Dave Briggs

25 Takeaways from Northern Ireland’s GovCampConnect

govcamp-timetableThis weekend I’ve been participating in Ireland’s very first Govcamp.  For the uninitiated, govcamps are unconferences for people who work in & (most importantly) around all levels of government.  The govcamp movement in the UK was started in 2008 by Jeremy Gould.  If you’re interested in knowing more about the history, there’s an interesting blog from Stefan Czerniawski here with a lot of relevant links.  Don’t be put off by the title!

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L-R Dave Briggs, Jeremy Gould & Steph Gray – yep – you can tell who the sensible one is!

Regrettably I wasn’t at Jeremy’s first ukgovcamp but I’ve been to many of those that have taken place from 2009 onwards, the year the baton was passed to Steph Gray & Dave Briggs.  I love the informal & interactive format of unconferences – a polar opposite of the somewhat antiseptic TED talks where an “expert” or “personality” lectures us & then disappears without any challenge or interaction.  Yesterday was an inspiring and positive experience from start to finish and a great way to spend part of a weekend.  These are my key observations and positive/negative takeaways in no particular order.

  1. Surely this is the first ever govcamp to take place in a genuine castle; the beautiful and slightly decaying mock gothic Narrow Water Castle near Warrenpoint.
  2. We joined up with our colleagues at Govcamp Cymru via a Skype link for “randomised coffee trials” – a phrase coined by our colleague Esko Reinikainen who is a true one-off in every sense.

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    Dave McKenna on the live videolink with Govcamp Cymru

  3. Govcamp (and any unconference) remains a great opportunity to catch up & interact with a lot of interesting people in a single day and to add a few new people to your network.
  4. It’s an easy way to get up to speed with anything of note that’s happening in government in your own locality; it was especially useful for me as I’ve been away from Northern Ireland for the past 4 years.
  5. All govcamps fall into two main factions as the day progresses – the data geeks and everyone else.

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    The enthusiastic Open Data Institute NI gang – infecting us with their crazy data love – L-R Andrea Thornbury, Bob Harper, Lisa McElherron, Stephen Gray

