I have mixed feelings about a day spent at Reboot Britain. I am glad I went: I saw some interesting material and had some interesting conversations. But I also found it quite frustrating. The event as a whole seemed perpetually to be on the verge of breaking into a rich discussion, but it never quite happened (except to some extent on the extensive Twitter back channel) – so I kept feeling that I was in a building full of bright and interesting people, most of whom were not able to contribute much. More importantly, though, I felt, in the end that it was less than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps the rebooting metaphor was more apt than was intended. The point of rebooting is not to create something new or different; it is to restore something old and well established to its original state – which is not, I think, the ambition of most of those involved with Reboot Britain.
But that’s not to say that some of the individual sessions and speakers were not very good indeed. Since for quite a large part of the day there were seven parallel sessions running, no two people’s experience will have been quite the same. Some of the highlights for me were:
- Martha Lane Fox, speaking about her new role as digital inclusion champion – an adroit balance of insight and recognition that this is a new area for her, dispelling any thought that this might be a token appointment. She had some telling figures: 80% of government interactions are with the poorest 25% of people who are much less likely to be online; being online correlates with 10% higher earnings and 25% higher confidence (though it would be nice to see the detail to be clear what is driving what).
- Craig Newmark, who casually observed that it was over three hours since he had done any actual customer service, before noting that Craigslist is self-policing in the same way that the streets are self-policing – in other words, most people behave well most of the time, members of the community can enforce social norms and call for backup if that doesn’t work, allowing the ‘professional’ police force to be very small: Craigslist has a total staff of thirty supporting 50 million monthly users and 40 million new adverts. Craig’s account reminded me of William Davies’ post a few months ago on policing in Hackney
- Antonio Gould and Matt Marsh who did a splendid double act on commissioning services with a user-led approach. Antonio managed to put neatly into words a thought that I have been expressing much more clumsily, ‘Designing for ourselves is easy. Designing for other people is hard.’ I will be coming back to some of their thoughts when, as I hope, some of their visual material becomes available.
- Dominic Campbell, Emer Coleman and Andy Sawford who were all thought provoking on a panel about local government, despite the fact – or rather because – remarkably little of what they had to say was particularly specific to local government.
In the end, I am left with some sympathy with Julian Dobson’s assessment from a distance:
The aim is to ‘explore how can we take advantage of the radically networked digital world we now live in to help revive our economy, rebuild our democratic structures and improve public services’. It’s a noble aim, so good luck to them.
But let’s get real. A huge amount of what’s happening in social media is the usual educated, well connected middle class people talking to other educated, well connected middle class people.
More good things will no doubt emerge as presentation material and videos of some of the main sessions start to emerge over the coming days. The thought in my mind as I left the conference, though, was that while I have no doubt of the transformative power of the internet or of the fact that we are only at the early stages of seeing the effect of that power on government (or rather more, at this stage, on politics, which is not the same thing), we shouldn’t underestimate the resilience, for good or ill, of institutions and the processes they support and are supported by.