Another cold, damp Saturday in January, another bright warming day of Govcamp.
Today was my first @UKGovCamp and it was incredible: all these people wanting to come together on a Saturday to talk gov. Powerful and inspiring. And *loved* meeting so many online friends in the flesh! I’ve thoroughly out-Tiggered myself and need to go lie down!#ukgc18 pic.twitter.com/F0WIQnE1cT
— Jenny Vass (@JennyVass) January 20, 2018
Unconferences are by their nature somewhat random and formless in their nature, but looking below the surface of that randomness reveals patterns, both within any one event and across time. This post is about some of those patterns, and the directions that might point us in for the future.
The first session I went to this year was led by Clare Moriarty on action and atmospherics, in which she posed one of those questions which it is easy not to notice, but becomes overwhelmingly obvious as soon as it is pointed out. If we know what it is that needs doing, why is it so hard actually to do it? That question is of course a variant of a broader one: why is change so hard, even when it is clear that change is necessary? Not surprisingly, the question got a wide range of answers (with a sense of the conversation captured in this note). I offered the idea that it had a lot to do with relentlessness. It’s unrealistic to think that any single action will shift an organisation, but there is good reason to think that sustained action can do.
That’s for two main reasons. The first is that it always takes longer than you would think possible to get a message across: keep repeating yourself until tired of your own words and you might just be beginning to be heard. The second is more subtle, but even more important. In order for people to trust that change is real, they need to see that it is sustained and consistent, and that inevitably takes time – often quite a lot of time, particularly if, as is often the case, there is a history of the rhetoric of intended change falling well short of the experience of actual change. No one off event, however brilliant, will lead to sustained behaviour change – except perhaps among those who had a predisposition to make the change anyway. Leadership isn’t demonstrated by setting out a vision of a better future; it is demonstrated by consistently behaving in ways which help to get there.
Those long sweeps of change show up in Govcamp itself – and its history is now long enough for them to be clearly visible. I first went to Govcamp in 2010 and the notes I wrote then make for interesting reading (to me at least). There was the same sense of energy and commitment, there were some of the same names and the same topics. But while Govcamp has stayed the same, it has become very different. Back then, it was much more narrowly focused:
I found my concerns about personal data and transactions and about government as service provider rather than information broker feeling a bit on the margin.
But what was then on the margin has come to the centre. Digital perspectives, approaches and people still supply much of the energy of Govcamp, but the problems that energy is applied to are broader and deeper than those of the early years. That is emphatically not to criticise the pioneers who made amazing things happen then and sowed the seeds for much that has happened since. It is to make the point that relentlessness has had a very real effect, both as a reflection of changing times and very much as a contributor to the change.
As well as being more extensive of scope, Govcamp has become dramatically – and very deliberately – more inclusive of people. Govcamp has always been made new each year with a healthy influx of first time participants, but this year there was a much more active and explicit focus on welcoming, celebrating and supporting all participants. It is deeply admirable that everybody at Govcamp shares an ambition to make the world a better place. It is deeply heartening that that ambition is increasingly applied to Govcamp itself – and Govcamp is, of course, no more and no less than the people who make it up.
That is also a consequence of a decade of relentlessness. There were a lot more user researchers and service designers, for example – but that’s possible because there are many such people working in and with government now and there were none or very few not many years ago. Digital has evolved well beyond its technological roots, to the extent that Pete Grzeszczak led a session (which I didn’t manage to get to) on defining digital and considering whether to abandon the word. For what it’s worth, I think and have argued that the concept is becoming vacuous, but the point here is again that there isn’t a single sudden change, but the maturing of ideas and people which makes both problems and solutions look different.
Back in 2011, I described the people who came to Govcamp as starry eyed pragmatists. That still feels like a pretty good description. More recently I have taken to describing Govcamp as useless. That’s not a pejorative statement, on the contrary I think that uselessness is its undervalued strength. It’s a place for conversations to happen, for connections to be made, for a set of overlapping tribes to gain strength from coming together.
Completely invigorated by #ukgc18 yesterday – a wonderful annual recharge of the spirits to start the year
— Joshua Mouldey (@desire_line) January 21, 2018
Relentlessness is also about not giving up. For the last couple of years, Govcamp had been losing a little of its magic for me. This year it had returned in full. The frustration of choosing between sessions competing for attention felt more acute, and I deliberately chose to go to more sessions than slots, which adds both breadth and a different kind of frustration. In the time slot in which I was jointly leading a session, there were at least three others which I would almost rather have been at.
Govcamp looks effortlessly relaxed. That is of course an illusion. It takes an extraordinary amount of grinding hard work to pull off that illusion and we luxuriated in the care of an organising team at the top of their game. The fact that so many smart people saw that as a worthwhile thing to do makes a huge contribution to the virtuous circle of becoming even more worthwhile.
And so back to relentlessness
The idea of relentlessness can be seen as an admission of weakness or failure. Can we really do nothing but wait for change to play out over years, limited to minor influence at the margin?
There are three answers to that. The first is that there are big forces playing out and there is power in understanding them. Amara’s law states that:
We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.
The corollary (which I have just invented) is:
We tend to overestimate the pace of organisational change in the short turn and underestimate the impact of change in the long run.
There is nothing new or surprising about that, it’s been true of every technology driven change ever. Diane Coyle put it very well in a blog post a few years ago focused on the innovative impact of cars and electric motors:
With any new technology, people have a tendency to over-hype the short-term effects massively (so we get tech bubbles) and under-estimate the huge long-term effects (for example, that railways made urbanisation possible). The error of hype is because new technologies often have such great wow factors. The error of not noticing profound change is precisely because many people find it hard to see the cumulative effect of all the many contextual changes needed for a technology to be widely used.
The second answer is that we shouldn’t underestimate the power of relentlessness. Putting Amara’s law into reverse, while the pace of change can often feel frustratingly slow, we don’t have to look back very far to see a world which looks very different, and from which things have changed in just the ways which govcampers would want them to.
But the most important answer is that relentlessness is a strength. It is not a sufficient strength, but is a very necessary one. After a day of govcamping, I am feeling more relentless. I suspect that many others are too.