  6. As usual there was scant senior civil service and local government representation and a complete absence of local politicians or ministers. Why is that?  They all say they want to embrace digital and they even make grandiose statements about using technology to close the divide between the haves & the have nots – but not enough it seems to come to Warrenpoint on a Saturday and engage with a grass roots community keen to help them achieve the practicalities of this.  Frustrating and disappointing.
  7. I learned a new phrase from Bill McCluggage – Steal with pride – I’ll be stealing that one Bill!rules
  8. A reminder of The Rules – surely not just for Govcamp but for all of life itself…see the pic.
  9. The phrase “this is just for within these four walls and is not for Twitter/not to be repeated” preceded a lot of interesting & juicy tales about government shenanigans – I wish we could change this environment in government & in Northern Ireland especially. We’ve come a long way but more honesty & transparency would be very welcome by a lot of citizens.
  10. I am personally bringing some of Northern Ireland’s (sensible) digital disruptors along to the next govcamp – top of my list is Matt Johnston, Roger Warnock & Barry Adams. I would’ve loved to have heard their take on some of what we discussed yesterday.  I’ll transport you all in the Fig if necessary J  That alone will be worth filming.
  11. Yesterday convinced me that the public sector should be forced to stay away from everything to do with smart cities until they have grasped the joined-up nature of what they are trying to achieve. Sad to hear about scores of expensive, over-engineered solutions being pitched to councils and the inevitable reinvention of the wheel that is occurring.  Another attendee whispered to me that in his view the Smart City initiative seems to be an elaborate money laundering scheme.    It isn’t sufficient for the public sector to be “engaged & willing”.  They need to make it their business to be properly informed and able to play their role effectively.
  12. I heard some great stories & attended a couple of really good sessions including Eoin McFadden’s on why failure matters & the difference between good & bad failure.
  13. Refreshing to attend a large event outside of the cities and it was so much fun to visit Warrenpoint.
  14. Despite the spotlight of recent years, public sector procurement is still a complete & utter mess, especially in Northern Ireland with the continuing usage & dominance of Central Procurement Directorate. Why is this allowed?
  15. Dave Briggs once said the day after govcamp is the most depressing day of the year. His rationale was that it’s the day all the changemakers have to go back to real life & face up to the daily frustrations of their job.  The challenge of doing something with all the “stuff” that’s discussed on the day remains.  LinkedIn, Slack etc are all woefully inadequate for continuing conversations.
  16. Money exists, at least right now in Northern Ireland, for small R & D pilots & innovation projects. See SBRI & #ODNI4EDU for starters.
  17. I enjoyed re-hearing some of Northern Ireland’s familiar government war stories – Eoin McFadden’s triumph with the chicken poo challenge is a particular favourite. You can read more here if you’re intrigued.
  18. I was reminded that there’s always a way if you have a network you can go to & discuss things if you’re stuck or struggling or failing – and that’s good to know as a lot of people battle away with projects on their own.
  19. Civil servants should be encouraged to be more open and transparent because the rest of us benefit enormously when they are.
  20. I learned a new word – pretotyping. Fake it before you make it.  More here
  21. The ones on the bus started imbibing at 2pm and that made them happy – well it was Saturday after all.
  22. Northern Ireland needs more people like the very articulate & totally on it Andrew Bolster. I award him my “Person of the Day” prize for his contributions to #gcc16 – thanks Andrew and thanks also for introducing me to Club-Mate … now all I need to know is where I can get more …
  23. Government to the innovator – “Sorry but your idea doesn’t match my programme”. Honestly – and excuse my language here but isn’t it about time we thought about how to change the f***ing programme.  How can this still be acceptable/happening?
  24. I have a lovely warm feeling today after spending 2 evenings and a day with the NI govcamp gang and I wish it could’ve been longer. This weekend has restored my love of the UK & Irish public sector and the people who work in it and yes I did use that phrase “if you cut me open I’d bleed public sector” in my own session.  Why?  Because it’s true & because I care.minecraft-kids
  25. The kids who pitched the last session of the day (a fabulous business case built in Minecraft for a new park in Newry) quite rightly owned the day. We are that awkward generation who aren’t true digital natives and all of this discomfort in government will soon pass.
  26. A bonus point – there are always some moments of complete hilarity on the day. Yesterday’s belly laugh was provided for us courtesy of Bill McCluggage.  It began with an audience member chipping in “As the author of that report…”  Hahaha – you probably had to be there for it!

What else do I have to say on this topic.  The format & rules are key & not to be tinkered with.  I remember one excruciating event at a past UK govcamp when a certain much loved & admired civil servant announced to the organisers that he would be appearing to give a keynote speech at a certain point in the afternoon & it was permitted.  Why I don’t know.  I was saddened that the ecosystem that existed at the time meant they didn’t tell him he’d need to turn up at 9am & queue up with the rest of the pitchers.

I’d like to thank the organisers Brian McCleland, Stephen Barry & Jonny McCullagh and we’re all very grateful for the generosity of the sponsors for funding a great day.  You’ve proved once again that a small number of enthusiastic and committed people can make pretty much anything happen.

Special thanks to the people who travelled a long way to be with us yesterday.  Suraj Kika of Jadu, freelance agile coach Mark Dalgarno, Rebekah Menzies of the Carnegie Trust, Deirdre Lee of Derilinx, Vanessa Liston of CiviQ and Brian Marrinan of Journey Partners.  Apologies if I’ve missed anyone.  I hope you made a lasting connection to Northern Ireland and we very much look forward to seeing you all again soon.

A night with James Ellroy, demon dog & foul owl – are you scared yet?

Last night Dave Briggs & I went to the Bloomsbury Theatre to see famous American author & self proclaimed genius James Ellroy – check us all out on the photo below.  I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this blog entry you’re already familiar with Ellroy (LA Confidential, American Tabloid, etc) and I’m therefore not going to go back over all the much hyped information that exists about him.  This blog is about some of what James Ellroy had to say last night.

A confession first – I’ve seen James Ellroy at a book reading event in London before and am a fan – I like him because he’s unusual as well as incredibly talented.  I think it was in 1996 when he was promoting “My Dark Places” – another book about his mother, speaking more or less completely in jive talk and very much in love with his pet bull terrier.  14 years on he was less “daddio” and even more off the wall than I remembered him to be.

