GovCamp Cymru took place in Cardiff on Friday the 23rd of June 2023.
This is a summary of the sessions I attended on the day and some post event related thoughts.
Up front I just wanted to say a big thanks to the volunteers who made the whole thing happen, and especially those who return year on year. Congrats on another well run and inspiring event.
GovCamp Cymru is an unconference for those interested in reimagning public services in Wales. If you’re unfamiliar with the unconference format, there are some good explainers below…
Session 1 – Hacking service design
The first session of the day was a chat about the common problems that pop up when trying to design services in a way that recognise the needs of the people who use them.
Common blockers that the group identfied included…
- Assuming people’s needs are captured and fully understood
- Starting with a preferred solution in mind before understanding the problem
- Lacking skills and capablities to do the right thing and do the thing right
- Politics (with both a small and large P)
- Time pressures to do something quickly
- Fear about asking people want they want, because it might not be deliverable
One of the valuable things from sessions like these is seeing and hearing that this tricky stuff isn’t specific any one one organisation. And of course, no organisation sets out to actively make bad services, but it’s often the established internal structures that accidentally get in the way of creating or changing services that meet people’s needs.
In the last 20 minutes of the session, the group tried to come up with some ways to overcome these blockers.
Someone also mentioned using the concept of risky assumptions to get underneath internal stakeholder opinions and what the presumed outcome or benefit would be. “If we did X what do you think that would give you? Why do you want that?”. If user research has been collected, this is an opportunity to either show that the data supports the hypothesis, or challenge if it does not. As someone mentioned, it’s difficult to cling to an option when you have hard data that shows the contrary. And if you don’t have the data, it could be a compelling reason to go an collect it rather than operately blindly on assumptions.
I sense this session could’ve easily run for double the time, but one of the core principles of unconferences is that when it’s over, it’s over. An interesting start to a longer conversation. To be continued, hopefully!
Session 2 – My own personal “quiet camp”
One of the things that I really like about unconfrences is that you have complete agency in how you experience the day. I’m an introvert at heart, and whilst I can be outwardly chatty, it’s powered by a modestly sized battery. Once that battery is depleted, I need to retreat to a quiet place to decompress and recharge.
Having drained my battery too quickly last year, I deliberately paced myself by choosing to duck out of sessions to take things a bit slower and preserve my energy. Unconferences operate on the principle of the law of mobility, sometimes to referred to as the law of two feet. This states if you feel at any point you’re not contributing, you are encouraged to get up and leave without it feeling rude. It’s a simple rule but it’s incredibly freeing! If you ever go to an unconference, I encourage you to try it.
So, I spent the second session of the day sipping coffee and doing some life admin in order to decompress a little before diving back in.
Session 3 – Why is collaboration and communication still a challenge?
Next I went to a session that touched upon the fact that we’ve got a wealth of tools to communicate and collaborate, but it’s seemingly no easier to work together. Either within teams, between them and especially not between organisations.
We talked a little bit about recognising that communication and collaboration are two different things. One participant pointed out that the reason collabration often fails is that the two groups involved often have competing priorities.
There was also some recognition that it’s mostly not a problem with the tools. Collaboration is built on relationships and trust. Without these things, it’ll be very difficult to work meaningfully together. Whilst tools can certainly help work toward this, it requires intention to do so.
We then talked about specific tools and why some are successful whilst others are not. People recognised that things like Microsoft Teams are fairly ubiquitous across the public sectors, but are generally very poorly used. Some people who work in smaller organisations commented that they have a really difficult time working with larger organisations who use Teams, either because of technical barriers or because it was clunky to use.
Someone who was used to work across multiple organisations commented that all tools can be learned, but they had often witness that people just aren’t sufficiently trained or given any guidelines about how to get the value out of what they’ve been given.
The conversation then moved on to asynchronous modes of work, and ways to collaborate without having to pull people into meetings or calls. Again, people in smaller organisations or teams said that this tended to be their default mode of work and it reduced the amount of interruptions they experienced through the working day and let them schedule their time more effectively. Someone who worked in a large organistion commented that meeting culture was a major source of distruption.
We touched briefly on the idea that a fully blocked out calendar with meetings is often percieved as a sign of productivity, when in fact it could be viewed as an absence of time management and prioritisation. I suppose it depends on the nature of your work.
We talked about different people’s working preferences and what the ettiquiet was with regards to messaging people. Some people were able to communicate boundaries that they’d agreed in their teams. For example, if I’m showing as busy please don’t message me.
Because we’re all really different when it comes to communication preferences, I floated using User Manuals as a way to help people understand how best to work together. You would typically figure this out once you’ve spent a decent bit of time working with someone, but the user manual approach helps speed this process up.
I captured some thoughts and unattributed quotes from the session, which you can read via the Twitter thread below.
Session 4 – Productive or regenerative? Are there lessons we can learn from nature?
I typically like to end an unconference on a session that’s related to a big idea or concept, and this looked right up my street. Outside of the tiredness that accompanies the winter months, I’d not really given much thought to how nature impacts work. Seems incredibly obvious in retrospect, but we hardly ever talk about it in a work context outside … “Ooo.. the nights are drawing in!”.
