The Maturing of GovCamp and an Iconoclastic Suggestion or Two…

So, 24th January 2015 (also known as “yesterday” on a special one-day-only limited offer) was UK Govcamp 2015. It was really good, in all the ways that such events are good, and not so good in ways where … it could be a bit better.  In some ways it is maturing well, in other ways some of the seams are starting to show signs of pre-burst tension.  That’s what this blog is about, and I’ll drop in some of the other things I learned on the way.

The good stuff about GovCamp is well rehearsed but it’s worth restating sometimes – for me UKGC (and variants such as LocalGovCamp) mean hearing ideas I won’t hear in other places, meeting people ditto, and increasingly it’s about meeting again people I have enjoyed meeting previously and getting caught up.  It is always energising to be in a roomful of people who have given up their Saturday because they care about making the world a bit better, for all.  And a big up for the organisers.  Selflessly to do what you do to create the space for others is a really great and generous thing.

This time I was thinking about not pitching and I am grateful to those who encouraged me to do so (thanks Glen, Catherine) because the session I did was well attended in both people and ideas and has moved my thinking about an issue on a bit (this will be another blog idc).

I went to Andy Hollingsworth’s session about digital leadership and I was struck by the way that, compared to other similar sessions in past years, the change-makers in the room had a much more nuanced understanding of the role of senior leaders, making change happen etc.  The dialogue was no longer “why oh why don’t they realise that if they only just talked to us and did exactly what we said and gave us money to do whatever we want, we could do awesome stuff”.  (I exaggerate to make a point, but not that much, actually). A massively stronger understanding now.

I did an experiment of, for one session, spending 5 minutes in each room in turn, wondering what I’d learn from that.  In the end I learned that it is a pretty useless way of spending a session!  However it did make me think about the format.

And, do you know what, I am starting to fall out of love with the unconference format.  I’m not sure it quite works any more. Or only sometimes.

Here are some symptoms:

– It can be hard to really get a good idea of what a session is going to be about from the pitch.  By the time you’ve half remembered what they said when they were standing pitching (whilst also thinking about your own pitch), mistranslated that into your understanding of the session title, and so on, there can end up being quite a gap between what you think a session might be and what it is.  Now obviously some of that is just the luck of the draw, but I think that some of it is because the nature of GovCamp is changing.

– For example, some of the sessions I saw yesterday were thinly disguised sessions by sponsors to promote themselves and their organisations.  “Let’s get together about how we achieve X”  was sometimes a genuine “I am really up for ideas about X, bring them on” (as in the best session I went to yesterday – Jon Foster’s session about how to get residents of blocks of flats to separate their recycling despite using communal bins).  And sometimes it actually turned into “let me tell you about how we did X at such-and-such a place”.  This might be useful but it wasn’t what was promised.  I understand that sponsors need value (believe me, I do!) but forcing it through the pitch format makes it slightly, and I’m sure unintentionally, deceitful.

– The rule of two feet is being observed in principle much more than in action.  I heard this many times – words on the lines of  “I know I should have left but I’d be walking into another session halfway through and the door was creaky and it would have been distracting to get up from the table and push past others to go, and the seats were big and comfortable and I thought I might as well stay and follow what was going on in other sessions on the hashtag instead …”.  Add in to that the fact that some of the sessions are more like conference presentations really – you can’t really walk into them half way through – there is a narrative thread running through them – then this is problematic and makes session choice all the more important.

The best unconferences I’ve been to are the Brighton City Camp.  One of the reasons for this is that they start with a set of presentations which give a context about the City and its community, and can then inspire people to pitch ideas to help solve problems.  That unconference also makes substantially more use of ideas online first, and initial voting, so that people can refine ideas, and have a more considered view of what someone may be presenting.

So this is building up to a thought – some suggestions for consideration.  This suggestion would mean putting a bit more structure on things.  Yikes!  Sorry about that.

How about this:

1.  Start with the intros and the one word offers / wants.  It was well worth trying out not doing this – excellent to experiment – but I’d like to see it back – and it needs to be really driven hard to be crisp.  Maybe literally just names. Apart from anything else this lets you put names and faces to twitter handles.  The idea of wearing a sticker with Ask me about / Tell me about was good – but I think people could handwrite them themselves (less admin).

