This year was the second time I had attended the UK GovCamp in London. As with last year, it was in the unconference format unorganised by Dave Briggs and Steph Gray and held in the offices of a technology giant in Victoria. Last year it was Google’s gaff, this year Microsoft kindly donated their space. The poor guy from MS had to put up with being the butt of everyone’s jokes pretty well all day, and to his credit he bore it all with very good humour.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The real event started the previous evening at a pre-event drinks session hosted by Learning Pool. We were quite late to this but managed to get some food and mingled with the various people there. Most notably I had a good catch-up chat with Sarah Baskerville who had had quite a difficult few months but I’m pleased to say seemed to be very much herself:

I do like Sarah, even if I feel I could get drunk just by talking to her πŸ™‚

I also met up with a number of other people, it’s a bit blurry but I remember meeting Paul Mcelvaney, Mary Mckenna, Dave Briggs, Nick Booth, Anke Holst, Anne Kempster, and Dan Harris amongst others.

I can’t really take my drink, and when we got back to our hotel it was nearly midnight and I struggled to get to sleep. So the next morning was always going to be hard work. But loaded up with Travelodge coffee and breakfast we piled across to Victoria and across the “threshold of doom” (one of my companions paused just before the sliding front door and said “are you sure about this?”) into Microsoft’s HQ.

The first thing that happens at a GovCamp is that everyone introduces themselves in roughly 10 seconds. Last year it was name, organisation and 3 “tags”: this year it was name, organisation and “what you are here for in one word”. 178 people were there and Lloyd Davis expertly facilitated this to happen surprisingly quickly: having spent the previous week agonising over what my “tags” would be I was caught on the hop but managed to recover in time to say I was there to recharge: which is as true as I could make it.

The next thing is the creation of the agenda. There were a lot of available rooms and everyone queued up to propose a session and they all went on post-its and a programme was created. Again, Lloyd did this brilliantly, with good humour and managed to keep everyone brief and on-message. The whole thing took half an hour and then we were off into our first sessions.

My first session was a talk by the new Government supremo of all things digital, Chris Chant. He’s only been in post a couple of weeks and so this was quite a coup (by Mark O’Neill, I think) to get someone in with so much clout. Having said that, this session didn’t really belong at a GovCamp because the format (talk, Q&A) wasn’t what you normally hope for (ie a multi-way discussion). I think that Chris seemed a good guy but I’m not hopeful that the direction of Government IT will massively change as a result of his appearance at GovCamp. In my opinion this discussion needs to get to a new level of depth before we can have any reasonable chance of success. In particular there seems to be the view that engaging with SOCITM means you get a good view of the needs of local government: although SOCITM is a good organisation and there are some great people there, this just isn’t true. IT managers are not best placed to input to strategy, there are too many political considerations there, and I might be blowing my own trumpet but I feel that local government IT architects are the people that central government really need to be talking to.

A lot of sessions at the previous Govcamp had focused on open data or web-based public engagement. I’m not particularly interested in either of those topics so it was good to see a number of different emerging topic areas: my second session was a case in point as it was on the subject of mentoring. The government hopes to recruit a whole army of business mentors to replace Business Link, which is shutting down. New on-line mentoring services like Horse’s Mouth are starting to come to the fore, as well as MentorWell which this session demonstrated. I don’t know much about the skills involved in being a mentor but I think that I probably need to both have one and be one (if you’re interested, drop me a line πŸ™‚ ) – and I think that modern organisations should have ways of supporting their workforce like mentoring embedded deeply into their cultures.

So that was the morning. Lunchtime saw me catch up with some more people (not enough, I fear) and then we were into the first sessions of the afternoon.

The first session after lunch turned out to be my favourite one of the day and was on location-based services. There was talk about using services like FourSquare, Google Latitude or Gowalla (disclaimer: other location services are available) to enable added value for people visiting public locations like libraries by showing their support, or by pushing additional information to them. My main epiphany around this time was that the interesting thing (to me) about location-based services was not so much the service itself but the supporting event-driven architecture that determines what value can be added. I came away from the session inspired to try and create a test case for something in this area.

My next session was about Sharepoint. It’s a bit unusual for a Microsoft product to be the subject of a GovCamp session but I felt it was important as a lot of time and money goes in to implementing Sharepoint in Local (and central) Government with seeming mediocre results. The facilitators of this session were the guys from 21 Apps (one of the conference sponsors) and they stressed the value of good communication, UX design, and requirements specification up front in the implementation project. An interesting aside occurred here as the 21 Apps presentation featured a slide showing the Marshall Rightshifting model. I happen to be following the creator of that model on Twitter and tweeted that I’d seen it on the off-chance he was listening, which he was, and we had a short exchange which concluded that the success of the implementation of any enterprise-scale software is critically dependent on the prevailing mindset in the organisation and cannot change it on its own.

The final session was a small (in number of people, but big in vision) one with James Cattell from Birmingham about the various models for divesting and mutualising services being delivered by local government. Not a lot can be said about this without naming the various councils and services discussed, which would be wrong I think, but the importance of social enterprise as a critical success factor in a lot of these operations was a heartening thing to see being taken seriously.

And then as fast as it had begun, it was all over and we headed for the pub. Big mistake on my part to have a pint on an empty stomach, we had to shoot across town really quickly to catch our train from Paddington and I felt pretty tired and ill all the way home.

I’d like to thank everyone who I met, especially my travelling companions, the organisers, sponsors and hosts, who made this such a great experience. I’m only sorry I couldn’t get to all the sessions I was interested in, particularly the ones about Agile project management in the public sector, LinkedGov, the Unlibrary and the particularly relevant primer about starting your own business. Fortunately I can catch up with everyone’s blogs about this on the #ukgc11 hashtag on Twitter.

I also met a load of people for the first time, and my experience was that everyone was very welcoming. We genuinely are all in this together, fighting for progress even if we sometimes disagree on what that looks like.

I’m already looking forward to #ukgc12! My objective is to have some more stuff to contribute back in terms of a session topic by then. πŸ™‚