I was at UKGovCamp yesterday for I think my 11th(?) year. Massive thanks to James, Amanda and all the rest of the campmakers for making it a brilliant day.

ODI were a sponsor and there were a bunch of us around. For the first time, I didn’t pitch myself. I was really glad that I encouraged others to instead. I only went to four sessions (rather than five). These are just some of my random thoughts following them (I’m not trying to represent everything that was said; I’ve linked to the notes from the sessions so you can read those if that’s what you want).

Data infrastructure

A session about the thing I spend my day job doing: working out how to build, or persuade others to build, a better data infrastructure.

  1. Infrastructure is boring. Despite the fact that government maintains so much of our physical infrastructure and understands how to invest in it, it doesn’t understand the link between the services, analysis, visualisations it wants and the data infrastructure that lies beneath. We need to motivate investment in data infrastructure through pointing at the more flashy, sexy, immediate stuff it enables (the websites, the apps). Think about the people who had to demonstrate why we need power lines or sewers or motorways. It’s not for their own sake, it’s to provide light, have flushable toilets, get around the country. We can’t just work on the data infrastructure level.

  2. The flashy and sexy stuff like AI enabled services funded through Govtech catalysts rely on data infrastructure. You can’t expect those efforts to succeed if the data isn’t there to support them. So you can’t just work at the service layer either.

  3. Building data infrastructure through delivering digital services is an art, a discipline, a cultural shift. Why doesn’t every digital service have an API? Why don’t service developers and designers think about all-of-government or even all-of-society needs as well as the immediate needs of their direct users?

  4. We didn’t talk in the session but I had more fundamental conversations around UKGovCamp about government’s attitude to data. There is a reversion from some quarters to the attitude of 10-15 years ago around how to get value from government’s data. If we Brexit, if the Reuse of Public Sector Information Regulations are repealed, there is a real risk of going back to the idea that government should sell access to data it holds. I’m worried.


I love spreadsheets and tabular data. Geek heaven. I spent the session occasionally pointing to things that already exist like Datasette.

  1. We depend so much on spreadsheets for managing data, and they are both extremely well and extremely badly suited to the purposes we put them to, which are manifold. There are also many reinventions, with services like Airtable or Smartsheet, but they’re proprietary and come with risks about portability should the services fail.

  2. Sometimes spreadsheets are used to collaborate in ways where people really need to stick to a schema handed down from on high. But what people really like about spreadsheets (as opposed to databases) is the ease of adding columns to suit their needs. But then too much flexibility breaks applications that have to ingest all the additional data but only care about some of it. It feels to me as if a transclusion mechanism - bringing data from one spreadsheet into another, such that editing it is reflected in the original but you can also add columns that won’t be reflected back to the original - could be a way through this tension.

  3. It’s so powerful to be able to collaborate on the same data as others, as in Google Sheets, rather than passing Excel files back and forth by email. But not all data is shareable or designed to be shareable, and the ability to have space to add your own stuff without explanation is useful too.

Rethinking government

I didn’t speak in this session. Although I have thoughts I have no settled Opinions and a niggling sense of unease.

  1. I tried to explain this session, and how I felt about this session, to my 15yo daughter. She’s been learning about feminism for her sociology GCSE and said that it reminded her of the characterisation of radical, liberal and Marxist feminism she’s been learning about. Digitalists probably all agree that the web (and all it entails) is changing society and government has to change too. But while some radical digitalists believe that requires a wholesale reinvention of how government works, I think there are some important pieces of our current system that we should preserve.

  2. I think trusted institutions are important. I think removing their identities and means of expressing their identities undermines them. It leaves us without things we can rely on. That’s scary and people who are scared are “not their best selves”, as the modern euphemism appears to be. Can we preserve institutions, grow people’s trust in them and reimagine the relationship between government and people?

  3. I am afraid of forgetting the large percentage (not a majority, but a large percentage) who through choice or circumstance do not have smartphones or broadband or a working knowledge of how to interact with digital anything. I am afraid of digitalism that facilitates an essentially inhuman and exclusive government. I am afraid of digital supremacy.

  4. It is ok for us to disagree about this. We should be disagreeing. In the session we talked about stories and visions and sci-fi for government. We should describe the futures we want to see, and we should critique the ones others describe, explain our fears, bang our drums. That’s how we’ll get there.

  5. But these are essentially political questions, questions about the role of the state, of communities, of individuals, of the private sector, of the media, of academia. And they highlight questions about the role of politicians and of civil servants, or even of policy and delivery if you like, and the relative power they wield, and the level of accountability and governance there is around them. Has digital changed that power balance? Should it? I know a lot of brilliant civil servants I would trust entirely but I’m not sure I want to live in a technocracy.

  6. I am all for discussing how to improve how government works, but how can we stop that conversation being dominated by white middle class male Londoners, however wonderful, insightful, inspirational, well meaning and right thinking I might find them. I’m part of the problem here, massively privileged, London centric. I want to hear other voices, outside the digital elite. Of course they won’t be at UKGovCamp. And I also recognise conversations have to start somewhere and gradually build coalitions. It’s just a concern that nags at me.

Open communication

This one’s more personal for me, but the session helped me reconcile some conflicts inside myself and move on my thinking about how I can encourage more openness at ODI.

  1. Communication is hard. So hard. The impact we intend to have, if we even think of our intent at all, is seldom the impact we do have. No one else is in the same context as you. Public communication is even harder, because the audience who sees what you write can be so varied. One way or asynchronous communication is harder again because there’s no feedback until you’re done and posted that can help you adjust or explain or nuance. If you care at all about what people think or feel (and I care about that a lot, probably too much) every piece of communication is a risk.

  2. It is a risk worth taking, and it was good today to be reminded of that. I remember many years ago posting about a civil servant I’d just encountered who I thought (and said) was a little crazy. Turned out he read my blog. Him bringing it up was the first time I encountered the intersection of my work and my online tribe, and when I started being more circumspect and intentional about what I write publicly. But that slightly crazy civil servant was of course John Sheridan, who would become a fantastic colleague and one of my closest friends. There are ways to put things, and sometimes you have to deal with people you have upset intentionally or not, but I cannot think of a time I have regretted writing authentically and letting people see inside my head.

  3. But still it is hard for me to write candidly given where I am now. Because I am CEO at ODI what I say can easily be taken as an institutional rather than personal position. When I communicate I am not just taking risks for myself but for my team and organisation. We are dependent on government money, and on preserving or building good relationships with funders. We and I must been seen to be strong, certain and confident to retain the confidence of our stakeholders. (Everything’s great by the way.)

  4. All this leaves me with is the recognition that anyone who cares about other people or about the organisation they work for will not post about everything, cannot be completely open. And that’s ok. At ODI we talk about data being as open as possible and the shades of grey between open and closed data. It was good to be reminded that as open as possible communication is better than nothing.