2.  If you’re going to have a plenary speaker do it at the beginning so that pitches can develop it and the ideas further during the day.

3. Have a strand of pre-booked sessions – based on online pitching and voting.  People can explain what a pitch is going to be about more, online.  The “7” sessions with most votes 24 hours before it starts get to run.

4.  Then have a strand of completely blatant sponsor-led sessions, again advertised online beforehand.  No need to pretend.  These are sessions where people will try to sell you something, and if they advertise what they want to talk about clearly and accurately, and offer genuinely useful case examples and insights, then that will be genuinely useful, and you might even buy.  As someone who works for a big company that often works with smaller companies I’d find it really useful to decide which to go to listen to, to see who we might be able to work with and bring into our “supply chain”. And as a sponsor having five people in a room who have already expressed the beginning of an interest in buying, who have agreed that they have a problem that you may be able to solve, is much better than having a roomful of people who are uninterested or mildly cross.  One session for each sponsor – all at the same time – and you decide which one to go to, but you have contact info and so on so that if you want to chat with any sponsors offline you can do that.  Suppliers are really proud of what they do – give them the opportunity to explain why, unblushingly.  This will also really help explain to their lords and masters why money spent on GovCamp is a good investment, and so help make it more sustainable.

5.  Then have pitches, just like now.  People pitch ideas that they would like to discuss.  They would need to say whether these sessions were “help me” or “show you” sessions.  As in “I have a problem and I’d like some help” versus “I’d like to show you this cool thing I did”.  Both have value.  But let’s be clear which is which.  And it would be really neat if some of the pitches could be inspired by the sessions just gone.  “In that earlier session it occurred to me there’s a real problem in X but we didn’t have the time to nail it – anyone else have that problem and have ideas to share?”- that sort of thing.

6.  Then have lunch.  Yesterday’s lunch was great.  As a vegetarian I was pleased with how they structured the choice architecture – meaty food before the veggie stuff, so that the carnivores have full plates before they get to the only stuff I can eat!

7.  Then have the afternoon sessions, just like now.  So it’s mostly still an unconference really, for most of the time.

What do you think?

Observations of a World-Class Team Leader

Recently I went to a musical performance by the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.  My seat was in the choir seats behind the orchestra and I was right in the middle so I was directly opposite the conductor and therefore able to see exactly what he was doing in leading the team that is his orchestra.  Dudamel is lauded as an inspirational conductor, though there are some who prefer their conductors grey and more mannered.  I hugely enjoyed the concert, and I hugely enjoyed watching closely as Dudamel did his thing.  It really was a masterclass in team leadership.

When I watch a concert from behind the conductor (as is usual) or on TV, it sometimes feels as though the conductor can’t possibly be leading the orchestra – or not that much anyway, perhaps just giving the beat and key stop and start signals – to some extent it feels as though they are dancing along to the music rather than shaping it.  Watching as closely as I was able to this week, there was a tiny but perceptible gap between an instruction from the conductor and the relevant thing happening – I became more aware than ever before of the rich extent to which conductors (or, this one at least) has a profound and direct effect on the orchestra, on the split second behaviour of 100 skilled and attentive people.

It is a bit of cliche in the management literature to study orchestras as teams, usually in contrast to the style of say a jazz combo.  But I am going to add some observations of this specific conductor, on this particular day, that felt interesting – some of them may have wider relevance, in certain circumstances.  Some of the leadership points are very obvious!

Expressive, modulated, leadership using every tool available.  Dudamel used the whole of his body and an extraordinary array of facial expressions to communicate.  He missed no opportunity to convey his intention.  At times his movement was huge, his facial expression massively contorted, but at no point did it feel over the top, partly because the extent was always directly linked to the need.  For one really quiet passage he – quite literally – conducted the beat with the smallest movement he could do – he conducted the orchestra with his eyebrows

Conducting as though nobody is watching(!).  As a result of this massive expressiveness there were times when he looked really very stupid and undignified indeed!  A freeze frame shot could have been entered into a caption competition.  At one moment his bottom half was doing something like a “Frank Spencer ‘Ooh Betty'” while his top half was going three different ways at once and his eyes were popping out.  And of course nobody did laugh because the results he was producing were extraordinarily good.  A great leader, he only gained credibility from taking a personal presentational risk.

