Unconferences Can’t Move Gov 2.0 Forward

I’ve run for partisan political office a couple of times. Traditional politics is in my mind akin to cultish religion. You must be intensely devoted to the cause,often to exclusion of others with diverse views and at the expense of diverse experience. On many levels,it is not pleasant for me,and I won’t here explore why I keep doing it. I start with traditional politics because I want to strike a contrast to a new egalitarian mode based on social and technical innovation.

Gov 2.0,in my advocacy,is use of emerging technologies to promote a more transparent,efficient and collaborative government. Gov 2.0,in its co-creations by citizens,bureaucrats and entrepreneurs,represents a dramatic remaking of traditional governance power structures through information sharing,low-cost and open source tools,and increased participation.

As a mass movement,Gov 2.0 is very young and green.

The title of this post is a bit of a misnomer (link bait,yes). Unconferences can move Gov 2.0 forward,but only from its infancy. As we develop maturity models for Gov 2.0,we need to create new models for community events. This is what we are grappling with after San Francisco’s first CityCamp last fall. CityCampSF wasn’t the first San Francisco-based unconference around Gov 2.0 themes;the organizers of the 2009 California Data Camp helped with outreach for CityCampSF and both unconferences used the same event space. CityCampSF also drew participants from SF GovLoop meetups and the internal City government crowdsourcing campaign InnovateSF.

CityCampSF was an “open space”style unconference. We were successful in bringing together more than 75 people around the theme of civic innovation,and many useful connections were forged. However,despite a number of online channels for continued dialog and participation,the handful of action items identified and the people brought together around the event quickly diffused. Just a few months later,individual organizers don’t know much about how folks who met at the camp are working together or what projects it has sparked or helped grow.

CityCamp is modeled after a number of similar events,including Government 2.0 Camp. But Gov 2.0 Camp was two years ago and its wiki hasn’t been updated in 21 months –it is an important historical event,but it is history.

Another unconference-style event,CrisisCamp,is doing much better,buoyed by a formalized parent group,CrisisCommons,which recently secured a $1.2 million grant to foster and staff its work in creating innovative solutions for crisis response and global development.

More traditionally styled Gov 2.0 conferences continue as well,including Tim O’Reilly’s Gov 2.0 Summit and Expo,Sarah Schacht’s Open Gov West and Alan Silberberg’s Gov 2.0 LA. CityCamp is also booming,with locally organized events taking off in cities around the world. There is a clear need for low-cost,participant-driven events in the Gov 2.0 space and BarCamp and unconference-styled events help fulfill that need. But there is also a real need for new event models that support progress in the greater Gov 2.0 corpus.

During Howard Dean’s presidential campaign,a radical local politician explained to me why he was backing the Dean campaign and stood with the Democratic Party despite core views that skewed left from the national organization:“It’s a good brand.”

Gov 2.0 is at this point a brand,and as yet a good one with a very decentralized power structure. Anyone who can compellingly present their vision within a broad umbrella of social tech and open government principles has a say in the future of the movement,and no pundit or corporation has successfully co-opted the brand. Gov 2.0 remains a grassroots movement largely absent any harmful locked-in features. It has advocates with left and right political views,united in concern that rigid legacy systems aren’t compatible with the fluid challenges of today’s globalized and uncertain world.

Amidst this tableau,San Francisco’s citycampers are looking at where we need to go next. We’ve had unconferences,what we need is a local brand to advance. In 2011 in San Francisco,we’re exploring alternative event formats and how to both grow and sustain a local Gov 2.0 tribe. We’re looking at event design to expose traditional advocates to the Gov 2.0 spirit,and to funnel energy into actionable plans. We’re considering regular informal meetups and collaboration with other groups to keep our community energized.

I’m interested in hearing what other citycampers are doing to keep their communities alive and to create outcomes,and to know what kind of role you think events play in advancing Gov 2.0 as a whole.

