I Love #LocalGovCamp

Yesterday I was at 2012’s LocalGovCamp at Maple House, Birmingham.

I started the day on the wrong foot – way too near the start of introductions line. Even though I knew it was coming I couldn’t marshall my thoughts into giving my single word about why I was there. All I could think of was Nick’s (@psfnick) profane suggestion from the previous night.

The words I should have chosen

Relapse. I didn’t go to UKGovCamp because I’d begun to feel like a fraud. As much as I’d contributed beyond my job title in Hull my roles had never gone hand in glove with unconference conversations. So I’d go along and hear great things, maybe contribute an opinion or two of my own but then return to work and be unable to execute anything. When the next event rolled round I wouldn’t have anything to share, or any progress to report.

There is something recharging about being exposed to a collection of brilliant minds with a blank canvas invited to share and think and plan and do but as much as sectoral camaraderie is a great thing there’s little point if it ends up as talking and not doing. And that’s all my contribution felt like.

First-love. Nevertheless I had missed it so made sure to nab a ticket early on so at the very least I could give it to a colleague within Hull City Council. And then when I got this role at Government Digital Service giving away that ticket looked all the more appropriate – is this a localgovcamp for local people?

I’m glad I didn’t give it away because whilst my time working on GOV.UK is exciting, challenging and fulfilling it’s local government that I love. This is where public services become tangible and real people get involved. Whether my involvement with GDS extends beyond these 5 months or not I’m on loan to the centre, not permanently transferred for ever more.

So  I was at LocalGovCamp in my own personal capacity, not on behalf of GDS and nor are any of my opinions about local government digital reflective of any land grab from central government.

Sessions

Hacking Culture

I kicked off the day hearing about Monmouthshire. They’ve done some things that have had external attention – MonmouthpediA, opening up social media –  but Esko (@Reinikainen) was sharing the hidden stuff about internal culture change and radically rethinking the working environment for local government. It’s no panacea and they’re not there yet but the picture he painted of their vision is exciting and the kind of place where people would thrive – and so would the services the public can access.

Esko has used Storify to collate comments and content related to this session. It’s well worth your time – Culture Hacking session at #localgovcamp – Esko Reinikainen.

Building perfect platforms

Then I joined James’ (@jacattell) session about the work he’s part of in Birmingham to build an open data platform. This was a session that I wish Adam (@adamjennison) or Eddie (@pseudograph) could have made because of what they’re planning along the Humber. Two observations:

  • The InstantAtlas data observatory might be a helpful data catalogue for local authority research teams it is not fit for purpose as an open data platform.
  • Open is about internal value just as much as external accountability and scrutiny – Warwickshire have a beautiful approach in thinking less about open platforms and more about open systems. It’s the same philosophy that underpins Adam’s work with APIs for Hull City Council.

Lunch

During the perfect platforms session I met Giuseppe (@puntofisso), Mark (@markiliffe) and Matthew (@Skinner_M) and we continued our discussions over the best govcamp lunch I’ve ever had. It was really good to hear about a project called Taarifa which Mark and Giuseppe are involved with for the World Bank in mapping Dar-es-Salaam with slums and toilets. The approach they’ve taken is laying the foundations for open data in Tanzania.

Project Maple

Blogging about the single government domain and its implications for local government are part of the reason I’m now at GDS. So when Matt (@mafjohnson) made the suggestion of having a single local government platform I knew there would be one fixture in my schedule. He led the session with Stuart (@pezholio) stating the obvious truth that too much time, effort and money is bound up servicing local infrastructure and local platforms doing the same stuff with small enough difference as to make sharing impossible.

I read of one authority who was enthusiastically budgeting £40,000 to build a mobile version of their site. When you bring the Local Government Multiplier into play (x436) that’s a potential £16m market just to duplicate a website with a mobile front end and not even get into the underlying architecture preventing local government from being digital by default*.

They want to do something about that.

The extreme end of their spectrum, a single local government domain, was felt to be a bit of an impossible dream but the room was taken with the idea of local government components that could be shared, deployed and maintained across the country for the standard things (this is an excellent, and timely, blogpost from MySociety about exactly this approach on an international scale).

Bins are always the first place our thinking turns but Vicky (@vickysargent) highlighted care home services as needing this same treatment. Were the whole 45 minute session handed over to a wall and post-it notes I think we could probably come up with plenty of different needs that are handled in similar ways across local government. As a starting point,  GOV.UK has 124 ‘local transactions’ that will be handing people off to a local website in order to complete their visit.

A component approach provides a platform but it requires the focus to be on datasets and standards rather than technology (it’s all part of local open data). So Project Maple suggests that instead of curating and managing a local bin day collection checker thing councils publish datasets according to a common schema, present them through the same platform (hosted on the G-Cloud) and built as an open source community that will encourage people to develop new features that are contributed nationwide at a stroke rather than having to wait for the next round of procurement.

It’s ambitious but my opinions on this are obvious 🙂

I look forward to where the group of people in that room take Project Maple.