Knowing when not to lead.  There is a short, lovely and important oboe solo in the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.  Uniquely during the performance, for this section, Dudamel did nothing.  He stood, smiling respectfully, poised and waiting for the oboeist to finish before bringing everyone else in.

Stopping, waiting, and starting.  In between movements at a concert there is silence.  On this day I was able to detect three distinct silences, one after the other.  There was the silence that is necessary for a couple of beats once a piece has ended, there was the restful silence that was between pieces, and there was the preparatory silence just before things got going again.  These stages were signalled by Dudamel’s body language, and holding the baton straight up against his chest during the middle silence.  This made me wonder whether we do enough to allow that pause for reflection once something has finished, a moment of rest, and then a reflective pause before starting again.  In a concert the total length of the silences is about ten seconds, and I don’t think it need take much longer than that in a work context.  I think some meetings would be greatly enhanced by these three pauses between agenda items!

Individual attention in a crowd.  There were probably about 100 people in the orchestra, yet there were times when Dudamel gave very specific individual attention to one of the players.  Never for more than a few seconds at a time, he gave undiluted attention at particular key points.  His arms kept things going for the rest of the orchestra but his face – and you felt, his attention – were utterly focused on making eye contact with one person.  He would smile, or widen his eyes, or do something, which conveyed a sense to the player concerned – you could read it “now then, like that time at rehearsal that I was happy with” – a quick smile of thanks when the performance was delivered and then on to the next.  Do we give 100% focus to individuals when they need it, even fleetingly, or do we get distracted by the wider task?

Credit.  Dudamel was very generous with credit to the players.  He did the usual conductorly thing of inviting soloists or groups of players to stand and take an individual bow and receive specific audience applause.  But more than others he went to them where they were sitting and he BEAMED at them, shook their hand or patted them on the back.  Apart from the initial applause when the conductor turns round to take a bow, whenever he came back to take more applause he invariably did so from within the body of the orchestra, with his arms around some of the players.

In some of the social media traffic around this concert a friend mused about how Dudamel gets such extraordinary performances.  This is how.

(The specific concert I listened to is/was broadcast on Wednesday 14th January 2015 at 9pm.)

Deja Vu All Over Again

I am personally inspired by the folk who are driving forward the LG “”Digital”” agenda in multiple ways, through events, blogs, tireless work and at significant personal cost in terms of time, and, um … cost.

From several local gov camps and similar, and much tweetage there seem to be a whole set of recurring themes around getting this stuff to break through into action. Again.

There is an emerging realisation that something higher-order than good work in one or more authority is needed. And various attempts to create organisational forms that will take things to the next level. Again.

All of this dialogue, though eerily familiar, is actually incrementally useful in trying to put our fingers on the question of why this isn’t yet breaking through the way we’d like.

I don’t know the answer to that, but here are some thought pebbles to set spinning across the pond of “”digital”” discontent.

