Brewcamp Coventry

“That was the best 2 hours of creative thinking and discussion I’ve had for a long time” Jan Britton, Chief Exec of Sandwell Council.

Having accepted the Brewcamp baton, last night saw the gathering of about 20 local government types in Coventry for an evening of QR codes, bus timetables, museums, open transport data, filming/tweeting council meetings, eBooks and, most importantly, cake.


About 8 hours before the event I got the exciting news that we’d bagged ourselves a Chief Exec for the evening, so the pressure was on to deliver. Deep down, I knew there was no need to worry. Everyone I meet at these kinds of events make them so enjoyable and interesting, you can’t fail to learn something new and everyone feels confident enough to contribute.

Fortunately, we delivered, as you can see by the quote at the top of this post. I was sat opposite Jan, and his colleague Liz O’nions during the post-brewcamp curry and it was lovely to hear that they had both enjoyed it. So much so, that Liz has offered to take on the Brewcamp baton and is looking to host the next one up in Sandwell. Watch this space…

It was fantastic hearing about the good work being done at Shropshire Council with their new Bus Timetables site – and even better hearing them offer their experiences so other councils can do the same. Sadly, they may not be able to offer up the source code (not through choice), but they can show how they manipulated the data using the standards available. If we can get their neighbouring councils to do the same, the residents of Shropshire and surrounding areas will have a really nifty system.

I also particularly enjoyed the session on QR codes – hearing what Stuart Harrison is doing at Lichfield with them on planning notices was fascinating. It paves the way for us to start doing the same thing. Take advantage of the work being done by innovative people at councils, such as Lichfield, because it makes it easier for the top dogs to agree if you can point to someone else who has done it.

The QR code stuff has now got me thinking as to where else we could use it for council services. I have a meeting with Country Parks in a few weeks so I will certainly be looking at their area to see how it could complement the work they do.

I said it on Twitter, and I’ll say it again now: “Listening to and learning from your peers is the best kind of learning there is”. I got more out of a few hours last night (for free) than I get out of the majority of expensive conferences I *used* to go to. Bit of a no-brainer really…


Localgovcamp – what not to do

Fresh from LocalGovCamp on Saturday 18th June 2011 in Birmingham, I’m writing a much more measured blog post than the one I wrote after my first ever unconference.

As expected, I had a really great day (and night before) and managed to catch up with a few familiar faces and made a few new friends. But it didn’t quite do the same for me as UKGovCamp in January, because I got things a little bit wrong. I decided that as I got such a buzz from attending interesting (and not necessarily work-related) sessions last time, I would focus more on what I could get out of the day for me to apply in my job. So my session choices were based around that. I also tried to speak to everyone I possibly could, which left me with spending about 2 minutes with each person. I left feeling kind of rude for not having chats any deeper than “Hi, lovely to see you, how’s your day going? Are you enjoying it? How’s work? Lovely, well we’ll catch up on Twitter then…” Missing. The. Point.

The first session, run by Ingrid Koehler and Liz Azyan around creating “Really Useful” stuff with open data did hit the spot perfectly. As I’m hoping to run a Transport Hack event for the West Midlands I got some fantastic advice from Stuart Harrison, Philip John, Martin Wright and others. Particularly useful tips were using public and private API keys so we can still charge companies for data if we need to (from Philip John) and the troubles that can happen when developers aren’t comfortable coding outside of their preferred language (from Martin Wright). It also made me realise that it doesn’t matter that I’m not a developer, actually the role of facilitator to keep things running smoothly is vital. If only the rest of the day had gone so well….

Session 2 was my opportunity to give something back to the day – helping Nick Booth and others deliver a session on Social Media Surgeries. I do like to share (talk a lot), and I didn’t really get to contribute as much to the session as I’d hoped (thanks Nick ;P) but I did leave feeling that it had been really valuable for the people in the session. Let’s hope some more surgeries pop up as a result of the good work Nick has done.

Over lunch I spent some time with Nicky Getgood on her Social Media Safari, and this was a really great idea. Getting people to really look at what is going on in their local area and encouraging local gov people to start interacting. I did a little audioboo with some of my thoughts and had my photo taken in a lion mask, obviously!