* that doesn’t mean abandoning analogue channels and forcing everybody online through a smart phone.

Taarifa

I really wanted to go to the session about this but ended up spending the whole session talking but if you pitch up at an unconference expecting to have planned out your day from beginning to end you’ll be disappointed. This goes on the pile of things I want to investigate further.

What next for #lgovsm?/#wewillgather

I’ve dipped in and out of #lgovsm since its inception by Lou (@loulouk) a couple of years ago. I found its original Friday lunchtime suited me a bit better than its current Tuesday evening slot but Tom (@tomsprints), James (@jacattell) and John (@johnpopham) have done an excellent job at picking up the baton and it’s a very valuable resource for the sector – having 6 chief executives and a chief constable participating in such an open forum is a brilliant endorsement of the concept – get involved if you haven’t already.

I dipped out part way through that session because I was also interested in hearing from Lloyd (@lloyddavis) about another hashtag – #wewillgather. Inspired by the self-organising that took place in the wake of the riots, working with V-Inspired and building on previous attempts at doing something similar,  like FlockLocal, this is a platform to help people come together in a place to do some good. It’s brilliant. Keep an eye out for it when it launches in September.

Booze

Any mind filling day should always end with space to carry on chatting over drinks. It was great to make real life contact with those I’d only ever known virtually and to do that thing of meeting someone you hadn’t previously ‘known’ via social media. It was also fantastic to see familiar faces again and share life and laughter with them.

This year seemed to be something of a transition with many of those who have inspired and encouraged me over the last 3 years absent for a whole host of reasons. There are others but I want to mention Al (@al_osaur), Andy (@abeeken), Carl (@carlhaggerty), Hadley (@hadleybeeman), Ingrid (@ingridk), Liz (@Liz_Azyan), Ken (@keneastwood), Kev (@kevupnorth) and Sarah (@sarahlay) because my love for localgovcamp is in large part down to these guys who I’ve enjoyed learning from and who I missed yesterday.

Final thanks and all the kudos has to go to Dave (@davebriggs) for pulling off a fantastic event again.

About Benjamin Welby

Hi, I'm Benjamin Welby. I'm a displaced northerner currently living in Croydon, I church with a group of Christians who meet in a Soho nightclub on Wednesdays and I support Bradford City. I've an academic background in History, Politics and International Development. I work for the Government Digital Service but I left my heart in local government. This blog is infrequently updated and may feature any, all or none of these things...

  • johnpopham

    Good stuff, sir!

    I wasn’t there yesterday, because I decided that, after a particularly hectic few weeks, I needed a Saturday at home, combined with the opportunity to do a bit of filming at the Huddersfield Carnival. Of course, I immediately regretted that decision when I saw the tweets coming out of Maple House, but then you can’t do every awesome event, it eventually gets too exhausting.

    I’m interested in your comment about the internal cultural changing stuff at Monmouthshire being “hidden”. I’m sure it is, and maybe that’s a necessary feature of it, but I also think these things need to be shared too, and yesterday is hopefully a start of that. Culture change is possibly the most difficult issue we face; without it, all the progress talked about at events like LocalGovCamp will remain the province of a few committed evangelists. All local authorities face very similar issues in this respect, and some mutual support in breaking down the barriers has to be a good thing.

    • bmwelby

      Thanks for commenting John, did the sun shine on Huddersfield?

      Esko was very keen to welcome people to Monmouthshire to see what’s going on but it’s evident that the conditions are suitable for them to explore the things they are. It’s not hidden out of necessity but hidden because it’s the nuts and bolts.

      One of the things I really liked about yesterday was that there were these tangible things being discussed but you’re absolutely right – how does this get out from the choir, not in a talk given to suits at a conference but in a way that gives other authorities the confidence to take it forward and effect the changes that we’d love to see?

      • johnpopham

        Actually, the sun did shine on Huddersfield most of the time. If you’re interested, the videos I shot are on my Youtube channel http://www.youtube.com/syfec1

        Maybe we should delegate people to speak at traditional conferences about the benefits of the unconference, and gradually chip away at the traditional edifice that way…

      • Thanks for the write up Ben, and for the comment John. Absolutely ‘hidden’ as in the innards of the thing rather than anything we wish to remain out of sight. In fact, one of our stated goals is to evolve our project into an open development process where anyone can contribute. In order to do that we have to get better at showing external partners what we are doing, and I hope the session was a step in the right direction.

        We also always have one eye on the potential for replication of the tools and ideas we are playing with across the wider public sector in the UK and beyond. When we are looking at areas for improvement, we try to see the issue from the immediate context of Monmouthshire, but also to understand the implications at larger scales, and how those factors might influence our choices when developing solutions.

        My dream is that someday we will have a much larger, distributed, and engaged sounding board when we tackle really hard problems…

  • Matthew

    Interesting blog.

    If you were to spend a morning with a works unit planning a bin collection schedule you would soon realise that asking them to complete a data submission in a standard format is unrealistic. Multiply that by several hundred services and a single localgov website seems unlikely at best.