  1. Maybe it is breaking through but we’re just not seeing it! Maybe what’s coming through is the result of the sheer grind of compromise and risk aversion that is almost inevitable in organisations which are (think about this) – local monopoly providers of essential services which are publicly funded, which are democratically accountable, and politically rationed in a hostile scrutiny (small or big s) environment.  Tough context!  Those things are like the weather – we can’t change them, we have to wear appropriate clothing. So maybe the progress we are seeing is brilliant, maybe it’s as good as it gets, maybe it’s going to take a shed load longer than we think, and maybe we don’t have to beat ourselves up so much. Maybe. I think it’s worth considering.
  1. Councils are different and becoming more different all the time. Localism rocks! But it works against standardisation, and it means that partnerships for eg joint development need to be chosen with care. The innovation need, capacity, capability, leadership of councils varies considerably, even if in other respects they seem pretty similar, or are conveniently close. In some of the recent tweetage I pointed people at slides 6-13 of this. I think we need to have language for understanding the differences between authorities and their contexts. I think we also need to accept that the best thing might be to give up on 95% of councils and work with the smaller number who want to innovate, and currently have the capacity and capability to do so. Let’s beam a small group “coalition of the willing” down onto this new planet, and hope that our council isn’t the one wearing the red shirt. (Note to self, do I need to explain Trekkie references to this audience …)
  1. Controversial one this. Perhaps we need to think about going where we can do most good. This might mean taking a super-honest look at one’s current authority and acknowledging that you could do more good somewhere else, somewhere that’s playing with a better hand of cards. Or somewhere that demonstrably gives an actual stuff. That might not be practical for some people given family circumstances or bonds of loyalty. But it’s a thought. What if we could get all the localgovcamp people working for the same council! Well actually it would be an unmitigated disaster but you get the underlying point, I hope. To add extra controversy to this point I will take my life in my hands and say that a lot of people I talk to decided to stop working for a council but stay passionately involved in local government by stepping out as freelancers, establishing or working for companies, and found they could do more good that way (despite enduring the ever so funny jokes about the dark side, and not getting invited to things any more – or asked to pay – but let’s not go there).
  1. Do we care about it enough to get our hands dirty to make change happen? I did some sessions at PS Launchpad about this sort of stuff for example this and this. One of the reported reasons why corporate services professionals in local government (eg IT, HR, Finance) often don’t want to get promoted to Corporate Director roles is that they will no longer be able to represent the interests of their tribe – they may have to make decisions which compromise the purity of the vision. I’d love to see some of the LG “”digital”” folk say “right, I need to get to be a chief executive ASAP, then I can sort it”. That wouldn’t actually work as a strategy but the people trying it would learn so much in the process. Many years ago I was a manager of analytics consultancy types in a discipline called operational research and I wrote this paper called “wearing your clients’ shoes” – anyone fancy working with me to update it for “”digital”” in local government?

(Note: In this blog I have put “”digital”” in double quotes to signify that I am loosely referring to people and concepts which are currently aligning themselves with the word “digital” but which in my mind have very little to do with technology (either digital or analogue) and which therefore risks massively confusing means with ends, but happens to be the only flipping label we have currently.)

Tim Garner’s Autumn Irewell – Manchester Mid-Life

On a recent visit to Manchester I dropped in to the ARTZU Gallery and discovered an artist called Tim Garner.

Tim’s work is fascinating. His most recent work in and around Manchester consists of large photographs painted over to bring out relevant effects. For me the dominant theme is of transition. His works are post industrial but they don’t just think about the past – they also look to a future. One picture in particular exemplified this for me – it is called Autumn Irewell.


Autumn Irewell differs from some of Tim’s other work in that it is less obviously “post industrial” – other works by him show disused mills, warehouses and so on. However this is most definitely post industrial – the river itself is and was navigable and part of what gave Manchester the ability to import raw materials and distribute finished goods. It also contains within it the LS Lowry Luxury Hotel. I’m not sure I can conceive of a more post-industrial concept than is contained in the phrase “LS Lowry Luxury Hotel”.

A little about Tim – Tim is my age – middle age (slight clenching of teeth there). Like me, Tim grew up in the country and came to Manchester later. We both moved away from Manchester and the occasional returns expose and underline the enormous changes that have happened in that city over the last three decades. Manchester is reinventing itself, just as, I am beginning to see, people do too.

For me, this is a mid-life picture. It is a picture that illustrates a complex past of many changes, and yet still a future, albeit uncertain. This picture reeks with symbolism of time: a river, a bridge, a time of day, and a specific season – and that season is of course Autumn. As with Tim’s other works this is paint layered onto a photo – but the aspect ratio of the photo is that of a snapshot, a polaroid – a point in time.

The bridge – which appears more sharply in the original than it does in reproduction – is a high tech, computer designed suspension bridge. We are invited to read left to right – the support member is on the left – in the past – and it reaches out across the river – the landing point is indistinct. But the sun is shining onto the future bank of the river.

I think that a meaningful work of art is like a poem – it gives you different things when you go back to it, and gives different things at different ages. But just as I like the poetry of Martin Farley because he and I are similar ages and have similar childhood backgrounds, I feel that I can resonate with the work of Tim Garner – even if I am getting things out of it which he didn’t intend to put in! Anyway, in the musings of a day off, this is what I get from this picture, today – my snaphot.

Why I won’t be going to the Roman Colosseum again

A few years ago I wrote a piece about the way that as a society we tend to forget past horrors and end up glorifying things that we surely wouldn’t, if we could manage a little empathy for people who were basically no different to us.

