Influencing government through pressure groups and protests has been common practice within society for centuries. Alternative (and potentially more direct and powerful) methods of impacting authority and creating positive good for people are increasingly coming to the fore, however. These methods- which can be both constructive and destructive- use technology rather than letter-writing or marching as their tool.
Less well documented, however, are the more ‘constructive’ or less controversial efforts by a group affectionately named the ‘gov-geeks.’ This term encompasses a huge amount of organisations (such as FutureGov), groups of people, events, and individuals (too many to name!- but some are listed here), who sit outside of government but who are doing great things by actively influencing and improving government through technology. These people enjoy and actively go out of their way to help improve society for others. It’s cheesy but I’ll say it anyway- they have the ‘gov bug’.
The gov-geeks are not a new group, and their efforts aren’t completely unpublicised (some of them were responsible for a platform that helped save lives following the Haiti earthquake, and recently one 16 year old individual’s hack-day app was taken on by Number 10, for example). In the main, however, they are a quiet yet ever bubbling presence that influences through doing, not just talking. Their increasing presence is obvious just from the number of technology/ government related (but not affiliated) events that have taken place in the UK over the last year:
UK Gov Camp (January 2011- the fourth annual event of its kind)
Rewired State (numerous throughout the year, including Young Rewired State)
Open Gov Data Camp (November 2010)
CityCamp London (October 2010, with a Manchester event currently being organised)
ScotGovCamp (July 2010)
Local by Social (June 2010)
LocalGovCamp (various including Yorkshire and the Humber, and London in February 2010)
Hyperlocal camps (various, including West Midlands)
Note- this post refers specifically to events and trends within the UK. Equally interesting things are happening in the US (for example through Obama’s data.gov and the City of Manor) and around the world, but I’ll save them for another post.
It is clear that the enthusiasm is there, and that people with talent are getting organised. It is also clear that in many situations the individuals involved are able to ‘just do it’ and have a positive impact without much aid or engagement from political leaders. There does appear to be some frustration from attendees, however, due to the continued lack of senior individuals who are learning from and engaging with such groups and events. This is described as a key input by (local) gov 2.0 champion Dominic Campbell, and evidenced in both a previous blog post about attendance at CityCamp London and in tweets such as this:
Now, my first reaction to this observation was to decry the lack of engagement as a travesty, and to state that what engagement there is is currently not managed intelligently or at a sufficient level to enable the participants to feel they are making the difference they have the potential to. My outburst went on to suggest that that this demonstrates a lack of understanding about the insight and help that is being offered and the potential influence the groups can have. Discussing the matter with Dave Briggs has encouraged me to look at it from a different angle, however. Dave suggests that the lack of involvement isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and that it may even have benefits:
“All the groups and initiatives you describe are ‘un-organised’ and that is a part of their charm and the reason they work… the process has to be a careful one, for if GovCamp were to be overrun by senior management, the tone would change dramatically and the event might collapse under itself.”
I agree that it’s a hard mix to get right- you want certain people to hear about what’s going on, but don’t want them to take over or intimidate those involved. So appropriate engagement (not controlling, but engaging and listening) is key. On this topic, Dave proposes:
“What’s required isn’t for the managers to come to GovCamp, but for them to put into place proper innovation processes to allow the people who do go to flourish, to act on the inspiration and ideas they get on the day, to actually make the change they need to.”
In other words it’s the support and the provision of tools- the enablers– that are most needed. The Directgov- led Innovation Hub and (less so, but it had potential) the Spending Challenge website demonstrate a start, but they are only a start. I still think that some amount of direct involvement is essential to highlight what’s going on and how it can help; processes take time, and observing and interacting is immediate and can accelerate the introduction of formal processes. Inputs from the likes of Tom Watson MP and Mark O’Neil (CIO of DCMS and DCLG) are great but there are so many other people who should be listening.
Will the recognition and ease of input to government increase? Yes- inevitably: such groups and events are, as Dave concludes, “growing in size and popularity… to the point where it is difficult for the leaders to ignore them.” Whether the change will continue to be push rather than pull, and whether an event (lets not forget the skills and reach that these groups possess, and the infectious enthusiasm the participants have) will accelerate matters remains to be seen.
Written with many thanks to Dave Briggs and his relentless optimism!