22 comments to Unconferences Can’t Move Gov 2.0 Forward

  • I’ve never attended a City Camp —but I’ve been to their ilk and the one thing that continues to frustrate me is the lack of innovation.

    I remember sitting in a Washington DC hotel with Andy Krzmarzick,Hillary Hartley,Micah Sifry,Gwynne Kostin,Helen Mosher,Lewis Shepherd,Brian Drake,Craig Newmark,and other folks you’ve likely connected with as we watched Tim O’Reilly interview this person and that person from the ballroom downstairs. We were in the so-called geek room,able to spread out with our laptops and netbooks and socialize while watching the Gov 2.0 Summit proceedings on closed-captioned TV.

    I remember who I met. I remember bits of what people said. But I remember nothing from the summit. I remember nothing from the so-called innovations that were hailed. In a comment at http://ariwriter.com/7-twitter-messages-encapsulating-g2s/ Gwynne wrote that the takeaway for her was to enrich her knowledge and grow.

    You nailed it,Adriel,that an unconference —or any event at any venue —can’t progress a movement. Gov 2.0 is a movement. It’s a version,and versions have nowhere to go but forward and be succeeded by other versions. But if we can learn,if we can grow,if we can mature from networking with each other,then the event can only be positive.


    P.S. If you’re going to reply to my comment,how will I know?

  • Oh,you tease!

    I was all ready to pile in on the strength of the blog title after having attended –and co-organised –barcamps that have been hugely inspiring.

    However,you do raise a good point that the impact of barcamps can be limited. Enthusiasts will go. So will the converted. But how do you get to the next level and get not just the suits to get engaged but those with a 9-5 ethos that really wouldn’t be seen dead talking about government on a Saturday morning or in theior own time.

  • Great post,awful linkbait title,as I’ve said elsewhere. Given the role camps have played,it seems pretty clear that they have moved Gov 2.0 forward,with respect to creating a venue for community discussion.

    That said,I agree with Dan. You make many good points about what happens next after a camp,and cite a key example in CrisisCommons.

    I’ve been to somewhere approaching 2 dozen camps and unconferences. I’ve learned a lot from them. I’ve made extraordinary connections. I’ve appreciated the self-organizing,self-selecting nature of the sessions and participants. I’ve seen how much diversity there can be in the quality of camps based upon the organizers,venues and attendees. Your point about limitations is important:it’s the “what happens next?”Were discussions captured on white boards,streamed online,documented in wikis or blogged? Or unconferences with a “FrienDA,”did the off the records conversations and connections between industry rivals results in better practices,cross pollination or even new companies or standards? Was the connection made between a virtual community of interest or practice cemented and continued? Were the resources shared made available online for the world to use?

    If you go to the wikis at CrisisCommons.org,you can see how that plays out. Compare that to,say,the activity that followed CongressCamp,which hosted terrific discussions and connected people but has of yet not had a clear outcome,although I think it’s clear that it educated some people on the issues.

    The questions you ask can just as easily be posed to whether *conferences* themselves “move [x] forward.”There’s a reason professionals from all verticals come together to meet,greet,share research,listen to leaders to exchange contact information. Education is definitely an important outcome,particularly in areas where there are many people who are unfamiliar with a given topic.

    I look forward to hearing more from you and the community think about the formats and infrastructure of the future.

    P.S. @Ari:The last time I heard about you,unconferences and their “ilk,”you’d cancelled on attending one,to the dismay of the community involved. I know a lot of people who were pretty blown away with the “innovation”on display at Transparency Camp last year,given the number of technologists and designers present. As for not remembering anything from Gov 2.0 Summit,that’s on you. Just off the top of my head,I remember OpenStreetMap,VirtualUSA,HealthSpottr and the first time I saw a Palantir demo.

    • Alex,I think the knowledge capture and dispersal of action items is what has me questioning where to go next. From Point A,unconferences are tremendously helpful,but it’s from B to C that needs work. I’m hoping to learn from the CrisisCommons folks when they are in the Bay Area,hopefully this spring. Thanks for sharing the best of your much more substantive experience in attending these events around the U.S.

