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Teacamp: Where British Civil Servants Go to Brew Change From Within

BY Wendy M. Grossman | Tuesday, September 3 2013

Sir Nigel Hawthorne, the star of "Yes, Minister," having a cup of tea.

In 2008, Jeremy Gould, then a civil servant at the Ministry of Justice, had been blogging about the workings of the British government for about a year and a half when, The Economist mentioned his blog in The road to e-democracy. It came with this quote, from an anonymous colleague: "We think he's been very brave."

Translation: We're amazed he hasn't been fired yet.

This was the British civil service operating as per the 1980-1988 sitcom Yes, Minister, often described by British politicians as a "documentary." Written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, the show brilliantly explained the inner workings of a highly secretive institution, and to this day it influences the way both people and politicians think about their government. When, in the pilot episode, the cabinet secretary, Sir Arnold Robinson, tells his junior, "It's a contradiction in terms. You can be open or you can have government," it's not really a joke. In 2010, when the American investigative journalist Heather Brooke, published her book The Silent State, this is the silence she was writing about. (It took Brooke five years of hard work to get Parliament to release its members’ spending records; eventually, when they were leaked to the Daily Telegraph, they triggered a huge scandal and numerous resignations, including that of the Speaker of the House of Commons.)

Cut to 2013, late afternoon, and an unremarkable coffee shop called Café Zest on the second floor of the House of Fraser department store near Victoria station. Perhaps a hundred civil servants are gathering, drinking tea or coffee, and chatting. Called to order, Jane O'Loughlin, the digital communications lead for the Government Digital Service, asks everyone to introduce themselves with their name, affiliation, and Twitter handle. Many tweet during the meeting, most notably O'Loughlin herself (@teacamplondon), from whose phone issues a steady stream of updates on the talks. As the names flit by I pick out some agencies and local authorities, the Department of Transport, the Department of Education, the Home Office, and the Cabinet Office. Recent speakers' topics have included digital press offices; "open policy" efforts; and helping young homeless people use technology to improve their situation.

While teacamp, as these meetings are known, isn't an official government initiative, people speak, blog, and tweet openly, apparently without fear of losing their jobs. (There are limits: the Cabinet Office communications head declined to allow me to interview O'Loughlin on the record.)

Gould, who has spent the last couple of years out of the fray raising twin toddlers in Ireland, finds it slightly surreal that his old employer, the Ministry of Justice, has an official blog. In 2008, when he told the MoJ's director of communications he'd been blogging - "full disclosure of all my nefarious activities" - she informed him that she had fired the last member of staff she'd caught blogging.

Teacamp is just one manifestation of a raft of changes across the British government as it embraces digital technologies, partly because it's being invaded by a generation of people with enough vision to see the potential and partly because, as the departing treasury secretary, Liam Byrne, wrote three years ago in a note to his successor: "There's no money left." Britain simply could not afford further entries in its persistently awful record with large IT projects that ran over time, over budget, and ultimately failed.

The open policy and digital press offices discussions in particular raised this question, however: how much is really changing as the British government embraces social media and “open government”? Are we talking, as a couple of the digital press offices speakers seemed to be, about a tool that simply allows officials to manipulate stories differently, or are we beginning to create a genuinely new feedback loop to the policy teams? This may be easier in the case of policies that result in citizens directly transacting with government, such as changes to benefits, education, and the health service. In more abstract areas such as intellectual property and privacy, where the impact on consumers is diffuse and difficult to measure, it will be harder to counter the impact of money, power, and promises of employment. With expert evidence already sometimes ignored in such areas, it's hard to see how adding opinion-canvassing via SurveyMonkey, as one indicated they now did, and engagement via social media will create fundamental change.

As Javier Ruiz Diaz, a campaigner for the Open Rights Group specializing in open data, says, "Ultimately, you can have good digital engagement and you can make a leap - or you can wind up manipulating people rather than change how governments function. We have very good techies who understand social media, but they need to be put to work for better governance." Ruiz isn't dismissive of the efforts so far, but he's concerned that where civil servants sign up to a code that requires them to be impartial, to base their decisions on the evidence, and to put public service before personal interests, the same does not apply to the PR firms, lobbyists, and corporate interests that will likely rush to try to capture the process. Ruiz is accordingly worried by the government's greater interest in the economic value of open data than its value in creating greater transparency. He is encouraged, however, by the development of the Open Government Partnership, which is half funded by governments and half by NGOs.

Others are more optimistic but no less ambitious for change.

"Government today is very unsatisfactory," says William Heath, founder and non-executive chairman of the board of Mydex, a company aimed at returning control of personal data to individuals. "It's structurally wrong. There are a lot of very stupid policies, lots of things you don't want it to do - and some things you do want done. It's a huge journey to change it into something that does only what you want it to do and does that really well."

