations are like our own, that they are run by real people and that they have real challenges. We want to see where things went wrong and how they were put right so we can identify with them more, and we want to use all of this knowledge to collaborate across borders to create common resources which can then be tailored and adapted locally.
Private bad, public good
Having not been intending to pitch anything at all and to simply take part, I surprised myself by jumping into the queue on the spur of the moment and pitching two sessions, the second of which was on the divide between public and private sectors, why this divide exists and what can be done about it. I got a little (I hope) lighthearted booing from the audience when I revealed that I had technically left the sector, which encouraged one or two private sector colleagues to turn up for the discussion (thanks for the support by the way!). I’ll admit, the session had nothing other than a vaguely formed rip off of a Two Ronnies sketch to set it up and get it going, but was a remarkably interesting conversation nonetheless*.
I was slightly disappointed that so few public sector people came along. There were some excellent comments made by @martinhowitt and we also had a councillor in the room too (I feel terrible for not knowing her name), but at points it felt in danger of private sector talking to itself and putting the world to rights. Relationships must be two-way, and passions on this particular subject usually run hot, so to have little input from public sector colleagues was surprising. I expect it was simply down to other interesting debates happening elsewhere, but we all need to consider these issues a bit more and look at what we are going to be doing personally to change culture rather than simply stating that culture must change.
I for one will be hyper-aware of my comments about local government going forward and sensitive to the impact a throw-away comment about a particular situation can have in colouring the perceptions of others around the sector.
*For those of you interested, I simply asked whether there was any validity to a changing of the classic upper class/middle class/working class sketch, replacing upper class with the voluntary and community sector (“I am made up of the people who really care, who are motivated by higher ideals than money and who truly want the best for their communities. I look down on the public sector, as they are a bureaucratic mess, more interested in process than improving things, but are better than the private sector as at least they have some semblance of compassion for ordinary people”), replacing middle class with public sector (“I am made up of people who do care, though not as much as the voluntary and community sector who I look up to and defend, no matter what the quality of service they deliver. I work within my remit to improve our communities according to the desires of our elected officials, and therefore look down on the private sector who are only motivated by maximising profits for their shareholders.”) and replacing working class with private sector (“I look up to the voluntary and community sector and the public sector as they have a calling, while all I want to do is get on with my job.”).
It’s of course meant to be nothing more than a conversation starter and I don’t believe it at all, but the perceptions of clear distinctions between the sectors is something which both fascinates and depresses me.
You had me at disrupt
Finally (for this post anyway), the one moment of the day which seems to have been picked up by a few people. After I’d grabbed some calories at lunchtime and consumed them whilst having conversations with some of the sponsors I remembered the Local Gov Digital steering group meeting which was taking place, so made my way over to hover in the background and listen to them talk. I’ve been wanting to be involved in the group for some time but was prevented from being for a couple of reasons which I won’t go into here, so to see that there were loads of people equally interested was great and spoke of the health of the movement (thanks Sarah Jennings for introducing that word to this context!).
I want to be very clear – I am a huge fan and supporter of the people involved and the work done to date. In a very short space of time (as was pointed out by a member of the group) the team had risen to prominence and influence in the sector, and was starting to make some waves.
However, the things I heard being discussed – creating more govcamps, networking, building up peer support and growing the group – only dealt with what I saw as half the battle. Focusing solely on the softer side of things and attempting to change culture only from within leaves a huge gap for bold, ambitious, conversation defining leadership which I see the steering group as perfectly placed to fill.
Love them or hate them, the Taxpayers Alliance for me are the perfect example of how things could move forward. Notwithstanding the political angles involved, at the most basic level the TPA is a very small group of people who, through lobbying, statement making and media pressing have changed the conversations being had at all levels of officer and political life, and have directly or indirectly influenced real, tangible changes to both legislation and public opinion. They are the people called by the red tops, the broadsheets, tv and radio media when anything related comes up, and they are the people who get their opinions out there which then shift the agenda to where they believe it should be.
Local Gov Digital has it within itself to take just that role for itself when it comes to local government and the digital agenda. I love the work that GDS has done for central government, but LGD doesn’t need to ask its centrally supported brother for permission to stand up and demand better of local government. It doesn’t need to be empowered by others to start having those conversations with people who really matter in all this – the politicians, chief execs and decision makers who will take the LGD message back to their organisations and ask why they aren’t involved or how they are responding to LGD work.
I called for LGD to grow some digital balls; to realise the awesome power it has in terms of the people and brains involved, to plan big and think bigger and to develop a plan of attack for shifting the agenda forward at speed to build upon the momentum it has already built up. I’d love to see some key principles for digital developed in the next few months and then released, along with a comms campaign of some kind to say “this is what we believe, and these are the principles which we expect local government should adhere to”. LGD needs to be proud of itself and be bold in its ambitions; let’s not wait for someone to point at us and say “LGD, oh yes, they’re doing some good things”, let’s make it impossible to ignore our message.
There are loads more thoughts racing through my head, and a dozen or so blog posts I could tap out if I had just a little time to do so (I’ll make time, I promise!). Suffice to say at this stage that localgovcamp reignited my passion for doing more for local government than the bare minimum and proved that the next few months will be very interesting indeed. I’m hoping to speak to more previous campers, current campers and future campers than I have done before and looking forward to seeing how some of the great things talked about are put into action.
Roll on localgovcamp 2015 at the Eden project!