  • Stimulating post,thank you.

    When we put on a barcamp we did concern ourselves about what to do to maintain momentum afterwards and we certainly have some ideas up our sleeves. We’re considering running something a bit smaller with a chosen group of colleagues to try and get a project off the ground and also running another barcamp with a different theme to it.

    I think at the moment we are typically influencing the managers of ten to twenty years time. Demonstrating our ideas to our current managers is proving a bit more difficult. There is a gap between the ideas and ways of working that we have and those of our more established colleagues that makes it necessary for us to demonstrate relevance of ours. And we haven’t got that last bit cracked. Yet.

    • Simon,it sounds like we’re grappling with some of the same issues and looking as similar solutions. Thanks for sharing,and I hope we can all learn how to bridge the working styles and implementation gap together.

  • I hear ya. I feel ya. I know where you’re going. I’ve been there &done that. But I respectfully disagree. Without getting into the whole value proposition of conferences and camps,here are my counterpoints from the perspective of unconferences and CityCamp:

    Goal 4 of CityCamp is not accidental. We have some work to do,but outcomes are integral to CityCamps. Most recently,CityCamp Colorado will result in a Local Open Government Directive template. CityCamp London hacked on public data and connected project developers to project backers. There are other examples on which we will report during the week of 1/24 (anniversary of the first CityCamp).

    It’s also not by accident that CityCamp is an “open source brand.”We want it to be “recognizable and repeatable for anyone to use.”Again,we have some work to do,but people like you are taking the fundamentals and sticking to them while innovating and localizing. We’re discovering what works. We’re recognizing areas where we need to improve. We’re innovating.

    I’m encouraged by the innovations taking place at CityCamp and other events. Stimulate,Participate,Collaborate is a great,meaningful slogan. Thank you very much Dominic Campbell. The political engagement initiative and the every-six-months schedule that came from CityCamp San Francisco will have a direct impact in A) the mainstream efficacy of local Gov 2.0 and B) increasing chances that initiatives can be sustained or run to completion after each event. CityCampDC took participants out into the neighborhoods of D.C.

    We are hacking data. We are pounding out policy positions. We are building online community around local Gov 2.0. We are making connections that last. We are moving Gov 2.0 forward.

    Another notable,from a conference vs. a camp:

    manor.govfresh resulted in the City of DeLeon getting a Gov 2.0 makeover. They can now doing things in DeLeon that they couldn’t do before. More significantly,DeLeon can do things we can’t do in bigger,“more sophisticated”cities. I don’t live in DeLeon,but I know they are syndicating public notices on Facebook from a content management system. That’s the real deal.

    This is to say nothing of the educational experiences and all of the many other benefits of camps and conferences. I know what you’re worried about. Totally apropos to gov,there’s even an acronym for it:BOGGSAATT –Bunch of Guys &Gals Sitting Around A Table Talking. Fear not.

    It’s clear that Gov 2.0 communities across the board are collectively exhaling. Or is it yawning? Or are we holding our breath? Something. This is perfectly natural but we have a lot more going than perhaps we realize.

    I’m not sure what you are implying with the reference to CrisisCommons. Clearly CrisisCommons is exemplary in translating events into actions and we should all strive in some measure to model their behavior.

    • Re:CrisisCommons,I see it as one of the few “Gov 2.0″-ish unconference event models that IS sustainable and funded. To some extent,we may be running into a bandwidth issue –I think the path from Point B to C is much harder than getting the first unconferences off the ground. And I in no way want to malign CityCamp –we wouldn’t have used the model in SF if we didn’t like it. It’s also great to see that you’re embracing local innovation in event style as part of the “brand.”Thanks for sharing the successes –it’s encouraging,and I could also list positive outcomes (especially on the networking for action front) in SF. Maybe a little fatigue coming through in this post ;)

      • Just to be clear,CrisisCommons has a long way to go as well. This whole idea of WeGov influencing larger institutions,which is in essence what CrisisCommons is attempting with the larger Govt and Non Governmental Organizations,is both innovative and critically important,but also a really hard slog. For overall Gov20 success,Changing minds in my opinion is probably more important than actual projects right now. The lightbulb still has not turned on in the vast majority of folks working in government. Only so much can come from the top,so its critical that outsiders make a difference.

