Category Archives: Govcamp

Do you know the perfect venue for #GovCamp16?

A GovCamp is not a GovCamp without a venue and so the search begins….

We asked for feedback last year and the consensus was that a venue needed the following features:

Must haves

  • It needs to be available on Saturday 23 January 2016 – and yes the majority wanted it in London
  • Capacity in one space for 200 people – with chairs of course
  • 6-8 breakout spaces on the same level as the main space
  • An immaculate wifi set up
  • Projector screens – preferably two
  • Easy access – not an overly complicated security system with scanners etc
  • Toilets
  • Space for tables for food and sponsors
  • Lectern with microphone
  • Not ridiculously expensive
  • Easy to get to location preferably near a train or tube station
  • A recommendation from someone who has already used the venue

Nice to haves

  • A not massively complicated process to book the space and sign a contract with the venue
  • A cloakroom
  • An AV specialist from the venue available on the day
  • Flip charts
  • Access to venue the night before
  • Option to use in-house catering if not massively expensive


So that is our list – let us know if you have a great venue just waiting to play a starring role in #GovCamp16


@nickmhalliday @jaCattell @baskers or


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Why the perfect Govcamp (with coffee) is a mirage

Its interesting how after each govcamp some people say if only this was done or the format was revised etc it would be so much better.

Most of these seem to boil down to not using the unconference format.

For example:

  • why not have themed discussions agreed in advance?
  • why not have a big name speaker?
  • why not have the same venue each year?
  • where are the outcomes?
  • what has really changed afterwards?
  • why not have coffee in the morning?

The strength of the format is that it is open and gives everyone the chance to participate if they want and it is based around what people find interesting on the day itself. So why have a big name speaker what benefit would that serve? If you want that there are plenty of formal conferences.

It would be great (possibly) to have the same venue each year but this often depends on prior bookings, how much the host organisation want Govcamp back – did they get any benefits from the event – particularly if they provided the space for free? Is the key contact still working there?

What about the outcomes – well it depends what you mean by this? When are any outcomes delivered from any conference? Or even any meeting? It is pretty clear though that the outcome that was intended – that people have a space to talk, share knowledge and learn is achieved each year. That is without mentioning all the ideas generated that are followed up afterwards.

So what about the coffee? It’s worth remembering that it is not free. At some of the previous events the hosts such as IBM were incredibly generous and laid on tea, coffee and sandwiches in the morning. Where does the coffee come from – inhouse and there are staffing costs – outside and there are transportation, health & safety issues. So if coffee has to be paid for that means more money needs to be raised from sponsorship and should this be spent on coffee or building up money to seedfund other events, or help pay for the next govcamp?  What would you decide to do?

The nice thing about Govcamp is that people always want to discuss it afterwards and how to ‘improve’ it. Perhaps the point is that there is no perfect Govcamp and if this is discussed afterwards job done the conversation is continuing.

Govcamp is like an English country garden before Humphrey Repton ‘improved’ it – a bit wild, untamed, unkempt and natural. I like it that way and I suspect others do as well.


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Unconferences, unplugged and uncut

Have you ever been to one of those conferences where you spend a lot of money, sit in the audience, listen to ‘keynote speakers’ and wonder ‘what am I doing here, why did I ever think this was a good idea?’

If so, an unconference might be what you need without realising it.

So what is an unconference? Well to misquote ‘I am sorry I haven’t a clue’ its the antidote to conferences.

I am speaking (well writing) as one of the organisers of a large unconference Govcamp on 25 January which brought together 200 public sector digital people at the GLA. Here is a nice review of the event in Government Computing.

If you check your diary you will realise that 25 January was a Saturday. So the first point about unconferences is that they often take place at the weekend, though not always. It just tends to be easier to organise and helps people feel relaxed.

Why a Saturday? This is because attendees often are there because of a personal commitment to a topic not because someone told them to attend. Indeed the topic might not be directly related to their day job.

So who organises unconferences? Well not the typical conference organisors such a Kable who run them to make money. No, usually the organisors are very similar to the attendees, volunteers who want to draw together similarly interested parties to talk about common issues.

So for Govcamp the organisors met after work once a week to agree what to do next. Using the online project management software Basecamp also helped.

Who speaks at a unconference? Here is the wierd bit, potentially everyone who attends can speak but not in the traditional way. There are no invited speakers.

