The sessions that I attended at UK GovCamp 2011 (UKGC11) were more formal than most at other GovCamps that I have attended over the last year. More people had prepared their talks, and some even had slides. The majority of time in a session was used by the one to three people leading the session to talk about the topic. They told us about something upon which they had been or are – or would be – working. There was a question-and-answer time after they had talked.
There was much more sense of senior or very knowledgeable people disseminating research, experience and ideas to others in the sessions. Outside and in between the sessions were corridors full of people meeting, greeting and discussing.
I mentioned in an earlier post how the issue of differences in scale kept occurring to me during the day. There was a lot of discussion about switching from being locked into long contracts with big companies for the supply of goverment technology services to a more nimble approach (if the company is not performing as well as required, the government switches to another supplier).
Suppliers like juggernauts or Harrier Jump Jets?
Ok, so not the best simile given that the Harriers have been decommissioned but, you get the flavour?
One of the reasons always given in the past was that it was necessary to have a large company to supply services because the scale at which they do things means that they can achieve greater savings, which are reflected in the cost of the contract. Having used the services supplied by big companies in the past, I have never been totally convinced by this argument.
It is clearly important to use a company that is big enough to be able to store back-ups of data in more than one physical location, miles apart (and, yes, I have had to have that discussion with colleagues in the past: ‘what do we do to ensure continuity of our public service if we get blown up’).
On the other hand, in the past, I (and colleagues) have lost so many days of work, waiting for the contractor to send out their engineers to fix a problem, and occasionally finding that the software ‘engineer’ knew less than we did. We also spent a lot of time working out how to hold the company to account, and a consultant was brought in for a year or so just to deal with that. Cheap hardware is not necessarily cost-effective either. There were the self-combusting screens… but I digress a little.
It has made sense to me for years that local and national government could and should use open source software. It will not be the best choice for all purposes, but excellent for some. The question of whether it is more cost-effective needs to be considered. It should be more sustainable, however. Being tied in to one type of software can mean that few people know how to alter it. It can be a major task (to put it mildly) to migrate the data or content to another system. Sometimes, companies get taken over or go into administration, and the few people who wrote the code for the system disappear.
Using open source means that there are plenty of people who understand the coding, and that problems are shared, issues are logged. Open source communities are usually cooperative. There are manuals, guides and tuition on how to use the more common open software programmes so anyone can learn how to use Joomla, for example, for no or minimal cost.
I am very conscious that people are probably re-designing the wheel every week. Something I kept hearing in the conversations around me was how people did not know that an organisation had found a solution, a way of doing things to fix the same issues as they had. The number of people who know how to do more than relatively basic IT things can be small in a small local authority or other public organisation.
1) Shadows (ghosts in the machine?)
I think that it would be very useful if there were a shadowing scheme.
Normally, shadowing schemes are done to give someone who know nothing about a job or type of work a better idea of what it is, of course. I think that it would be of great benefit to all if central and local government digital people (with knowledge and experience) shadowed each other for a day or two. It might be that a local government communications officer gains a better understanding of the way in which databases and people connect information in central government. A CIO might learn a lot more about the barriers that face those trying to implement technology solutions in local authorities and might be able to suggest ways of overcoming them.
I say “might” but, having seen something of both sides, I am sure that it would be very beneficial and productive (and low cost).
2) The Big Public Services Workshop
Why not have a day (or 2) of workshops at least once a year?
I do not mean the kind of training provided by people who are trained to train but know little of the software, and nothing of how to use it in context. I mean workshops led by those who are experienced at the coal face of public digital services, whether it be as a project manager, a coder, a communications officer, web manager, etc.
I have a vision of people getting together in a building with a common space and rooms around it where there are tables, chairs, a digital projector, wifi. People could bring their own laptops. One room could be how to use Drupal, another on how to get the best out of Facebook, a third on how set up useful metadata, another on using maps with data, advice on issues to consider such as preservation… Those attending could just drop into sessions – or slide out again and find another if they decide the topic is at too basic or advanced a level for their needs.
3) Cross-domain conversation within public sector
This could be included in suggestions 1 and/or 2 above, but I wanted to make it explicit. Talk to, or shadow, or bring into workshops:
a) the digital people from public culture – the museums, galleries, libraries and archives people (national, regional and local), the Collections Trust;
b) and maybe people from the national academic digital organisations such as JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee), VADS (Visual Arts Data Service), ADS (Archaeology Data Service), the Digital Preservation Coalition, or EDINA.
They could give different slants on provision of information technology in a different but not totally dissimilar environment. They have set or worked to common sets of data standards and aim for the same or similar principles of accessibility, sustainability and interoperability of data.
From what I was hearing in the discussions at UKGC11, it would be beneficial if there were greater awareness of the issues and standards.
People from libraries and museums could provide advice to others on how they could connect and work with the hard-to-reach people, and those who do not have a computer at home. They could be helped to argue for access to Social Web resources on the Internet for work purposes.
4) Public services technology online community
This seems so obvious, I keep thinking that it must have been done – but I cannot find it. A web resource for public organisations that gathers together news, events advice, tutorials, case studies etc on digital issues. A lot of the issues are the same across the sector.
For example, it could include examples of local and central government social media guidelines, website style guidelines, ordered links (generally using pre-agreed simple tags) to tutorial videos or slideshows. It could point at appropriate metadata. I am thinking of something that can provide advice for the not-technological as well as the people who dream in binary.