Heath's interest in the potential for transforming government via digital technologies has long roots, not least because he calls Yes, Minister’s Antony Jay "my career guru." In the mid-1990s he was co-founder of the public-sector specialist IT consultancy Kable. After he sold it to the Guardian Media Group in 2004, he created the Ideal Government blog to mull over the future of democratic government. Last year, shortly after the newly-formed Government Digital Service published its design principles, he wound it up, writing, "Its job is done."

What had happened was this: the incoming coalition government had actually hired the people Heath had always wanted to see running things, the sort of people Gould was watching enviously from his government job back in 2008. People like Mike Bracken, who built the Guardian's open data platform, Mark O'Neill, and Tom Loosemore, a veteran of MySociety, now the strategy lead at the Government Digital Service, itself part of the Cabinet Office. Founded in 2003 by Tom Steinberg and working entirely outside government, MySociety showed the potential by creating sites like Write to Them (originally Fax Your MP) and They Work For You to make MPs and the deliberations of Parliament searchable and accessible. Steinberg co-authored a report on the "Power of Information" for the previous Labor government and then advised the Conservative party on technology policy before the last election.

Now, Heath says, "At least the people in charge of the technology at the heart of government really understand what they're doing - and what they're doing is better than the idealists could ever think about it." We are, he says, in stage two of a three-stage process: "One, they've transformed government publishing so it's a single activity that's done very efficiently. Two, they're now in the process of transforming government transactions. What hasn't happened yet is the real transformation of policy."

He adds, "We are a long way away from the government that an interconnected, empathetic network-oriented, design-oriented population would invent for itself." It is, he says, a deep-rooted problem in public services all the way back to their beginnings that government fails to recognize the role of the active individual. "It's a persistent misconception that these organizations have to do everything and the individual isn't an active participant. That misconception has repeated itself online - that's why we have the problem of the database state and government services in which individuals have no active role."

In one sense, it might have been only a matter of waiting until newcomers into politics and the civil service were people who'd grown up playing computer games (like, for example, the MP Tom Watson, who chaired the 2009 "Power of Information" task force studying how to deploy digital technologies in government) and were used to the quality of service provided by the big electronic retailers. But in an organization the size of the civil service it's easy for the one or two "digital natives" in a department to be overwhelmed by the culture they find themselves in. This is where Loosemore believes the teacamps have been significant.

As Loosemore tells the story, the incoming coalition government commissioned Lastminute.com co-founder Martha Lane Fox to review the government's digital efforts. She produced a short report making four key points: create the Government Digital Service and give staff with specialist knowledge the power and control they need; move publishing to a single domain; make transactions digital wherever possible, which would both make the biggest difference to citizens' lives and provide substantial cost savings; and deliver everything via APIs (programming interfaces) and make those available to third parties as a platform. To Loosemore's surprise, one of the first things he learned was that Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) were way ahead, with long-running APIs that support a large ecosystem of third-party software and services. The focus now, he says, is on transforming 25 transactions across government and building an API each time. "It's early days, but change is happening all over government now. Gov.uk was a massive tactical change, and it happened very quickly, very cheaply - and is saving about £70 million a year."

Loosemore discovered teacamp during his first survey of the government's existing efforts: "It was almost like an underground network of digital people, very junior in many cases, but passionate - and meeting in a coffee bar in a department store. It was brilliant on one level, but symptomatic - if the center of gravity has to be a coffee bar in a store near Victoria, that's the problem." But, he says, "They played an important role in allowing those networks [of digitally minded people] at all levels of the civil service to form and flourish. It's sending the message of digital transformation into a culture that's not necessarily open to it and making it much more open to it. It's pretty important in keeping that energy going." Now, with efforts like Rewired State making the possibilities highly visible, "There's a lot more realization even at the senior levels of the civil service that digital really matters."

This is all the success Gould could have wanted in 2008, when he realized that civil servants weren't showing up at any of the nascent networking events for people working in digital media he attended. At the same time, a couple of contractors working for him kept naming people he should meet. In the end, it seemed simpler to collect them all into one room on a Saturday at an event he called “govcamp." The choice of Café Zest for follow-up “teacamp” meetings was dictated by the fact that back then, when cheap netbooks were just coming out, it was the only convenient place that had free wifi.

"The irony now, five years later," Gould says, "is that all the great people working across London at the BBC, YouTube, and so on are now working for the Government Digital Service. My only regret is that I didn't hang around long enough to see it." You can see his point when Loosemore says that hiring the best people - for government! - is surprisingly easy because it's here that they can have the biggest positive impact on the greatest number of people.

"Mike Bracken was an inspired hire," he says. "He's my boss - but he's raised the level of importance of digital at the most senior levels in government." And not only the UK government: other governments come in to ask questions and see what's happening. I don't think we should be British and modest about it. We really are leading the world now. Estonia is in the lead in many ways - but they had the advantage of being able to start again fresh, and there are only one million of them."

Wendy M. Grossman is a freelance science and technology writer who covers the border wars between cyberspace and real life.