It's rare that I use this tragic outpost of unfunny stories, read by a measly handful of people, to say anything about stuff I kind of have an interest in professionally; but my attendance last week at UKGovCamp 2011 (#ukgc11) has led a couple of people to suggest I write down reflections on it; and that, along with an interesting question posed today on twitter by @mikechitty made me think that as a special, one-off treat for a slack handful of readers, I might just bother.
Two birds with one stone, as it were.
What follows won't break anyone's heart, nor change anyone's world view, but I hope it's constructive. It might help to know that "professionally" for me means Information Governance, DP, FoI and the like (I've professional qualifications in all three) and Customer Insight type things; I'm a Companion Member of the ICS and involved in managing stuff like feedback teams and advice services. So those are the filters through which I apply my own particular biases.
That question by the way was, "what should you be able to do through a council website?"
First things first. Gov Camp is cool. I mean actually cool. In a kind of rebel army, rock and roll kind of a way. Just because we're a bunch of erm... nerds, don't be fooled into thinking it isn't the hottest place to be this side of the Olympic Village at Woodstock; cos it is. Yeah.
But it's even cooler to put some faces to some twitter user names. It was great to meet @janetedavis, @DavidAllenGreen, @paul_clarke, @davebriggs, the legend that is @Baskers, @808Kate and of course to spend extra time with my spirit guide in the world of nerd @bmwelby.
Kate has already written her own take on #ukgc11, 'Forehead.... meet palm'.
Like Kate, this was my first unconference, so I was uncharacteristically quiet (by my standards) and - although I had been told this would happen - I was surprised at how much of what goes on is absolutely driven by those people who attend. They have spent their own money, taken their own time and made their own way to the event to share their own expertise, drive and ideas. To build something, using open data, and social media, and transparency and democracy. And stuff. As @shirleyayres has put it, this is about "building a different movement".
Much of what Kate has to say is stuff I share. I sat with her through the same opening session which was less a learning experience and more a cry for recognition. Yes; meetings in the public sector can be an end in themselves. Yes, they can be irrelevant to the needs of the organisation, its customers (internal and external) or its partners and politicians, and yes, they sometimes take place without clear ownership or any lead. So at least we got that out of the way. We now know that's how we're all working. Solutions though, to this Weberian hangover, were so thin on the ground that by comparison the nation's grit reserves might have caused no sleepless nights even for the Taxpayers Alliance.
I went from that into an interesting session that DavidAllenGreen had decided, on the spur of the morning, to run on the legal implications for many of the open data ideas being expressed around the venue. Again there were few outputs, and by his own admission David is still "getting his head round" the law in this area, but the session did underline the need to have, at the very least, some people who know something about how the agenda will be shaped by the ICO and the stuff for which they are responsible.
After lunch I popped in to an hour on Word Press and left after 25 minutes. I will let my tweets at the time stand as contemporaneous evidence.
2) Further, it's being run by 'the 3 Simons'. That is a plethora of Simons. But, "what ees a pleth-or-a?" #ukgc11
3) Simon: "...if you're prepared to get your hands dirty with the code".#eek
Put simply, scared by people who were talking what might as well have been Klingon in relation to version 3.0 when I didn't know what version 1.0 was, I fled. Sorry guys.
But the highlight of my day was @hadleybeeman's session on uses of data. Hadley has blogged some of her thoughts on Uses of Open Data and I think this is a really valuable starting point for what seesms to me to be the big, underlying issue; what is - for me - the nagging question. And I see Kate encountered it too at an earlier session on data use...
"It’s the getting people to do something with it that’s the hard bit, I had my forehead meet palm moment… I’d only ever really only focussed on the geek use of open data – fabulously pretty visualisations, super-duper clever mash-ups to create a new perspective. But one of the largest groups of people that could benefit from open data are activists that need data in order to get their point across".
Lots of lovely, brilliant people are doing lots of brilliant things but there seems to me to be a real, underlying sense of unease, because nobody is really quite sure why. Nobody seems really clear how to articulate what using open data, and social media, and transparency and democracy, and stuff is actually for.
Kate is almost certainly right. And Hadley is almost certainly right, but what we can't be sure of, in my view, is that we know they are right.
Because we haven't asked. The customer seems to me to be conspicuously absent.
Perhaps symptomatically, even the very groovy and overtly democratic nature of the agenda setting for the unconference seems inverted, so that suppliers pitch for customers - "We're going to run a session on... Is anybody coming to it?" I can't help wondering how the dynamic would change if the agenda was set by people saying, "I don't understand WordPress. Is there anybody here who can explain?" or "I'd like to know what some of the law is" or "I wonder if anyone has examples of where customers have been consulted in the development of stuff being used to provide services customer want".
At a policy level this "different movement" is perhaps not helped, because the coalition's view is a bit customer-light too, based on a "shared commitment" "to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account; to reduce the deficit and deliver better value for money in public spending; and to realise significant economic benefits by enabling businesses and non-profit organisations to build innovative applications and websites using public data".
Not actually to provide services then?
Where is the stuff that lets someone build an app or a webpage that tells you where you're most likely to get a parking ticket from your local council?
Where is the council which has carved out great swathes of back office waste because they have the same, self-service kit being used to report graffiti on mobile phones and website and by their counter and call centre staff?
Where is the council that lets the crew that have cleaned the graffiti, take a photo and send it out on flickr?
The one I work for promises to 'extend the use of the website, to ensure that self-service includes all interactions types including; providing information, collecting revenue, providing benefits and grants, consultation and comment, applying for a service or licence, etc., booking a venue/resources or course, scheduling an appointment or meeting and making a complaint'.
We know those are the things you should be able to do on a website because we asked customers. Over 3000 of them.
But we also said we’d develop strategies with customers for migrating to self-service and seek to include users in the design of self-service options to make sure they deliver what is required. We said we’d stop designing and using systems for officers and start making them for customer use. And one day, I hope, we will.
But so far, I can't show you where we have.
I always loved the story of soup from a stone when I was a kid, and this "one stone" brings that to mind, because I think it kind of sums up my attitude to both #ukgc11 and Mike's question.
"Some travellers camp in a village, carrying nothing more than an empty cooking pot. Upon their arrival, the villagers are unwilling to share any of their food stores with the hungry travellers. The travellers fill the pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and place it over a fire in the village square.
"One of the villagers becomes curious and asks what they are doing. The travellers answer that they are making "stone soup", which tastes wonderful, although it still needs a little bit of garnish to improve the flavor, which they are missing. The villager does not mind parting with just a little bit of carrot to help them out, so it gets added to the soup. Another villager walks by, inquiring about the pot, and the travellers again mention their stone soup which has not reached its full potential yet. The villager hands them a little bit of seasoning to help them out. More and more villagers walk by, each adding another ingredient. Finally, a delicious and nourishing pot of soup is enjoyed by all".
The infrastructure exists; We have our pot.
What we bring too is the stone, the basic open data ingredient, the complete commitment to soup.
But what we seem to me to lack manifestly is the involvement of the villagers, who will each bring their own ingredients.
It's time to involve the customers.