        As a pushback,I tend to find unconferences FAR more valuable for changing minds than regular,traditional events. but I think Alex makes the point above that meeting events aren’t ever going to be the whole story. I’d say they’re necessary,but not sufficient.

    • Josh Folk

      Kevin:Where can I find more information about this Local Open Government Directive template? Would be interested to learn more. josh.folk@onlinevideoservice.com

  • I agree with the points made above on the benefits of unconferences for moving us forward. When I attend a barcamp,I find the informal setting allows me to better connect with others. In this atmosphere people are more willing to share ideas,thoughts,concerns,and there is more likely to be thoughtful discussion and feedback. The laid back attitude also seems to draw out more examples of innovative tools and methods that maybe people would be less willing to demo at a traditional conference. The intensity of the day helps me to better imagine the possibilities and plan implementation strategies. And for me,spending a couple days with all of you at an unconference renews my vision and courage so I can go back and patiently work on making improvements. I can get a glimmer of this at a traditional conference but it’s not even close to what I get from a barcamp.

    But as you suggest,perhaps there could be other event models yet to be tried that could have similar results.

    • Pam,you rock. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the model,I’m just grappling openly with what comes next –how to create sustainable change in very slow-moving organizations.

  • Scott Primeau

    Adriel,thanks for a thought provoking post. I can’t imagine you’re implying that people shouldn’t organize or attend unconferences. Obviously,we (those pushing better government through Gov 2.0) have to find new ways to share ideas,build support,persuade decision makers,implement,and do it all again,better.

    My experience helping organize Gov 2.0 Camp Rocky Mountains and CityCamp Colorado led to meeting several incredible people and gaining a ton of knowledge. Did we solve world hunger? Did we produce white papers? No.

    We did make connections,we shared insights,we made concrete action plans. I can’t think of any other similar venue where attendees are encouraged and empowered in the same way.

    CityCamps,Barcamps,unconferences are all a means to an end. The end isn’t clearly defined yet,but we know progress is being made.

    Events won’t make innovation;people will make innovation happen. But,the events help the people do it.

    • Great point,Scott. One of the things were looking at with CityCamp in San Francisco is to have regular networking events –bluntly acknowledging that it’s the people,not the event.

  • I want to encourage all of you to keep up the great work! I am brand new to the Gov 2.0 movement and have just in the last few weeks started following the news,blogs and diving into videos and other resources on the web to get smart on everything going on. Because of this movement I became interest in developing an initiative at Phoenix Partners,LLC that would focus exclusively on the government sector. The firm has previously provided technology and operations workers to large financial services firm. I have long been interested in Web 2.0 issues,but have largely been engaged with the intersection of technology and art audiences. I haven’t attended any Gov 2.0 conferences,yet,but I think this movement is poised to go “pop.”By that I mean the next step is to get the average person talking about it. That will be the tipping point.

  • Reading these comments reminded me of a great article I read a couple of years ago by David Gurteen about the ‘value of intangible outcomes’(http://bit.ly/dMzC8y). Having just re-read the piece,I think it provides both an affirmation of the importance of these unstructured conversations,and some pointers about the need to imbue these collisions of people and ideas with a more conventionally-recognised ‘value’that makes sense to other influencers.

  • [...] week,I wrote about the challenges of moving the Gov 2.0 movement forward through unconferences alone. That post led to some interesting dialog,and this week I also connected with Lucas Cioffi [...]

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