I spent Saturday at UKGovCamp. I’m not going to recite the content or the sessions here, as all that can be found on the Wikispaces wiki that organiser Dave Briggs and others have put together to capture the content.

There are also links there to others’ blogposts about the day – in addition, I would point you to Paul Clarke’s intriguing “government innovation gameshow” proposal, Hardwired State, which he pitched to a large group just after lunch. The slides from the session I co-hosted are here.

Two days after the event, where are my thoughts on the policy-government web? Here are a few impressionistic thoughts.

First, the number of people who are seriously thinking about online engagement and social media is still small. One of the sessions involved a participant from one of the largest upper-tier councils in the country, who had come on a personal basis because there was no support in that (huge) organisation for work on web and social media issues. We are a long way from convincing those unlike ourselves.

In consequence of that smallness, there was an in-group cosiness about the discussions – which is meant as an observation, not a criticism. Dominic Campbell, playing the role of the sand in the oyster, has taken the event to task for this on Twitter, saying

Picking through UKGovCamp follow up blogs. Not a single word of dissent or challenge found. We must have found ‘the truth’ in social media then!

I understand where Dominic’s views come from. The event did feel like validation for those who were present: a chance to find people who were fundamentally of the same mindset and share stories and opportunities. The atmosphere was not challenging – there was no edge of revolution, or any argument as to value of particular causes or methods.

I think, however, that the unconference format, and the unreadiness of our work, makes it too early to expect challenge and argument, at least in such a large group of relative strangers.

That is not to say we will never have challenge and argument. Indeed, I think we will, because my other reflection from the day was that the policy-government web is growing up very fast. As a result, it will begin growing apart.

Steph Gray said in his presentation that he couldn’t sell social media on the basis of being ‘cool’ any more: financial conditions don’t allow for spending on ‘cool’, but social media is also in the mainstream, and governments no longer laugh off the idea that they might have to embrace it.

So I suspect we are moving from “Homebrew Computer Club” towards “MS-DOS 1.0″, and as our small world grows, there are a few fractures along which it could splinter, such as:

  • Promoting and using local/’hyperlocal’ journalism and citizen-generated information

  • Gaining and parsing information about government
  • Giving a “non-political” voice to public service users (i.e. being consumerist about public services)
  • Creating properly political discussions on the web – as in, discussions in representative groups around the difficult compromises that are the main grist of politics.

Obviously all these strands have links to one another, but they are weak connections, and it feels like UKGovCamp 2015, if it happens, will cover too much and involve too many people if it attempts to include all that.

I suspect that over the coming years these different types of work will move apart. Between and within the different strands, there will be arguments and battles in the search for money, truth, or attention. Certainly, the lesson of any revolution is that everyone can agree that the status quo needs to be replaced, but no-one can agree on what should replace it.

In particular, I think there is an argument brewing about the nature and scope of political reform. It was under the surface even on Saturday: is our work intended to support government and make it better, or to create conditions in which the representative democracy we are used to is replaced, or at least fundamentally altered, by something closer to direct democracy?

That is an area where fundamental arguments will take place, and indeed I can think of half a dozen names for either side of a representative vs. radical democracy debate right now.

I suspect – I hope – we will look back on days like Saturday as a time of shared preparation for something much bigger: an agreeable Enlightenment salon heralding the harder, more disappointing work of social transformation.

I don’t think that Madame Guillotine is going to be set up in Parliament Square, but I do think that post-election, post-spending squeeze, Dominic’s battles and challenges are coming, soon enough.

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