Sunday, March 17, 2013

UKGC13: Together we have the tools and guts to kill off antiquated democracies

This year's UKGovCamp was a week ago, but Kids and Side Projects have made it difficult to write it up. Here goes though.

I semi-deliberately didn't stand up to pitch a session this year - partly because I was coming out of a too-busy fortnight, and partly I wanted to spend this year worrying less about running a session, and listening more to what people wanted to talk about; over the years, govcamp has taken on a bit of a “zeitgeist” role for me, offering a chance to gauge the ongoing mood.

I think not pitching was actually a good decision - this year's event seemed (to me; YMMV) to be a bit less all over the shop, ideas-wise. Several main threads ended up stringing the day together, which I'll go through below.

For ref, the sessions I wandered into (ripped from the sweet Google Spreadsheet) were:
  1. Identity in general & philosophical + Managing personas and identities in personal and civi spaces, with @curiousc and @pubstrat
  2. Open data in 5 years time + structure in open data community, with @jenit and @hadeybeeman
  3. Real, grass roots collaboration, with @shortblue
  4. Open data skills in communities + taking council information out into communities, with @podnosh and @tiffanystjames
  5. Open Government and the National Action plan, with @timdavies
Notes on each session are gradually going up here.

Empty schedule

More than once it felt like the same conversation was taking place in more than one room at a time. As I said, several (really importantt) threads seemed to emerge as being stronger and differenter:

1. Open Data and Social Meda are converging

Gone are the days where it feels like “tech” types are in one set of rooms, and “social” types in another. Or maybe that was just me. But it’s often felt like sessions have fallen either into a “how to do conversation” camp, or “how to do tech” one.

This year, the two camps felt closer, like an estranged couple gradually getting to know each other again after being separated. At one point, I found myself - without shame using data and statistical models as an analogy for individual identity. And the idea of "personal data" (energy efficiency, money saved, etc) makes it even harder to separate figures from debate. Are we at a point where “the network” is becoming less niche about specialist subjects?

I can't work out if geeks are actually cool yet though.

2. Democracy is killing openness

A biggie this one, even worth a separate post. The discussion in the “Grass Roots Collaboration" session was small but fascinating, and delved into the contrast between how the private sector deal with failure, in comparison to the public sector, and what the latter could learn perhaps.

In fact, the theme of failure was the main thread running through the day for me, from social media crisis to how to spin Open Data case studies. And in particular, how failure interacts with democratic process, and vice versa. “Democracy”, often shied away from for being too big a target (too big to fail?), was really the elephant in the room(s).

Can it be a coincidence that “private” companies are often likely to say sorry for public cock-ups, while supposedly-transparent “public” bodies go to great lengths to sweep such events under the rug? Maybe (like yin and yang creating each other) closed groups tend towards (selective) openness, while open groups tend towards (selective) secrecy.


Which is basically to say, no wonder the "Open policy-making" / Gov 2.0 movement is an uphill struggle. No wonder that ideas of genuinely open debate or technology get spun into poor, PR-driven facsimiles. Right now, Democracy, in its Representative and Accountable form, is all about hiding failure instead of learning from it.

On the Open Data front (which is probably my main interest, it's telling - and, yes, extremely encouraging - that the debate at govcamp has moved on from choosing data and getting it in machine-readable formats, to how to embed date into debate, decision-making, and the wider world.

Coming back to theme 1 above, we are no longer having 'technical" discussions about what web services to use. We are talking about how to adapt to existing democratic processes.

Or if that doesn't cut it, how to change democracy itself.

3. Govcamp Got Guts

... which is where I waffle on about how, like every year, govcamp was unexpectedly not what I was expecting and how full of enthusiasm and renewed vigour I am again etc. (And also mention Podnosh and Delib (and all the other sponsors) for the awesome free bar. Please do go and listen to some Neutral Milk Hotel.)

But unlike previous years, the fallout seemed more... "constructive" this time. Maybe it's an effect of a post-recession economy, some inspiring central government work, the election cycle, Ant n Dec, or those mice.

But maybe it's finally enough years of everyone asking "so what (now)?" afterwards. Maybe it was IBM's pop-up plug-points and sci-fi projector screens, or the snazzy T- shirts, or the return to a one-day format, or the electronic session list or those Bytemark mugs with Your Name on.

A bit of guerrilla feminism at IBM

I’m not the only one. Do go and read this post from LouLouK too, where she writes:

“Are you happy sitting in a room, being brilliant [but] never letting anyone else actually benefit from that brilliance, or are you going to stick your head above the parapet?”

Whatever it was, it feels like the ideas and debates at govcamp now have much heavier implications outside its gathering. I wonder if what people saw, heard and discussed made them feel more able to challenge the status quo, at a time when new questions, new answers, and fundamentally new ways of doing "government" are correctly needed.

Maybe we’ll find out next year.