Me on my Social Media Safari

Me on my Social Media Safari

Session 3 was Emergencies with Ben Procter. As delivering IT for our emergency planning unit comes under my team, I felt this would be useful. But, and this is my fault, I didn’t really get that much out of it because I don’t think I knew what I was hoping to hear. I felt I couldn’t really contribute, and so left about half way through. Ideally, I would have liked to have understood a bit more about different types of emergencies, what can help during, immediately after and longer term. They may have covered this after I left, in which case, doh! Sorry Ben, this wasn’t your fault!

I think session 4 was something with MySociety, but I couldn’t really get into that session (and arrived a bit late), so I left and had a quick catch up with a few people over coffee.

The final session helped bring the day back up again, that was Stuart Harrison and Philip John talking about their vision to turn Lichfield into a City of Data. They want to prove the concept of linked data and the power of what can be done if we go to the effort of doing it. I raised my concerns over linked data transferring the effort from developer community to local government (tricky when it’s hard enough to just get open data out), but I do think what they are planning is a good idea. Sadly, I think some of the group got a bit hung up on the idea that they were trying to change the processes within the authority and spent quite a bit of time talking about that – i.e. what happens when someone reports a bench has been broken. I hope they didn’t leave feeling disappointed, and I look forward to seeing what happens there.

So to sum up, I chose to do work stuff because I wanted to come away with the enthusiasm and ideas to get stuff done. I have come away with a little bit of both, but my expectations were set very high from UKGovCamp. Maybe if I had spent the day going to talks that I found more interesting, I would have left feeling more enthusiastic, but without any clear focus as to what I could achieve as a result of it.

There were quite a few topics I had spent time involved in at UKGovCamp, so there was a little bit of repetition there. That’s great for the new people, but not quite so great for the regulars. One of the downsides of the unconference style of doing things – you don’t know what you’re going to get until you get there. As far as running a session goes, I find the ones I enjoyed most were the ones that had a brief intro and then getting straight down to business with a discussion. The ones where you listen to the host talk for half an hour don’t quite do it for me I’m afraid.

I also have to agree with Simon Gray in his post that it can feel a little bit self-congratulatory. There, I’ve said it, and as Simon says, a little less of the excellent-ness. The whole #ff thing on Twitter makes me feel the same way.

And a positive end – I thought Sammy, Si and Dave did a great job, thanks for all your efforts. I will be interested to see the results from the “What I have got from unconferences before” and “What am I going to do as a result”. Mine was something along the lines of:

“They help me realise everyone is going through the same sh*t, so there’s no point looking elsewhere for a job. Stay where you are and do something good”.

And what I am actually going to do, rather than just talk about?

  1. Running a transport hack event for the West Midlands
  2. Organising the next Brewcamp
  3. Organising the venue for the next hyperlocalwm

Thoughts on SmartGovLive

*Warning – sweeping statement coming up* Central Government projects are a bit like TV soap operas – a lot of people talk about them, there is an awful lot of drama, they are sometimes painful to watch, the same characters keep moving around but they’re not actually real.

I’m back in the office after an interesting couple of days at the Guardian hosted SmartGovLive conference. Sadly, it was an event where the exhibitors and vendors outnumbered the government people by about 10 to 1, but the content of the seminars and talks were still interesting.

Across the two days it felt a little bit like a pantomime. I heard a talk about the Public Sector Network and when it’s going to be delivered (oh no it isn’t). I then went on to another talk about the progress of the G-Cloud and when that will be delivered (oh no it won’t). So I’m still left a little bit up in the air as to what the future is around these projects, probably best not to carry on holding my breath.

The pantomime continued into day two when David Wilde did a talk around channel shift. He used a great phrase “ICT can’t drive it, the business can’t transform without it, so we need partnership”. But from what I’ve seen of partnerships, no matter how hard you try and sell it, there is always someone at the top.

