“It feels slightly naughty” – why we’re supporting UKGovCamp

We are the only official supplier of bespoke beverage receptacles (mugs) to UKGovCamp 2014 – the free, annual ‘unconference’ for “people interested in how the public sector does digital stuff”.

Tim and I will both be coming down and we’re looking forward to seeing both familiar faces and meeting new people. For me particularly, it feels like I’ve come full circle – having started my career in the public sector in 2007, then moving onto the private sector in 2011 and joining previous sponsor Bytemark last year. Returning to UKGovCamp has given me a chance to reflect.

The truth is, the digital scene in government since I last attended UKGovCamp in 2010 has changed quite dramatically. I remember the discussions with early adopters, who had trouble getting access to social networks – in 2010! – let alone getting their departments to use social media effectively. My own frustrations with the slow pace of change and being at the mercy of public service regulations also led me to move on perhaps earlier than I might’ve done otherwise.

Nonetheless, my first UKGovCamp was a brilliant experience. It opened my eyes to the potential that could be achieved with experimentation, a little bit of persuasion and a hell of a lot of persistence. I also loved meeting a whole load of people with whom I’d been chatting on Twitter, including some of those behind the most prestigious corporate Twitter accounts.

UKGovCamp organising the grid - licensed CC BY-SA 2.0 from Pete McClymont

But the thing I loved most was it felt slightly naughty. There was almost an air of sedition. And I guess that meant it acted as a catalyst for change – after the whirlwind of myriad sessions and inspiration, we all went back to our departments with renewed passion and enthusiasm to pull them kicking and screaming into the digital age.

And suddenly, the government started taking notice. May 2010 heralded huge cuts which forced new thinking about service delivery in government, including the creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS). If I’m honest, I was a little jealous at the agency-style freedom that seemed to be enjoyed by those in GDS in the early days. With a clear mission to implement ‘digital by default’ and an apparent freedom from much of the bureaucracy that held this back, they unleashed talent and creativity to deliver high-quality digital services, including that which already existed within the public sector. They managed to make being a civil service developer… ‘cool’.

Today, this way of thinking seems to have been adopted by the public sector at large, though there are still pockets of resistance. And tellingly, UKGovCamp 2014 is being held not at Google, Microsoft or IBM as in previous years – but at London’s City Hall, the home of the GLA and the Mayor. That’s kind of symbolic for the event and says something about how it’s grown and changed. From something founded by a blogging civil servant (#controversial!) gathering “troublemakers” together in their own time, to something actively supported by one of the most powerful executives in the country.

Some might argue that it’s past its prime or that it’s been corporatised (hell, I’m a sponsor now!) and they make fair points. It’s not the same as 2010 and digital government is big business. Nonetheless, from the conversations I’m reading ahead of time, it seems like everyone is still fired up in the same way to learn from each other and do things differently, and better – rather than buy or sell. And that’s great, because as the founder Jeremy says in an interview with Information Week:

…sustaining and supporting innovation inside a large corporate environment is hard. And a lot of this stuff is still very innovative, especially if you are working outside GDS.

[UKGovCamp allows] people to step outside their day to day environment, get inspired and have a perspective on their day job that they may not necessarily have time to do in the workplace.

…and it feels slightly naughty. That’s why I’m glad we’re supporting UKGovCamp 2014. See you all there tomorrow. And don’t forget to pick up your mug!

Josh @ Bytemark