The UKGovwebBarcamp this weekend, at which civil servants who work on government web sites got together with consultants, contractors and freelances, could help start a round of creative small-scale collaborations to improve public online services.
The way the event came together sets the scene for how this may happen: it was a great example of how people can self-organise to create the topics they want to talk about, and then get together for a blend of presentations, round-tables and chats in the coffee area.
Jeremy Gould, who is head of Internet communications at the Ministry of Justice, put an enormous amount of work in to move things forward, starting last November. Anyone interested signed up to a wiki and a Google group for online discussion, and on Saturday morning turned up at Google HQ not knowing quite what would happen. That was deliberate, because the first task after a round of introductions (name, organisation and three tags/keywords) was to fill a whiteboard with sticky notes setting out the agenda in 20-30 minute slots. (photo below by Jason Cartright)
It worked on Saturday, partly because some of those attending knew it would, based on experience at other Barcamps. You just need some simple guidelines and confidence in people's ability to self-organise in the way they will at Open Space events.
I won't try and capture session discussions here, because others are doing that very well - particularly Dave Briggs. You can find other reports here because bloggers are tagging their posts UKGovwebBarcamp and Technorati indexes them all. You'll find a set of photos contributed by participants on Flickr. Relevant web sites are here, videos here on YouTube, and instant (Twitter) messages here.
You don't have to go to all these different places on the web because they are all pulled together in Pageflakes. If someone adds another blog post, photo, video about the event it is automatically fed in there through RSS feeds.
Just as people who, in many cases, hadn't met before were able to self-organise a terrific event on the day, so they we able during and afterwards to self-organise collaborative reporting. Well, with a bit of help from Dave Briggs who created the Pageflake.
The alternative approach to all of this would have been to hire an event organiser and designer, pay for the venue, commission a web site, print out programmes and signs, ask for Powerpoint presentations two weeks in advance, sit people down in rows .... you know the sort of thing. I don't go to them any more. Costly to organise, boring to attend.
Of course there are other ways to organise highly successful events with a mix of the planned and spontaneous. Preparation and structure is needed if you are looking for some specific outcomes. Open space events don't just happen: they require very skilled hosting. A well-designed and edited web site helps people find good stuff quickly.
As usual it is a matter of choosing the meetings and communications technology appropriate to your purpose.
Two things make me hopeful that further collaborations will follow:
First, the fact that people were able to put names to faces - as Jeremy Gould highlights in the video I shot near the end of the event. People who previously read a blog in their field with interest now feel they can call up and suggest meeting for a coffee. (That is, if they can access blogs. I gather many Government departments block civil servants from reading blog sites and other "frivolous" content. Good stuff coming out of UKGovwebBarcamp may help IT managers to relax the rules, at least for communications staff.)
Secondly, there were some specific proposals in one session for turning informal discussions into real problem-solving and development activities. One question asked from the government side was whether consultants would be prepared to go into government departments and join knowledge-sharing workshops without being paid, and without making a marketing pitch. Some of us nodded. If you are putting your ideas and experience into the public domain by blogging, it is a small step - and even more rewarding - to go and talk to someone who may be able to put it to use. You start a relationship, and learn more about the needs of that Government department. You can't by-pass the procurement processes on big jobs, of course, but you are better informed. You may get paid for the next workshop out of the training budget.
Jeremy has now emphasised the opportunities (and conditions) for collaboration on his blog:
We need to find ways to make partnership between those inside and those around government easier - and promote it as as an alternative method to trying to do everything ourselves. We don’t know all the answers individually, but as a collective we can get closer to the ideal solutions.
If we in government want to innovate more, we should also behave more like innovators. The format and style of the barcamp was great and encouraged collaboration and thinking differently. There are other types of gathering and ideas generation techniques that should consider trying - like mini-barcamps, open coffee meets, social media clubs, geek dinners etc. Anything that gets us all out of the day to day work environment is a good thing (probably).
He adds: "Question is, how do now we sustain the momentum generated on the day?"
No immediate answer, but my hunch is that a few people are working on it. Just keep checking in with the Pageflake.
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