Government getting innovative online, at last

On the one hand these seem like golden days for government online innovation – with this last week in particular seeing new initiatives breaking out all over. But the reality is slight different on the ground.

This weekend saw the second annual UK Government Barcamp at the Ministry of Justice’s offices in central London yesterday, and by all accounts it was a great success with all the people attending really struck by the passion, enthusiasm and energy displayed. And yes, I really wish I’d been there myself instead of dealing with everyday “stuff”, but I did at least join in through the Twitter #ukgc09 backchannel and lobbed in a couple of contributions from afar, for what it was worth. A couple of my COI colleagues did attend, however, and I look forward to catching up with them this week to get their take on it all, as well as reading all the blog posts and seeing the pictures on Flickr.

One of the biggest bits of news was the unveiling of Directgov’s Innovate developer network, which is:

to inform the greater developer community about available resources, to provide a platform to connect with one another, and to showcase new ideas with the aim of supporting and encouraging innovation.

The site front end is – of course – a WordPress site, and very nice it looks too. What with the blog here and also the start of a Directgov Twitter account, all of a sudden Directgov is looking distinctly chatty and engaged with its public audience. One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard about Directgov before now – and made myself – is that they have been something of a monolithic closed shop, and this week’s developments completely turn that on its head.

Add to that more excellent ground breaking work from DIUS and the Power of Information Taskforce (PoIT) secretariat, who have just launched a commentable version of the PoIT Report for a two week feedback period, and it’s really looking as though Government’s finally getting the hang of this sort of thing. Even COI has seen the light, with the consultation on browser testing support having delivered new guidelines last week which are by all reactions far superior to the original draft unveiled in September 2008 to some pretty hostile responses. I’d still argue that some of that criticism missed the details, but the fact remains that those details were proven to be missable by all the feedback received, and so there were improvements to be made. Hopefully the way the finished guidelines take in all the feedback shows that COI really was keen on consultation and taking the results seriously – and acted accordingly. It’s great to see the final document so well received, and it’s thanks to getting on for a thousand individual responses who all contributed to the end result.

It certainly proved beyond surely anyone’s doubt that government consultation can not only work, but be invaluable in achieving the best quality result. But do all these green shoots mean that we now have a thriving culture of innovation in government, and there’s no stopping it? Well … sorry to be the gloomy one, but I don’t think it does. UKGC09 flatters the public sector by bring the very best, brightest and most committed public sector workers together. Unfortunately this group (and those of us spiritually in step if not physically present at BarCamp) is still a tiny proportion of the public sector, and an even tinier proportion of the key influencers, stakeholders and budget holders. The everyday truth is still that it still all too often feels like pushing large boulders up a very big hill to get organisations to even think about something like a blog. As for a Twitter channel? Forgetaboutit. Even a team as progressive and driven as Barack Obama’s, in America, can find that the bureaucracy and reality of power can drag down your drive for innovation to a mere crawl.

Reading about all the developments in UKGC09 this week gives me huge optimism for the future. But also, if I’m honest, a sense of frustration verging on depression about the current state of affairs I’m seeing on the ground day-to-day. But perhaps that’s the necessary state you have to get to, in order to find the drive and impetus to take today’s frustrations and turn them into tomorrow’s reality.


  1. Thanks for the link – just to be clear, the Power of Information Taskforce secretariat have been working with me to host the commentable report written by the Taskforce: this isn’t a DIUS endeavour. We’re just sharing our infrastructure 🙂

    But I agree about the positive vibes. As Simon says, if last year’s Barcamp was about possibilities, this year’s was about experiments. Hopefully next year’s will be about real systemic change.

  2. andrewlewin

    Thanks for the correction, I’ve amended that part of the post accordingly to make it accurate and not get anyone into trouble!

    It’s been great reading all the UKGC09 tweets, follow-up blogs and Flickr pictures. The positive vibes really do come across. Kudos to you and all the other people who brought it together – and contributed and attended of course, since that’s the point of BarCamp (i.e. its strength comes from all those attending.)

  3. I can understand the tempered optimism. As with last year, people who came along by definition were people who ‘get it’. As someone (I forget who) said, innovation in government could have been snuffed out completely if the building had collapsed!

    The world hasn’t changed. But we’ll only get to real change when we have collectively learned the basics. What’s happened so far may be small, but it’s enough to set precedents – and we’re making progress in areas which have often proved especially resistant (eg press work).

    PS I can’t help noticing that The Register haven’t followed up on the browser guidelines publication. Good news is no news, apparently.

  1. 1 Building on the Barcamp buzz at Helpful Technology

    […] Simon and Andrew (watching from afar), Saturday’s Barcamp left me feeling optimistic about the state of […]

  2. 2 Reflections on a barcamp: turning the conversation into action after ukgc09

    […] sincerely doubt we will be, as Emma and Andrew have said: we have all the ingredients here for a top un-secret formula and things are cooking up […]

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