Govcamp is useless

It’s the Monday1 after the Govcamp before, the day Dave Briggs once described as the most depressing day of all, as the exhilaration of the event crashes into the realities of working lives. I like Govcamp for a long list of reasons I wrote about last year – I won’t repeat them here, but they are implicit in what follows, so might be worth a quick look before going on.2

We were all at the same event, but it’s a safe assumption that few if any of us were at the same event. Ten parallel sessions four times over means that there were 104 routes through, even before taking account of the application of the rule of two feet. So these are some some thoughts on the event I was at, which may or may not resonate with anybody else’s.

Why Govcamp is useless

But before diving into that, an aside on the general uselessness of Govcamp. That uselessness is not a weakness, it is the very essence of what Govcamp is and how it works.3 Govcamp as an entity reaches no conclusions, sets no actions. It has no opinions and no manifesto. It does just one thing, and does it very effectively: it brings people together in a way which facilitates conversations between them on the topics they most want to talk about.

View from City Hall through a window with the word 'talk' stencilled on the glass

It’s worth saying that, because from time to time people (including me a few years back) get frustrated, and argue that if only Govcamp were different, it would be different, and that without concrete actions resulting from it, it is somehow a waste of time. There are two ways of responding to thoughts of that kind.

The first follows from the way Govcamp works now. What gets talked about is what people want to talk about. So the way to change what gets talked about, is to encourage different people to come – and what gets talked about in any case will change over time as both people and issues come and go.

The second is to put Govcamp into context. Not every kind of event needs to attempt every kind of task. There are events designed to make things happen, get things built, train people in specific skills, collaborate across organisational boundaries, and a whole host more. There is room in all that for an event where conversations happen, for as long as people find value in the conversation – and the way that Govcamp tickets disappeared suggests pretty strongly that the appetite for that has not gone away.

How Govcamp was useful

So with that out of the way, a few reflections on what did happen.

The setting, in City Hall, was without doubt the most spectacular yet, a building of spirals many of us found temptingly photogenic.

City Hall - Assembly Chamber

It was is interesting though, how even very small changes to the layout and to flows of people can make what seem to be disproportionate differences. So the combination of the long walk from the assembly chamber to the other meeting rooms, the absence of on site coffee, and having ten choices at each of four sessions, rather than eight choices at each of five resulted in fewer serendipitous conversations and an even stronger sense than usual that too many other interesting things were happening somewhere else.

I started at the session on votecamp, which was exploring ways of encouraging more young people to vote. It’s an important topic, but I didn’t feel I had much to contribute, so I moved on – though not before hearing Ade Adewumni make the simple and very powerful point that we can’t hope to understand why some people don’t vote without understanding why other people do (especially given the basic irrationality of voting at all). I suspect that thought has much wider application: we tend to focus much more on why people don’t comply and don’t think enough about why people do.4

I ended that session in a group asking ‘what do you want from your agile supplier?’, though that felt like a bit of a euphemism for ‘how do you cope with your decidedly non-agile customer?’.

Then to a session I had proposed on how work works, which was partly written up as we went along, and which I won’t add to here.

After lunch, there was a compelling option: John Sheridan had dangled the prospect of combining legislative structures and JS Bach, which made his session irresistible.

I hoped for the emergence of a new Gödel, Escher Bach, but alas JSB went unmentioned, with only the pale consolation of copies of the Interpretation Act in his place.5 John Sheridan and the Interpretation ActBut despite that initial disappointment, the discussion was both fascinating in its own right, and a great example of how a Govcamp audience could pick up on a theme and bring a distinctive perspective to it. Prompted by John’s work, I have written before both on a concrete example of where a more code-based approach might lead to clearer law and more abstractly, how law, code and architecture fit together. I left the session with three one liners rattling round my head:

  • There is no architectural thinking in how the structure of the statute book is managed.
  • We shouldn’t let the lawyers get away with it any more
  • How do we, the geeks, share what we know with our lawyerly friends?

I spent the final session of the day in a debate on the question of whether all was well with digital in central government. The proposition was that there is nothing to worry about, but it was pretty clear that it was a question intended to evoke a short sharp answer to the contrary – which it successfully did. There is a slightly simplistic view that if the rest of the world were more like GDS, it would be a better place. The problem with that is not that it’s necessarily wrong (if it were, it probably would be), but that it doesn’t take sufficient account of the cultural and organisational context within which all this is happening. I keep going on about (and kept going on about) the fact that a relatively thin joined up information layer cannot in itself be expected to drive deep organisational and service change: the solution requires a better government as well as a better web service. The apparent GDS focus prompted some back channel dissent:

which helped draw the conversation back to what I think is a better version of the question:

That’s all an issue which has been rumbling along ever since GDS started, and actually for years before that. There isn’t going to be a solution which is intrinsically right for evermore, but that makes it the more important that we don’t lose sight of the question.

Useless but very valuable

That was my day. Or rather that was a version of my day, but in the telling, it’s lost a large part of what was best about it all. There were conversations, some brief, some longer, some connections made, which shed new light on old problems and identified whole sets of new challenges. The most frustrating thing, as ever, is that there was a whole bunch of people I would really like to have spent some time with who I didn’t talk to at all, and some cases barely set eyes on. An event with 10,000 routes through it cannot be otherwise.

So, as ever, Govcamp was useless. But it is a very special and rather compelling form of uselessness. If we could be this useless more consistently, who knows what could be achieved.

Pictures by me, W N Bishop, and Alex Jackson

  1. No, it’s not actually Monday, but half this post self-destructed and had to be recreated, thus adding delay and reducing dramatic effect.
  2. Especially if you are not familiar with the barcamp/unconference model – in which case the description of the process at the beginning of this post might be useful.
  3. Or, indeed, any unconference or barcamp – this is a point about the method, not about the specifdic event.
  4. Which in turn reminds me of a great post from a few years back by Will Davies on the illusory reality of government.
  5. And I can never wholly escape the thought that policy on interpretation should rest with the Circumlocution Office.

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