What happens is that at the start of the event everyone introduces themselves very briefly to the rest of the group. There then follows a pitching process. Anyone who feels inclines joins a queue at the front of the room to pitch a slot. For example someone might say ‘I would like to run a session on website user experience’. There is a quick show of hands from the audience to gauge interest and the size of the room needed.

After say 30 minutes all the pitches have been done and the various slots allocated to the available rooms – usually by sticking post-its on a big board. There can be a bit of negotiation between people if they want to join up a topic.

Then the sessions start. Everyone looks at the board and decides which session they would like to attend and goes to the respective rooms. There can be just as many people in a session who will be running a session later on as people who might not be. So on Saturday we had roughly 40 sessions.

The trick now is that once you are in a session there is no compulsion to stay if you get a bit bored or think that’s not what I expected, or I had better look into that other session that clashed but seemed relevant. Its the ‘rule of two feet’. You are free to circulate and those running the sessions expect people to drop in or out.

Perhaps this sounds like organised chaos? Not really and that’s what the organisers help co-ordinate.

So what is the result?

Well if you have a topic that you have worked on recently that you would like to share with other interested people you get a chance. If you have a range of interests you get a chance to learn a bit about something purely for you own needs. Equally as there are very rarely slides used there is a real conversation and exchange of ideas and views.

Typically there are as many conversations in the corridors and around coffee as in the sessions themselves. Many new friends are made and plans made for the future. Also Govcamp tends to pull together people who are parts of other specialist networks so its forms a glue to hold together the digital community in government (central and local).

Does this still sound odd?

I was very suspicious the first time I attended an unconference but I am a convert. Govcamp on Saturday was the seventh year in a row and has had massive positive feedback online since and there are clearly lots of new ideas being followed up. We are already working on next year’s event.

If you want to do something different why not try an unconference you might actually like it.

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So what did Govcamp ever do for us?

Its easy to pick holes in most things and I am pretty good at doing it myself.

Indeed it is also easy to find fault with Govcamp and the unconference format; and I can certainly see some things we can improve on regarding organising the event.

However that does sound a bit odd ‘organising an unconference’ but the thing I did learn from Govcamp is the amount of work that goes into finding the right kind of venue at the right kind of cost (even if venue is free security, cleaners and food are not). You would not believe the work that the whole team put in and their level of commitment to get everything right.

So what did Govcamp ever do for me?

Well I learnt more about working with volunteers around a common project where none of us had a particular grade or could ‘pull rank’. So trying to put aside egos and work as a true team was a great experience that I would totally recommend. I certainly gained a new respect for the others who I had often never worked with on any project. Their level of professionalism and eye for detail was impressive, never mind the personal time that they dedicated to the event.

As ever its the ‘backroom boys (and girls)’ who make these events tick. For example the security staff at the GLA were lovely, flexible and helpful; as well as the AV team and Leanne Florent from the GLA who was there all day and as a result set up her own Twitter account.

An open space

As Jeremy Gould said to me later the whole reason he started the event was to create the space for people to interact around common interests and issues. This is the pay-off every year.

Making introductions….

Being one of the organisers did make it harder to talk to people that at previous event still…I was able to have a quick catch up chat with a number of friends as they came through security.

I was able to show someone I had not met before a great resource for advice and tips around social recruitment and introduce him to another friend who is interested in the same topic.

A number of times I was able to say to someone ‘have you met x? let me introduce you’. Looking back this is the bit that gives the nice feeling.

Catching up…

Over lunch there were some great chats with colleagues from Parliament, National Statistics and the National Archives where a number of ideas were bounced around and plans hatched. Where else do you get the time to do this is a relaxed atmosphere?

Again wandering around between packing sandwiches and tidying up I kept coming across groups of people having chats, catch-ups, laughing etc.


After the torrential downpour we made our way over to the pub.

So even more chances to talk to other people. I have to say my personal highlight was talking to Jeremy for what seems like the first time properly. A real honour.

So what has Govcamp done for us?

Its brought more of us together; there were lots of new faces which is great; old friendships were renewed and new friends made. The digital community was refreshed for another year and the other networks such as those around the police or local or central government criss-crossed with the others.

You might have noticed I have not even mentioned all the breakout groups around specific topics where knowledge was shared and ideas generated.

So I reckon the Romans might have some competition in terms of the ‘what did the …… ever do for us’ stakes.


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