Govcamp 2012

I like govcamp

I like govcamp because I meet people I know

I like govcamp because I meet people I don’t know

I like govcamp because there are lots of people who were there the year before

I like govcamp because there are lots of people who weren’t

I like govcamp because there are sessions about things I am interested in

I like govcamp because there are sessions about things I didn’t know I was interested in

I like govcamp because I can walk out of sessions I didn’t know I wasn’t interested in

I like govcamp because I can create the sessions I want to be interested in

I like govcamp because I don’t have to be in a session at all

I like govcamp because there are so many parallel sessions that it’s unlikely that any two people experience the same event

I like govcamp because there are so few parallel sessions that the rate of cross-fertilisation remains high

I like govcamp because it is starting to have history and in jokes

I like govcamp because it reinvents itself each year

All of that is prompted by James Cattell who started a debate this morning on how we should plan for UK Govcamp 2014, asking very sensibly whether we want more of the same or something different.

The case for more of the same is a strong one. Govcamp works. There is nothing else quite like it. People still want to come and value having been. Much of the richness is in the interaction, and much of the interaction happens between and across sessions. In a world of online social interaction, physical presence still matters. The unconference model is a powerful approach which always looks as though it won’t work, but somehow always does.

The case for change is strong too. Too much continuity risks ending up being a bit too cosy. Govcamp is all talk and no consequence – itself an topic of fierce debate at the last one. Too many people are excluded because the structure does not scale to meet demand or because it is too difficult or too costly to get there. The world in which govcamp came into being has changed dramatically and it risks rehearsing the arguments of the last five years rather than finding the direction for the next five.

There is a lot more which could be said on both sides of the argument, but there is a sleight of hand in presenting it like that: it isn’t an all or nothing question, and I suspect most of the actual or prospective govcamp community will want to see a balance.

I think there may be a more important but much less obvious distinction to be made, between substance and culture (which is almost certainly not the right word, but I can’t immediately think of a better one). The substance could pretty much all be done differently. People don’t all have to be in the same physical room to have a rich conversation. People don’t have to introduce themselves by standing up one by one and sharing thirty second sound bites. Jason Cobb’s response when I raised the question on twitter shows that line of thought perfectly:

So let’s focus on that small part of the event for a moment. What is it for? What does it do? What would be lost if it didn’t happen, or happened in an asynchronous online way, such as the one Jason suggests?

As a way of finding out who is in the room, the round of introductions is grotesquely inefficient. Indeed, it is so obviously inefficient, that that can’t possibly be what it is for. And it isn’t. I think the introductions achieve three things:

  • they create energy, buzz and humour, which are important to get the event off on the right foot, the more so precisely because there is otherwise no plenary, no coming together of the whole group
  • they help people spot the faces they are looking out for, to put faces to avatars and names to faces
  • they set the tone and pace for the agenda setting session which follows and which in one sense is the heart of an unconference.

The point is emphatically not that the way it has been done is the only way to do it. It is that if you just concentrate on the ostensible purpose, there’s a lot which can be missed.

The same is true of other aspects of the govcamp experience. Of course it could be partly virtualised, with a network of locations all connected with each other. But what does that do to the law of two feet, or to the serendipitous encounters over coffee? Does it on balance enrich or degrade the quality of the experience?

So questions such as how we find ways of letting govcamp grow to meet demand and whether it would be better moved out of London are good ones to be asking. But we need to ask first what has made govcamp successful so far and what we want it to be in the future.

I like govcamp because it’s unlike almost every other meeting and event I go to in the rest of the year

I like govcamp because it has a strong drive to make itself better

I like govcamp

Update 2 July: Lloyd Davis has written an exquisite post on the debate about the future of govcamp – of much wider relevance and interest than just to govcamp itself. The broader debate continues.

Picture by Ann Kempster, licensed under creative commons


  1. Good blog post, Stefan!

    A discussion has started on the UKGovCamp newsgroup.

    Looks like there is traction for multiple venues, each limited to 200 people.

    The interesting question for me is how to manage the ticketing? Current ideas are: –

    1) Standard “per venue” tickets, released in batches, with a waiting list
    2) Above, with the addition of “just turn up” parallel alternative venue in a public space
    3) Centrally managed “venue preference” system, a la UCAS
    4) Lottery, with tickets apportioned to different sectors, e.g. 3rd sector, LocalGov, GOVUK
    5) Some mind-boggling combination of the above.

    You know, I’m so glad I kicked this discussion off a full 6 months before the actual event, cause 3, 4 and 5 and going to take some serious planning and/or coding.

    All thoughts welcome over in the UKGovCamp newsgroup, please.


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