    • bmwelby

      Thanks for commenting, I don’t think anybody was suggesting that it would be easy!

      One of the areas where I worked for Hull City Council was Streetscene Services. As with other local authorities HCC provide a way for residents to put in their postcode and house number and find the day of when their bin will be collected. That is already underpinned by a dataset. I see no reason why that data could not be made public.

      Shame you’ve posted anonymously as we’ll never be able to compare notes as to the success, or otherwise, of Project Maple.

      • Matthew

        You should have my email 🙂

  • Tom Phillips

    Very much agree with your perspective on it, Ben. Like you, I’ve moved outside local gov, and spend my time largely in the voluntary sector these days. However, my roots are forever embedded in local government, like yours.

    Thanks for the kind words about #lgovsm. The session was a great chance to peer review a few points. A few more regulars attending would have been good, though.

    And I agree with you about absentees. Several who I missed very much.

  • Re the sharing of local government web/transaction components, my contribution was based on the work I do with Socitm on Better connected (the annual survey of the usefulness/usability of all council websites), its Website takeup service (monitoring satisfaction and takeup of online services) and Channel Value benchmarking, where we are looking at the cost and usage of key channels to help councils prepare for channel shift.



    Socitm’s purpose in doing all this is to highlight best practice and encourage others to learn from it, and certainly this does happen. But not nearly on the scale it needs to, and here’s why:
    


    – the failings of many council services on the web are to do with the design of the back office, legacy systems that transactional capability depends on, or because these are poorly integrated with the web front end, as Stuart (@pezholio) pointed out early in the session.
    

- the people who buy these systems are not web teams, and may not even be the IT team – very often they are service teams whose decisions have not, historically, been governed by any drive to ‘digital by default’ (ie services to be designed first for online).
    

- in most councils (with some notable exceptions) web teams have little power and are in no position to drive a digital by default strategy. This is in sharp contrast to the power GDS appears to have gained to influence Whitehall’s IT strategy and therefore the redesign of transactions


    – after years of significant national funding and resources to get planning applications and schools admissions online, these now account for only 54% and 62% of all the total. 



    Should we be depressed? Well I do think there is progress being made at last, and the advent of GDS and discussion of ‘digital by default’ is helping, although Whitehall cannot tell local government how to run its business or its IT, and frankly, given its own track record…..well lets not go there.



    Socitm has done some detailed investigations into the online presentation of library services, planning, council tax payments and social care. We are sharing these with any software suppliers willing to listen (it goes without saying that we share all this with local authorities through Better connected and related activities) and we starting to having some constructive conversations.



    We’d be keen to pitch what we know about web performance and software packages in use (we also run the Applications Register of software products and services used by local authorities and other local public services) to take Project Maple forward.

    My Socitm colleague Martin Greenwood, made the following comment, when I shared this discussion with him:

    There is lots of scope for shed applications, information and facilities across UK council websites, but people must not forget that local authorities are rightly independent organisations, local issues and branding are critical and long may that continue. I personally am not in favour of the single.gov domain across local gov for these reasons. Much less is wasted in current duplication than would be if we went for a centralised model that didn’t work (and that would inevitably be the case, as with the big NHS IT project under the previous administration)

    • bmwelby

      Thanks Vicky, SOCITM have been visible in their pursuit of helping local authoritie see the wisdom of channel shift and provide the necessary research and hard facts that help sway the argument.

      Martin makes a good point but I think it’s one that’s about how councils engage (and which will always be localised) rather than one which justifies the preservation of the often duplicated infrastructure which underpins transactions.

      Bottom line, given the economic conditions we’re facing, and the speed with which technology could be deployed I can’t be anything but haunted by the Local Authority Multiplier.

      • There is scope in developing a web content platform that is designed with the needs of local authories and their customers. That was, I thought, the premise of the session. It would be an ambitious tasks and, as I pointed out, we’ve had a not so great experience of trying joint procurement of a CMS. The procurement went fine, but there was no shared development beyond that: a missed opportunity in my estimation.

        I also made the point – perhaps I was a bit too negative – that in the current climate the key issue for many web teams is not the content platform though we’d all like something beter suited to 2012. Weve got a major battle in getting better focused content. But, more fundamentally, we’re having to deal with those legacy third party web bolt-ons that are not fit for purpose.

        I’d like to see energies directed at getting procurement for the bolt-ons right. Collectively, we have huge buying power and we shuold no longer have to put up with terribly designed/coded software from suppliers that have little incentive to improve.

        The conversation about getting around the third party bolt-ons by scraping/linking data – I think this was the jist – was very interesting. It would be a challenge when many of us in small districts are struggling to come to terms with the whole open data concept. (Personally, I’m an open data advocate; and that’s winning me few friends.)

        Martin is right about preserving identity, our Leaders will remind us of this. On the other hand, Ben hits the nail on the head. When the direction of travel – whether we like it or not – is shared services, why are we duplicating effort?

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