The Tower 09 conference a week ago was interesting , a slightly smaller follow on to the bigger and brasher event a year ago.  It was a curious event – quite a lot of good stuff, but in a format which feels increasingly old fashioned, and with a very strange sense of its place in the world.

Tom Watson opened with a good speech, of which both text and video can be found on the Cabinet Office website,  and which  included a quietly revolutionary line:

Fifteen months ago, Power of Information was yet another document lying in the middle of our Whitehall in-trays.  Now, I consider it the blueprint for the core business of government.

John Hoggard liveblogged the whole thing and there was plenty of back channel conversationRichard Allan, Steph Gray and Ed Mayo provided rich food for thought.   Mervyn Davies made a really powerful speech, linking his past experience as a company director to his current experience as a minister. So why did it all feel a bit frustrating?

Part of it was that at an event which was all about engagement, responsiveness, collaboration and co-production it seemed particularly odd to be sitting silently watching presentations, with a few minutes of roving mic Q&A to end each session.  I talked to Richard in the break, who said it now felt very strange to him being on a stage doing a monologue, and we agreed that we wanted something that wasn’t quite a bar camp or unconference,  but certainly wasn’t a traditional conference either.

Part of it was that at an event which was all about communication, opening up data, allowing people to repurpose and build on what others have done, the material is all locked away.  The links two paragraphs back are all to blogs and bios, not to anything to do with the event.  I have just had an email with a link to the presentations, but with a stern warning that they are only for attendees and are hidden behind a user name and password, a reflection of the old view that value comes from scarcity, rather than abundance.  Lord Davies’ speech seems lost altogether – he didn’t use slides, and there is no reference to it on BERR’s lists of speeches and press notices.

And part of it was that at an event which was about people connecting and communicating more efficiently, using opportunities created by technology, but where the technology itself is in an important sense incidental, the conference was described on the brand new Cabinet Office digital engagement blog as ‘a joint Cabinet Office/Intellect conference on Government IT’.  Well, yes.  But no.  Really no.  Government IT is a huge and important subject, but this wasn’t a conference about it.

None of which is to say that it was all bad.  Quite the contrary, lots of stimulating good ideas – and I will reflect on some of them in a separate post.


  1. Timely reminder of the gap between instinct and emotion…the instinct to be open and engaged and an emotional tie to a set of reflexive professional behaviours that will be very hard to shake off

  2. Interesting, and you’re quite right. I was interested to see, when I got back to the office, just how much comment and reach the event seemed to have had beyond the people in the room – though I’m not sure how many of those in the room are aware of that.
    From my perspective, it was good to speak to people I didn’t know already from Twitter (there are too many events I go to where I’m amongst old friends). Ultimately – and perhaps cynically – I think there’s a stronger chance of effecting change in public services with the audience in that room than with the inspiring and enthusiastic debate I have with people through social media.
    Why *not* try a barcamp-style format with that crowd? OK, maybe it needs a few pre-planned sessions. But the idea of bring-something-to-share, smaller groups, less structure feels like something that would move the discussion on more quickly, and harness that enthusiasm. We almost got there with All Together Now ( a few weeks ago, mixing policy officials, innovators and broadcasters to inspire and provoke discussion.
    Follow up that kind of event with Teacamp style meetups monthly afterwards to keep up the momentum and provide social support for the group?

  3. I think you are absolutely right that the audience in the room was an important one (which also means that the proper customer-focused question is what works for them) and that there is a risk that the power of the social media conversation risks distorting perceptions of who is not part of it – which not entirely coincidentally is the subject of a post I will be finishing later today.

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