Vanessa Liston

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.