A further experience in this vein happened recently when I went around the Colosseum in Rome. Some frankly pretty shitty stuff happened to people there. People who were sentenced to death “ad bestias” were killed by wild animals in front of 75,000 baying spectators. I suspect a significant number were crying for their mothers while it happened. Unarmed people pitted against gladiators, slaves forced to kill or be killed. Thousands of people put to death brutally and publicly; imagine being pulled from a dark cell into the bright sunlight of an arena and thousands of people shouting and cheering as you are chased by a starving animal, or as you have to decide whether you are going to attempt to stave off death for a few minutes, possibly at the cost of another person’s life.

So when visiting the place where these atrocities happened, what kind of demeanour would you expect from the visitors? Smiles and selfies, laughter and chatter wouldn’t be the main thing for me. And yet, times hundreds, people walking round, posing for photos, and even the ones who read the factual, non-glorifying information that set all of this out clearly, grinning like idiots.

This may seem like a small complaint – after all it was a long time ago wasn’t it? Well, no, it wasn’t really – in evolutionary terms the people were indistinguishable from us, and a couple of thousand years is a blink. The speed at which our system of ethics, culture and values has developed is astonishing by comparison, but it can clearly move quickly – in any direction.

This is a distasteful comparison, but I am going to make it – how many years will it be before visitors to Auschwitz are trooping around in laughing groups, deciding whether to be photographed with the guy in the SS Guard uniform or the one in the prison uniform? I hope: never, but I wouldn’t bet that it won’t be happening a couple of thousand years from now.

Then and Now

Originally a long facebook post I’ve decided to turn this into a short blog entry.

Walking in the rain tonight, cosy in my coat, I remembered a particular Saturday when I was about my son’s age. It had rained and rained all week with an intensity that followed as logically and as relentlessly as a mathematical proof, from our axiomatic valley position near the Atlantic coast. 

I got up on that particular soggy Saturday, and put my heavy, untrendy second hand tracksuit on over my pyjamas, then put on my gloves, and peaked cap, then my quilted brown anorak (gloves and cap first so that the ends of the gloves were inside the cuffs of the coat, and the cap was sealed in to the hood), socks over trousers, and then feet into my wellies. Then I went outside and I ran around like a delighted dervish in the pouring rain, protected by my layers of clothes.

The sunlight was pushing through the clouds giving the landscape an amber-grey hue and an other-world, dreamlike quality. I can see now the flickering and scratches on the Super8 of my memory. 

I rolled down a slope in our garden compressing hundreds of huge heavy drops from overburdened grass blades into the quilt of my anorak and the thick cotton of my trousers. I remember now the thick nature smell of freshly wetted earth and squashed grass. Then, before the water got through to my skin I ran inside to my mum, to towel my face, to dump the heavy wet clothes in the laundry basket, and fill my chilled red cheeks with hot buttered toast.

But I wouldn’t have done that if I’d had an iPad to play with.

Councils in 2043 – the Next Thousand Words

I was delighted to be asked recently to contribute a piece to LGiU’s 30 birthday celebration work, an imaginative idea that asks 30 people to project what councils may be like in thirty years’ time in 2043.  The post is here: and is an imagined conversation between two un-named individuals at a mono-bus stop!

In writing the post I was determined to make it be from a citizen perspective rather than that of the council, and I wanted to present something that was a bit different to “now with less money” so I imagined a world in which council services were more consumerised and customised than they are now.  In doing that I left out a whole lot of stuff, and left quite a lot to the imagination.  I was constrained to three hundred words!  Since my piece is generating some actual interest, or, at least, tweets,  I thought I’d take the opportunity of my own blog to add a few more words, and perhaps leave less to the imagination.  My additional comments are in italics.

“Blooming monobuses, you wait and wait and then three come at once”

I have no idea what a monobus is, but it sounds futuristic!

“Yeah, too right … how you doing in your new flat?”

“It’s alright actually, me and the missus are choosing our council package tonight”

“What are you thinking about getting?”