It would have the accessibility and spirit of a GovCamp, and share experience of doing things very specifically in the environment of public services. People would need to find information or a case study on a topic quickly and easily, or point them in the right direction for help or further tuition if necessary.
It would need some resources if it were to work properly but could be done relatively cheaply and could save a lot of time and money.
Last reflections on UKGC11
There were conversations about people feeling somewhat frustrated at progress on the digital front in the public sector. There were other conversations that seemed to suggest people do not understand fully the big gap between the digitally-literate and everyone else.
We need to understand better what the barriers are and how we can overcome them. Maybe we also need to be more clear-sighted about what the reality is, rather than just believe the positive hype (necessary to encourage people to gain digital literacy, but not always useful when planning strategy to achieve the next stage).
Some examples of progress I have observed (and some history)
We are progressing. Sometimes we go so fast that I wonder if anyone has paused for breath as they run ahead. Some days, the rate of change seems geological. I was very tempted to ask at UKGC11 if the notorious Internet Explorer 6 were still being used in the offices of any present. By now, it should be the topic only of humorous horror tales told by the elderly to the wide-eyed young in the comfort and warmth by the fireside in a pub after a GovCamp.
In 2002, library staff were learning the basics of using Microsoft Office, using the Web and how to e-mail. I remember that the Local Studies and Family History Centre staff had access to two computers at the time, and one of those was the manager’s, so effectively most of them shared one. Neither of the PCs were in great shape. They did their courses but then did not have the chance to use their newly-gained IT skills. They got the hang of e-mails quite quickly because quite a few people were already e-mailing the library, including those researching their British family roots from North America and Australasia.
I am sure that the same thing was happening in other libraries. Nobody had thought to set up a fund to give public libraries grants for staff computers as well as computers for the public. Library staff skills would have improved faster if they had had the equipment. They could then have passed on more skills to more of the public coming into the library to learn basic computer skills.
Around 2004 and 2005, I was helping NEMLAC (the North East Museums Libraries and Archives Council) to promote the great, free online resources created by the region’s cultural institutions and universities for the public. These had been funded primarily by the NOF-Digitise (New Opportunities Fund) programme and HLF (Heritage Lottery Fund).
The Government was encouraging creation of such resources to provide good quality (and educational) content to tempt the public to use computers. Ordinary people going into public libraries were a little bemused to be greeted by people talking to them about the Web. They were aware of computers because they saw them on television and their children or grandchildren had talked about using them at school. They took our postcards because they thought that the printed pictures would be useful for the children’s school projects. It seemed frustratingly slow progress at the time.
I realised even at that time that it would be a long job to win hearts and minds. There is progress though. Now I find that people in the street, at the bus stop, in cafés, in shops have computers and use them. The sign above was just one that I found in a café recently.
East Coast Trains are having to upgrade their wifi because so many people use it that it is cracking under the strain.
Long before wifi, I started using a laptop on the East Coast Mainline around 1992. There was rarely anyone else with a laptop on the same train at that time. Now there is insufficient room on tables for all the tech equipment people want to use on trains.
Four years ago, I used the wifi regularly to access the Web on my laptop, and could be sure of getting 50 to 60 minutes of uninterrupted signal that was good enough for most of my work. By last year, it was so slow and spasmodic that I had to give up most of the time.
A few days after UKGC11, I presented a case study at a UKOLN workshop, ‘The Social Web: Opportunities in Difficult Times.‘ The participants were from libraries and museums. We could not use any live demonstrations of the Social Web because access to any site we could think of was blocked. It seemed as if nothing had changed in the year since I was last at such workshops, doing some research for a report on barriers to cultural institutions using social media.
Yet I know that there has been change because I see the evidence daily of far more museums, galleries, and libraries on Facebook and Twitter. Some use them as broadcast channels rather than opportunities for dialogue, but even for them to be able to use such services is a sign of the start of cultural change in local government.
We need the change to happen faster, but we can use the examples of those doing it now to encourage adoption by others.
Why stress the inclusion of cultural institutions?
The cultural institutions are amongst the most outward-facing of the public services. It is an intrinsic part of their role to communicate with the public. Museums, galleries, libraries and historic sites have been working hard at trying to connect with all elements of the society they serve and to engage with communities.
Much of the development of relationships is done offline, but increasingly that works in tandem with their online connections. They have the advantage of being able to be seen as fun and entertaining places rather than dealing with something unpleasant like taxes. They have made the effort to think about how to communicate, how to reach ordinary people. They have not all got it right but their techniques, approaches and experiments could provide useful examples and inspiration to other areas of the public sector.
Personal apology and thanks
I found the noise level in the main area where people met during the lunchbreak became too loud for me to shout loud enough to be heard. I retreated to a quieter area which meant, sadly, I did not talk to as many people as I would have liked. It did, however, give me the opportunity to catch up with Aine McGuire (we had first met at Rewired Culture in spring 2010) and find out how Scraperwiki is going forward.
Thank you very much to the people who were especially kind to me on Saturday afternoon and evening, including Eddie Coates-Madden (aka @Pseudograph), Carrie Bishop (@carriebish), Paul Clarke (@paul_clarke), Anke Holst (@the_anke) and Lloyd Davis (@LloydDavis – and no relation). Also to Lesley Thomson (@lelil) who was at UKGC11 but with whom I finally chatted on the Monday.
I am not sure whether I will be able to attend any more of these events this year, but I hope I can. They are an extremely useful way of exchanging ideas and starting off conversations and actions to be carried on beyond the events.