There’s no doubt he’s an entertaining & engaging public speaker – he stands legs wide apart like a wild man rock guitarist playing at a lectern & he uses his distinctive low & booming voice like a musical instrument – he’s an easy man to listen to and he doesn’t disappoint in terms of the shock factor – ever.   He even told us last night – “laugh with greater fervour – it’s funny MFs” and he uttered the immortal deVito line from LA Confidential – Off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush – in “that” voice.

Also before we start – I was touched that Ellroy said he’d like more women to read his books.  He’s sometimes painted to be a pervert and a woman-hater.  I tend to think he’s a bit maligned on this score and instead read him to be a hopeless romantic caught up in a never ending loop of seeking THE ONE, finding her, discovering he was wrong and moving on to looking for the next ONE.  He rather weirdly claims to be able to remember with clarity features of women’s faces that he met or saw 50 years ago.  Dave & I weren’t sure that was credible – and he did then go on to freely admit that he “makes up shit convincingly & makes sure all the people he’s writing about are dead” – with one exception – Don Crutchfield, real life PI that Ellroy claims he paid $40k & promised not to depict as a “fag or a ponce” in “Blood’s a Rover”.

It was fascinating to hear from the author about the methodology he uses to write.  He starts with a detailed outline which he keeps beside him & this framework enables him to then control his story whilst permitting improvisation on scenes he is writing.  He spends a lot of time in the dark thinking about & planning his story and then writes in longhand at his desk, working in silence and with no music or distractions.  He reads his work out aloud to himself as he writes and rewrites.  If he ever gets fed up with writing crime fiction, I’ll offer him a job as a project manager any day (although I might worry about the effect that would have on his colleagues).

These are the soundbites from last night that we liked a lot:

·         LA is where I go when women divorce me; I can earn money there to pay my alimony and I know where stuff is

·         She had eyes of no shit non hazel green

·         My riposte to book critics worldwide has been “fuck you all”

·         Says he has a “benign form of megalomania rewriting history to his own specification”

·         I am a genius and George W Bush is not

·         Whatever I can conceive I can execute (I like that – a lot)

·         England = the moors, thatched cottages & baying hounds

·         Movies you want to see like LA Confidential; movies you want to flee like the Black Dahlia

I’ll be back to post more on this when I’ve had more chance to think & digest.  He’s in Belfast tonight & tomorrow night & folks – James Ellroy is unmissable – take your chance to go & see him whilst he’s over here.  Comments & questions welcome.

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To hug or not to hug…

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I’m often surprised and pleased by the number of people that hug me the first time I ever meet them; some people even hug me as soon as we’re introduced.  I don’t know why this happens although I must say I’m pleased it does.  In my opinion, hugging shows you feel close to other people in a non-threatening & not too intimate way & it feels nice.  Others in the Learning Pool team have been known to push me forward when there’s hugging to be done.

I’m in Scotland this weekend taking a couple of days out after a busy month of getting Learning Pool’s new Glasgow office up & running.  Dave, Breda & I hosted a breakfast briefing in Edinburgh on Thursday at which one of Learning Pool’s non execs, Donald Clark was speaking.  Donald is pretty much always controversial (read his blog athttp://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.com/ to see for yourself if you don’t believe me), especially when he’s talking to people that train others using traditional means – and he didn’t disappoint on Thursday.  At the end of the morning, I could see Sheila Fleetwood (pictured with me above) making a bee-line for me.  She’d been engaging in some lively banter with Donald over the course of his session & I must admit I thought for one second she was coming over to give me a slap.  Instead, to my delight, she hugged me & thanked me for such an interesting & thought provoking morning.  Phew!

A couple of months ago, Dave & I were in Exeter for Likeminds (gosh – was that really February?) and we had a fab night out with some of our local guvvie pals we don’t see anywhere near often enough.  That night I had a great conversation with Martin Howitt & Bill Wells about hugging and how much we like to do it.  The three of us decided that one of the measures of how well Learning Pool is doing could be the number of customer hugs I receive every month – admittedly a rather unusual business metric.  So far it seems to work.

Next week is the company’s annual birthday bash (hard to believe but we’re 4 years old) – we’re having a party on HMS President & I expect to get a lot of hugs that day – tell you what – I’ll count them & post the number back up here as a comment next week.

Conclusion – hugging is good with your business associates – keep doing it & keep those hugs coming for me!