“Well, obviously we’ll be getting the standard citizen package, and we’ll both be taking the free ID-phones because we don’t mind them knowing where we are if we get a free phone out of it, but we’re thinking about our extras”

It would be a fun exercise to consider what will be in the “standard citizen package” and how the identification of the base package would infuence the way people felt about it.  This is potentially the bit that people pay council tax for.  It’s also interesting to think about whether the “standard citizen package”, if we were thinking about it in these consumerist terms, is what we will end up with after many more years of cuts – I suspect not.  In terms of the narrative behind this dialogue it would be interesting to speculate on whether the “standard citizen package” was re-established after failure of universal services due to the pressures on demand-led ones.

The ID phone notion is intended to prompt a question of how people will feel about their data being used commercially.  In this version of reality clearly people are quite relaxed about it, much as we are now relaxed about what facebook knows about us based on content we give it freely.  I suspect that if councils – and commercial organisations – were able to use the data provided by mobile phones about peoples’ location and activity then this would generate enough “value” for (many) people to get the phones for free.  I think this will either happen or definitively not happen long before 2043, but this was a way of injecting that idea.

“I always go for the health care plus”

I called this “social care plus” in my first draft but someone pointed out to me that “social care” is a label that local government people use so I decided that if it were ever marketed it would more likely have a health label.

“What do you get in that one?”

“Well you get your credits towards the dementia insurance, health checks and double credits for using the leisure centre once a week, so that’s included”

The notion of dementia insurance came to me after hearing Andy Burnham at the LGA saying that the current means-tested funding for elderly social care was essentially a “dementia tax”.  The health checks and double credits for staying fit are a quick nod in the direction of incentivised demand management/prevention.  Maybe we’ll be sufficiently far-sighted to have free leisure centres by then, though I suspect that people will value it more if they feel they are paying for it.

“Mary gets the dementia insurance credits for us both through her work policy, so we’ll do pay as you go on the leisure centre, but we’re thinking about getting the waste booster”

If we are all insuring ourselves against the costs of dementia in some way then there will probably be many options for that.

The use of the terminology of mobile phone packages is deliberate.  It seems to be the way we tend to think of services now:  A core “headline price” service to which you get to add things based on your particular need.  A form of self-funded personalisation?

I can see a story for local government that finds its core offering reduced and reduced and that the only way of getting more citizen money into the system is to start charging for things individually (unless anyone has the political courage and persuasion skills to convince people that “taxation is the price of admission to a fair society”).  If it’s done right, and if it’s done in a way that people recognise and value, it might work.  You get your standard citizen package out of your council tax, but extras cost.  If councils had to justify the value of those extras, and innovate in how they were provided and packaged to ensure that it was aligned with actual citizen need then that might not be a bad thing – especially if in doing so they got additional resources?

“What does that one get you?”

“Choose the day of the week for collection, though we’ll probably go with the default option to get a discount on that; double collections and a tree at Christmas, unlimited cardboard and they sort your recycling for you”

This is what I would pay more for.  As someone said to me though, we’ll probably have automatic recycling separation for everyone long before then.

“That’s just lazy, we get the kids to do ours, to earn their pocket money.”

I put in a mild swear word here which got censored at the suggestion of a colleague!

“Yeah, well we’ve got to decide where to get our advice package from, because we’re going to want help applying for schools, and we’re thinking about putting in an application for a conservatory”

This is building up to the last notion I wanted to insert- the idea that “consumer-led” local authorities might actually compete with each other in some respects. I don’t think we’ll get competition for core services (that standard citizen package again, perhaps) but if we get into a world where advice services are an extra cost, then why wouldn’t I be able to choose where I get that advice from, since location doesn’t really matter?  And if I were wanting some professional advice on applying for schools I might prefer to buy it from someone independent but expert – like another local authority?

“What have you narrowed it down to?”

“Well we used to get our advice package from Staffordshire when we lived in the black country, but now that we live in Dalston we’re thinking of getting it from somewhere more local, like Barnet … their app gets 5 stars in the govstore, and it’s only £500 a month”

I am assuming a degree of inflation!  And that sterling remains a thing.

“Nice one. ”

What I haven’t commented on in any of this is the strength or otherwise of civic society and social cohesion, the state of local democracy in general, social media, the use of other sectors in service provision and a host of other things that would be relevant and might underly this little dialogue.  The ommission doesn’t mean that I think there won’t be any of those things.   It meant I had 300 words!  And I had a hunch that those areas would be covered by others that LGiU would ask!