We started off talking about the structures we put in our organisations for the purposes of efficiency, but then thinking about how they might work against the seasons and our own biological rhythms. The example given is that we often set deadlines in the run up to Christmas, which is also a time where our energy levels are naturally lower. In Scandanavian countries, the working day is longer or shorter depending on warm and light it is.
The group then talked about the importance of green space on people’s mental health and well-being. The questions was asked about how many people have access to green space during their working day. There were mixed responses, with some saying they were lucky to have a park close to the office. The group reflected that compared to the period through the pandemic, when people were much more intentional about taking walks during the working day, the feeling of being too busy had reasserted itself. People don’t seem to have the time.
One person recounted a story about a senior person in their workplace being very open about taking time out of the working day to walk their dog. Not just because it was good for the dog, but because it was good for them too. They said that they felt it gave them permission to create this space for themselves. So perhaps their something here about people in leadership positions modelling the behaviour for others?
Someone asked if perhaps our attitude to work had changed post pandemic. A questioning of whether being workers and consumers is enough, or was there more to life. The group was quick to acknowledge that this is probably a question that’s reserved for the privilidged. There are plenty of people who are working longer and harder to survive, such is the state of inequality in society at the moment.
Someone also observed that old styles of management and leadership negatively shape our workplaces. We need more progressive models of leadership that recognise people are more productive when their health and wellbeing are treated with importance. Although, someone countered this with a view that we don’t need to treat people better just because it’s good for the companies bottom line, we should do it because it’s the right thing to do.
We concluded the session by discussing the impact of growth, or perhaps the idea that we can continue to expect endless growth without consequence, has on some or all of the things we’d been talking about. The point was made that perhaps we need to start imagining a way of life that’s not about growth. Due to climate change, it’s likely we’ll be forced into this position eventually. So instead, why not see it as a positive opportunity now?
Twitter thread of thoughts below!
I’m not sure how many GovCamp Cymru’s I’ve now attended. I know that next year will be the 10th anniversary and I think I’ve been to most of them. With that in mind, I deliberately went to this years event with the intention to talk less, listen more and generally make space for others.
It was really encouraging to see that approximately 50% of attendees were first timers, which bodes well for the future of GovCamp Cymru. I have always been really impressed by the thought that goes into the design of the day to make it a warm and welcoming environment for the attendees.
This year is probably the first time where I’ve felt the slight curse of being a veteran unconference goer. Whilst there were lots of new and interesting topics that appeared on the session board, there were also some that were familiar from previous years. And that’s not a critcism, because it’s bound to happen when people bring challenges that are a byproduct of how most of our organisations are traditionally configured. It did make me wonder if there’s a way to better connect conversations and people across the years.
I know some other communities have chosen things like whatsapp, telegram or LinkedIn groups to keep in touch around a topic. I’m a member of multiple realtime chat/message type things, and I openly admit I’m terrible at keeping up with them for reasons I can’t quite fathom. I think I personally prefer the format of forums, which I know is a bit old school, but something about it being more structured, more searchable and less fluid appeals to me and the way my brain works.
As it stands, sessions can be emphemeral in nature. In that once people leave they might not cross paths again unless they are particularly compelled to take each other’s details. Perhaps even more so ephemeral with the social media landscape shifting. Twitter used to be my tool of choice for curating the network of people doing interesting or related things. With Elon doing his best to implode it, that’s fragmented things to a degree that I now find it much harder to curate a list of people to follow.
Perhaps it’s okay that it’s emphemeral? Talking about this with someone, they reminded me that making things more transparent and searchable might make it less safe for people to talk about the hard things related to their organisations, which is a valid point. There’s a tension between making this community more open and keeping it pschologically safe for people to talk about problems and formulate action. I’m not sure what the answer is, but it deserves more thought.
And the reason I think it deserves more thought is that whilst the unconference format is brilliant for connecting people and sparking ideas, I wonder if there’s an unmet need in terms of helping those same people take the next step and testing or implementing those ideas. Whilst writing this I was pondering what Open Space Technology had to say on the subject. Some light digging around turned up this quote…
Feedback and implementation structures are important to carry the suggestions forward after the event itself.https://involve.org.uk/resources/methods/open-space-technology
I think it’s worth recognising that this is a really hard bit to get right. Not only do you need the space and energy to do something different from the norm, you may also need to build and maintain a relationship with somone else if it’s a collaborative effort. And as we established earlier in this post, competing priorities inside our organisation will often kill collaborative efforts outside of them.
However, without testing interesting ideas they remain just that, interesting ideas. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be another event, maybe it could be just enough added structure to help people self organise and take action? Again.. just thinking out loud.
I hope this doesn’t give the impression that I’m down on the unconference format. Compared to the majority of conferences I’ve been to, it’s provides an excellent return on investment for my time and almost zero money. It remains one of my highlights of the year and reasserts my belief that there are plenty of people who want to connect the dots across the Welsh public and not for profit sectors to work smarter.
How might we keep those dots better connected between annual events?
Thanks for making it this far! You ooze stamina.