He spoke passionately about his belief that government should stop concentrating on building websites and should develop apps as that’s how people are doing things now. He sees the Internet moving back to where it was in the late 90’s – just a repository of information, and the transactional stuff will be done using apps. I posed this question to the lunchtime panel (Dave BriggsChris Chant, Dominic Campbell, Paul Watson and Andy Gibson) who were discussing how Information Technology is changing the UK, and they are less sure on the subject. The general feeling seems to be that we can’t focus on one element of technology, we need to ensure government has the skills to use whatever is relevant to our citizens and how to deliver our services in the best way possible.

My day wouldn’t be complete without listening to something on open data, transparency and all of that good stuff. Paul Davidson managed to compress a 45 minute presentation on Linked Data into about 15 minutes. Simon Rogers spoke about the great work being done by the Guardian Datastore. But we’re still left in the situation that really great stuff is being done in very small pockets – government are starting to release more and more data, but there isn’t enough incentive for the developers out there to do anything with it. Linked data is clearly the way the world should be going, but currently the effort involved in getting an Excel spreadsheet out of a team makes getting data in a linkable format out almost impossible.

A thought-provoking day in which I think I’ve come away with more questions than answers.

Warwick Social Media Surgery on Thu 9 Jun

Another really successful social media surgery. Help given and received at this event:

Kate Sahota helped Monika to create a Twitter account to promote her Polish community radio show

Kate Sahota helped Rebecca Davidson to Learn about using Twitter more effectively

Paul Coxon helped Azam Khan to understand Facebook groups and pages to engage with service users of Making Space mental health charity

Mike Downes helped Nigel Bennett to set up a twitter page for Making Space mental health charity

via Warwickshire Social Media Surgery on Thu 9 Jun.

Super Social Media Surgery

Warwick Social Media Surgery

On Thursday 2nd June we were lucky enough to have BBC Coventry & Warwickshire host a special social media surgery at their Open Centre in Coventry. Many thanks go to Susie Rack and Vanessa Pearce for their help in getting this set up and promoting it on Annie Othen’s morning showon Tuesday morning.

We had a great variety of organisations come along, including Myton Hospice, Warwickshire Scouts, Action for Cheylesmore, Kids Run Free, a lady working with multicultural festivals and a group working with immigrants.

Many thanks to my co-surgeons Karen Ramsay-Smith, Nick Booth and Andy Mabbett for helping make this a great session.

Why should you get involved with a surgery? As a surgeon, it makes you feel like this.

What one of our patients said.

Details of more of our surgeries can be found at the Social Media Surgery website, as well as other surgeries running all over the country.

Cov & Warks Social Media SurgeryCov & Warks Social Media SurgeryCov & Warks Social Media Surgery

Dominic Campbell – The Director’s Cut

Today, I was very proud the Guardian published my interview with Dominic Campbell. Here’s the full version if you are interested in reading a little bit more…

Self-confessed government geek, Dominic Campbell is a name you should know if you work in local government. With an impressive 9,000 followers on Twitter, and counting, he appears at number 49 on the Independent’s Twitter 100 and at number 36 on the Local Government Chronicle’s “50 most influential voices in Local Government”. The latter an achievement he is most proud of, “This list meant a lot to me. If I’m able to represent a whole mass of people, the whole group of us just inside or outside local government, trying to make change happen, pushing for a different way of working, taking more reasonable managed risks rather than saying no to everything, thinking more creatively, thinking that local government is more than just the town hall, then that’s ace. There’s nothing more I can ask for than to open the door for people like us to push harder.”

Dominic Campbell

Dominic Campbell, founder of FutureGov

Born in Carlise, Dominic grew up in Birmingham before studying a degree in Geography and masters in Economic Geography in Manchester. From an early age he knew he wanted to work in local government, so it was no surprise he was accepted onto the National Graduate Development Programme. After one year of the two year programme, he was offered a full time position at Barnet Council performing a variety of roles in strategy, organisational development, procurement, IT and programme management. “I was lucky enough to work for a young, vibrant assistant chief executive who was keen to promote the programme and the people on the programme.”

After 5 years, Dominic decided it was time to move on. “By my mid twenties I was on the management team for the Resources Directorate and well-promoted for my age. I was doing corporate change programmes where you end up telling bright people they are wrong and the system is right, or the corporate priority is right or the machine is right and they need to rewire their brains to think differently. That’s not really my style. It’s much more about “you are bright, go off and fix some problems”. But there wasn’t really the space for that and it was clear that there wasn’t much more I could do in terms of promotions, so I decided it was time to move on to seek opportunities, and maybe go back to Local Government at a later date”.

