Open Gov (?)

I”ve just got round to processing my thoughts on the OpenGov Event which happened on Wednesday.  Here’s my synopsis, but the #opengov Twitter feed is worth a read, as are some other write-ups here, here and eventually here.

The keynote was Alex Butler, Director of Transformational Strategy at the Central Office of Information, whose main point was that they movers and shakers in government still don’t get ‘It’ (i.e. the web as a tool for citizen participation).  She suggested less talk about technology and more talk about participation to get the big-wigs on board.  She also revealed that the COI has set up an R&D budget to be more experimental, meaning more freedom to work with smaller suppliers, news which sent the audience a-twittering.

Stand-out clangers of the day were mostly dropped by Paul Evans, who said ‘active citizens’ (i.e. those that readily participate) are usually wealthy, obsessive and time rich.  They are, in Paul’s view, not as useful as passive citizens and their opinions should be disregarded, an opinion which I think is elitist, bureaucratic and a bit dangerous.  Paul’s other gem of wisdom was that eavesdropping on people is a good idea so you can find out what people are thinking.  Another bit of lunacy there – no one likes being eavesdropped upon.  It’s creepy.  If you want to know what people are thinking, go to where they’re hanging out online, let them know you’re there and you’d just like to hear their opinions, shut up and listen to them, and participate when it feels right to or you’re invited to comment.

Luckily, other speakers had some useful things to say.

Dave Briggs made the very good point that the perceived ‘digital divide’ is too often used by government to avoid engaging at all.  Just because there is a minority of citizens that aren’t on the web, it doesn’t mean the majority should be denied the opportunity online.

I might be Tim Davies‘s newest fan – he made some brilliant points, like reminding us that most people in local authorities can’t access the web tools for citizen participation at work and they don’t have a policy that encourages them to experiment (he’s actually done a big long list of hurdles for local government in this area).  He also talked about the need to use creative methods internally as a way to encourage staff to be more creative when engaging externally.  I absolutely agree with that as I think role-modelling behaviour is one of the most powerful tools we have (it can also be translated as ‘get your own house in order before you start bossing citizens around’).  Another great comment was that officers fear that citizens won’t participate online.  Tim pointed out that government has often failed to engage offline (take the woefully small numbers of citizens who go to local area forum meetings) Tim’s point:  It’s not new to fail but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Paul Clarke reckoned that the IBMs and KPMGs of this world should be participating in the debate since they’ve got most of the government contracts (there was one attendee from IBM to be fair…)  He then incurred the wrath of the back-channel by collectively describing those of us that did attend as ‘fringe’.  Maybe that was a bit insensitive but I can see his point.  Having worked at one of said big players in the government market until recently, I can say the reason they weren’t at the conference is because THEY DON’T GET IT.  What’s more, we don’t need them to get it – we need them to get out of our way.

One of the coolest comments of the day came from Jonathan Akwue, who gave us a lesson in being ‘street’ and reminded us that the development of the web is a bit like the development of hip hop.  I’m not as cool as that, but much to my surprise I did seem to get some retweeting of this comment.

One final thought, on a theme I’ll return to in the future.  It was once again a mostly male audience at the event, with women making up about 20% of the crowd (notwithstanding the female keynote at this particular event).  Women have so much to offer this industry (or whatever we’re calling the social/government/innovation/web ‘space’ these days) but they’re rarely involved and I’ve no idea why.  In fact it seems like no one really knows.  I went to the London Girl Geek Dinner for the first time this week and joined Silicon Stilettos (which anyone who’s ever seen my trainer collection will find hilarious) so let’s just say I’m investigating and I’ll post my findings on this here blog…

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3 Responses to “Open Gov (?)”

  1. timgdavies Says:

    Hey Carrie

    Many thanks for these notes – and for your twitter comments on the backchannel on the day which added a really useful balance to some of the discussion…

    I think you have picked out the key issue about the dynamics of change in this area:

    – Is this innovation which will need big players to scale it up?

    – Or does the rise of social media mean the end of the big players in provision of online government to citizens – as organisations simply too inflexible to ever meet the needs here?

    I was struck in other discussions by the realisation that there may be places for big players (predominantly the data-processing, highly scalable transactional services like Car Tax back-office systems) and that they may need to be brought to the table at some point – but it’s the way and role in which they come to the table that will make the difference…

  2. paulclarke Says:

    One of the reasons why the big player presence is so important is that enterprise technology decisions are still dominated by a big-is-best ethos. It probably isn’t true, but those who’ve sat in an enterprise ICT strategy role will know the temptation that lies in bundling as much as possible to one player (or consortium) for quite a long time. It may well stifle innovation, but compared to the horrors of inter-supplier feuding, misfitting interfaces and responsibility gaps, it can still sometimes look like the Promised Land.

    So I’m taking it as a given that the entirety of major systems procurement philosophy isn’t immediately about to change because technology now opens up new possibilities. And therefore I want to foster understanding of what these possibilities may be in those who, in reality, are still sitting at the top table, running the desktop, scaling the networks, investing in device refresh, whatever whatever…

    And perhaps to just balance the comments on Paul E’s contributions a little, I heard ‘eavesdrop’ with a less sinister slant: being aware of where conversations are happening, and taking note of them so as to be able to improve things – but recognising that it isn’t always easy for government to be genuinely *in* a conversation – there are still issues of resource and propriety to contend with. And to respect that sometimes government should know when to keep a certain distance from direct engagement in order not to stifle those conversations from happening at all.

    The Cabinet Office guidelines on social media participation were crafted in part to help do this – to enable government people to be in places they previously weren’t, but recognising that there may be some practical limits on how this is (and should be) actually achieved.

  3. OpenGov / we are social Says:

    […] conference was covered live by Andy Powell and has been written up by Carrie Bishop, so I won’t go into the day in detail, but Alex Butler’s contributions were a real highlight […]

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