On Saturday I attended UKGovCamp XL in London. UKGovCamp is an annual, free public sector digital unconference, which means there’s no set agenda, and anyone attending can propose, host or participate in sessions. “XL” means this is the biggest one the team has ever organised.
The format makes for a fascinating event covering all kinds of diverse topics and ideas sourced from the attendees themselves. In addition to the unconference sessions, which take the form of semi-structured, open group discussions on a given topic or question, there is a lively corridor conference of side-chats and networking, powered by plentiful coffee and pastries.
I do try to focus on the sessions themselves, keen to hear from the practitioners and experts, and to contribute where I can, but I couldn’t avoid getting some high quality corridor time too. Sometimes to catch up with an old friend, and other times to continue a conversation from a session with a newly discovered one.
With eight tracks to choose from it was impossible to be in every interesting session, and with corridor chats accounting for more time than planned, I managed to attend sessions on measuring services front-to-back, sustainability, and avoiding legacy technology.
Measuring services, front-to-back
I was drawn to the session, successful ways to measure whole services, front to back, because so much of my own time is spent helping to make sense of complex technology and service landscapes. As my colleagues and our clients will confirm, I never stop banging the drum for measures and metrics (used right) to help make sense of things.
I thought I would know where I was with this session, but the group approached it through the lens of local authorities, and I realised quite quickly how hard a problem this can really be. Participants described the sheer number of services they are accountable for, the financial constraints, and the siloed and impenetrable nature of the organisations they work in.
The conversation raised some fascinating questions and ideas. For example, perverse incentives can arise when you measure the wrong things, and people will naturally game any metric they are held to. But it provided no silver bullets.
Ultimately, one of the reasons why government standards suggest service teams should own the whole thing, end-to-end, is because it makes measurement and accountability much easier. But that sounds like an expensive luxury if you’re a local council. How do you even begin when you are a million miles away from such an org structure, and you have no way to pay for all those things separately anyway?
There was another session, which I didn’t attend, titled, “What do you do when your council goes bankrupt?” It’s sobering to consider these challenges.
Those of you who are regular visitors to the Scott Logic blog know that sustainability is something we spend a lot of time working on. We’ve introduced governance to embed the sustainable mission at the heart of our company, as part of becoming a B Corp, and we now work for private sector clients on their digital sustainability. The Sustainability in government services session highlighted for me that it’s not necessarily clear how that will happen for the public sector itself.
One attendee mentioned their own work on the Albert sustainability initiative, which provides a guidance and accreditation framework for film and television production which is widely adopted in the UK. I didn’t know much about it, except that I’d seen the logo in TV credits. Having looked into it a bit a bit deeper in the last couple of days, it feels like a pattern that could be readily extended to digital and technology work. Not only for the public sector but across all organisations.
Building on that idea, another participant questioned whether there could be a sustainability requirement for the Government Service Standard. It feels like a natural step. The Government’s Digital and Technology Playbook describes it as being, “fully committed to improving environmental, economic and social sustainability.”
There was a participant from one government department’s own “Green IT” team in the room, so I hope it’s only a matter of time.
Whoever proposed the session, How do we ensure the systems we build today don’t become the legacy technology of tomorrow?, might be entitled to an award for the toughest question of the day. What struck me most about this session was that many participants already knew in principle what might help, but that putting into practice ideas about building quality in, multidisciplinary working, and user-centred approaches was a huge challenge.
There are so many moving parts, and many busy people need to be won over to make them a reality. Few people are in the mood to embrace innovative methods when times are hard, and public finances have scarcely been more constrained than they are now. Especially in local government.
So, I’m afraid I was left with a sense that the answers can be easy but the doing remains phenomenally hard. There are genuinely challenging questions around funding models, capability building and leadership which are simply not in the power of most teams to answer alone. It reminded me that, as a consultant, I need to remain aware of the limitations of “best practice” advice and focus on supporting people to achieve real value.
One bright spot of the day was being approached after this session by a service designer whose point in the session about multidisciplinary working I had enthusiastically welcomed “as a technical architect”. We had an enjoyable side-chat about how the service design and technical architecture roles work together in practice. Maybe that’s a blog for the future.
Another topic regular visitors to this blog will be familiar with is open source. We do a lot of open source work at Scott Logic, and one of my highlights of UKGovCamp was getting some time to talk with the co-founder of LocalGov Drupal, a publishing platform “owned by councils, for councils”.
In the last year it has become a standalone, self-funded entity and provides free and open source content management to, well, any local authority. It’s an inspiring achievement and I am left wondering what we can do at Scott Logic to support open source initiatives in the public sector, as we already do with our support for the Linux Foundation and FINOS.
Watch this space.
UKGovCamp has been running since 2008 and is organised by volunteers who work in the public sector. It has now grown to host several hundred attendees. It’s no mean feat to deliver something of this scale as a free and catered event, and it’s a credit to the organisers, volunteers and sponsors that they make it as successful an event as it is.
Perhaps the trick is that there is a genuine, passionate and welcoming community at the heart of it. There is a spirit of public service throughout, which makes it a refreshing change from some of the more corporate events I attend. It’s an inspiring start to the year.
Incidentally, if you’re interested in what was discussed in any given year there are notes from all the sessions linked from their website. And finally, I was pleased to have the opportunity to contribute one more tree to the carbon offsetting effort “Grove Camp” and maybe you’d like to do so too.