Dominic left Barnet to work for a friend, where he learned how to run a consultancy company, and in 2008 he created FutureGov. His company does a variety of work, mainly with Local Government, but their bread and butter is digital consultancy and using the web to transform the way public services work. “Imagine you’ve got a white piece of paper in front of you, how would you then build a public service based on the modern world you have now?”.

Somewhat unusual for a consultancy, Dominic and FutureGov believe their role is to take an idea, help shape it and then use the talent already in an organisation to deliver. By bubbling up the talent within, the organisation will become more self-sustainable in the long run. “We use our work as a platform for the people inside who aren’t listened to as much as they should be. We give coherence and direction to where those voices might want to get together and make change happen. We help hone ideas into tangible priorities, do some creative thinking with internal resources about how the web, in particular, could be used to innovate around those priorities and come up with some really interesting new service delivery models. After that, our role is enabling you and your amazing, enthusiastic expert officers to go out and do it for themselves.”

Credited by the Local Government Chronicle for “stirring rebellion among local government officers”, Dominic understands the challenges faced by ordinary officers but knows what needs to be done. “Push the envelope a little bit, raise your head above the parapet, take a few risks. There are some really great examples of where that has paid off”. This in turn will make his job a little bit easier. “The powerful thing when I’m trying to sell something to senior management is having those real examples to point to. Even where people are just messing around, or it’s an idea they’re toying with, it’s so powerful in terms of making a case study for change. Chief Executives say “that’s all very good in theory but where is it happening in practice?”. You really need those case studies to make change happen and stick.”

Their proudest achievement to date is about to be realised, with the launch of Safeguarding 2.0, a new approach to safeguarding children. “It started off with me watching a documentary on the Baby Peter case and getting frustrated I couldn’t do anything about it. I thought, realistically, I’m not going to retrain as a social worker, and that’s not the best use of my skills and network anyway. So I blogged my frustration and said “who wants to help re-imagine how we do child protection in the world of the Internet?”. We got 25 people sat around at a kick off meeting where I said “we’ve got the Internet, we’ve got this big problem, how do we put the two together to make this work because the systems are clearly not working right now?”.

Dominic is clearly not someone who just talks the talk, his remarkable projects are being brought to life and changing how local government can operate in the modern world. With his drive to change and innovate, Dominic is not content with just doing this in the UK and has taken FutureGov to the USA to tackle the challenges of American government. “My aspiration is to go top to bottom on a local authority and transform the way it works from start to finish. To actually build a council that is fit for 2011, rather than 1990 at best.”

Dominic is speaking on “How Information Technology is changing the UK” at the SmartGov Live event on 14th and 15th June 2011 at ExCel London.

Warwickshire Apprentice – becoming a reality

After some positive noises about my previous post I have some rather good news…

I bit the bullet and emailed our Chief Exec, Jim Graham, yesterday lunchtime to outline my idea. Kudos to him, he replied within 15 minutes to say “It’s certainly worth a look”. So off I trotted to one of his seminars soon after this email exchange. After his talk, he opened the floor to questions and the usual tumbleweed ensued. So he used this to ask what people though of an idea he’d had emailed through to him earlier that day about the idea of running an Apprentice type scheme within Warwickshire County Council. With a wobbly hand and a slightly red face I explained I was the culprit behind the email and an interesting discussion ensued with quite positive noises in general.

After the seminar, the head of HR came up to me and asked me to take it up with the head of OD to see about taking it forward. I’ve actually taken it one step further and agreed with the Strategic Director for the directorate I provide IT services for that we will definitely run this for our directorate and offer it corporate wide if they want us to.

The Advancing Women Programme I am currently on have been looking for a project to get their teeth into, so we have agreed that we will devise, implement and deliver this.

I am absolutely chuffed to bits that I JFDI and as a result might get to do a project that could have a real impact. Plus, we may even have the opportunity to film our efforts after a kind offer (yet to be confirmed!) from John Popham.