GovCamp Cymru: a focus on language and culture
July 29, 2022
Unboxed are proud sponsors of GovCamp Cymru: an unconference dedicated to reimagining public services. Storyteller, Kassie shares her experience of this year’s event.
It was a beautiful, warm and sunny day when Jo and I arrived in Cardiff the eve before GovCamp Cymru 2022. We’d both been so excited to arrive that we’d barely put our bags down before hurriedly exiting our accommodation. We headed out to pre-conference drinks to meet everyone that we’d be spending the following day with.
Our arrival coincided with that of thousands of music lovers who were in Cardiff to attend a Stereophonics concert. The city was buzzing. Jo gave me a glimpse into Cardiff’s history by singing lyrics from an impressively memorised repertoire of Tom Jones songs. Pre-drink introductions were devoid of any of the usual social anxieties that I associate with new cities and new people - we were so warmly welcomed by Jo Carter, Katie, Bryan, David and Gavin that we instantly felt at home.
Image from Stereophonics Twitter, Cardiff June 2022
Sunset quickly turned the night dark. Without realising it, time had buzzed on by finding us wrapped up in conversation until past midnight. Rookie mistake. GovCamp hadn’t even begun and already we’d ventured down idea loops, twists and turns spanning topics as diverse as sustainability, complexity theory and alternative digital distribution networks for music.
Where would we find the energy for an early start and another full day’s worth of conversation?
Like Christmas but Better: Our Introduction to GovCamp Cymru
Event organiser, Jo Carter, regaled us with humorous tales of different dreams she’d had in the lead up to the event. One was a nightmare about a queue of people piling up in front of a coffee machine that had run out of coffee. The nightmare was not realised. We were gifted two portable coffee mugs made entirely from recycled material and we kept them full to the brim.
Alongside delicious pastries, vegan meals from Captain Joys and an oversupply of cupcakes - our tanks never ran empty.
A brief history of GovCamp Cymru
Jo Carter and Esko Reinikainen launched the first Govcamp Cymru Unconference after meeting at an alt-think camp way back in 2014. The meeting had inspired them to start Satori Lab which geared itself toward culture hacking public sector organisations. Community building events like GovCamp were fundamental to this offering.
Jo and Esko felt that the absence of a platform to support evolution of practice was a barrier to transformation within the public sector. They knew that a typical, run-of-the-mill, prescriptive conference wouldn’t generate the kind of creativity and collaboration they were hoping to foster. So they turned to Open Space Technology to help them design their first ‘unconference’.
How an unconference works
The ‘unconference’ format draws from ‘liberating structure’ principles. These presuppose that a balance of chaos and structure optimise participation. And so, contrary to the norm, there are no pre-submissions for workshop presentations. You arrive, have 30 seconds to pitch a topic, the title is added to a board that participants can select from and then whoever arrives, arrives with no obligation to stay for the duration of the workshop.
The concept has been a hit. A tightly-knit community has been growing around the event ever since.
Culture change as unifying theme
At this year’s camp, over 30 people pitched topic ideas for workshops. Themes were spread across a broad spectrum but true to form, the universal theme connecting all of these ideas was the question of culture change.
“How do we influence culture?” By that we mean, “how do we support collective adaptation at pace?”
“The model for working in the public sector…” Director at Create Change and SDinGov organiser, Mark Dalgarno explained, “was inherited from over 100 years ago and has simply been perpetuated by civil servants. It worked then but it doesn’t work now.”
So it needs to change but at a pace and scale unheard of in order to face up to current social, environmental and economic challenges. So, “what are the barriers?” and “what are the facilitators?” asked Hebe Foster from We Are Telescope.
Every conversation was permeated by similar questions. It seems that culture change, universally, really is difficult to institute.
Balancing senior leadership and managing a team is hard
How might we make it easier?
The first workshop I attended was led by Polly Thompson. Polly looked at culture change from the perspective of leadership. We spoke about compassion and about how one of the side effects of hierarchical top-down organisational structures is that, while we are getting better at learning to show compassion towards those perceived to be lower in the hierarchy, compassion seldom extends upwards.
Of course, this was an incredibly nuanced conversation - where power and autonomy concentrates, burden and responsibility also concentrate. Many people in the room described a pervading sense of guilt preventing them from saying no or asking for help. A recurrent theme was the struggle of balancing needs that are often mutually exclusive: wellbeing, budget constraints, delivery pressures and so on.
A round-robin style of conversation generated a few practical tips and snippets of reassurance:
- “Not in a patronising way at all, but running a business often feels similar to parenting. In the same way that we have to accept ‘Good Enough’ parenting, I think we also need to learn to accept ‘Good Enough’ leadership. It’s an attitude and set of behaviours that lead to empowerment and facilitation rather than control. You’re never always going to get it right and that’s okay.” - Scrum Master professional
- “Saying no is hard. But always ask: am I being helpful or am I being nice? It’s an important distinction.” - Cardiff University professor
- “Find appropriate avenues for support. Cross-government mentoring and coaching programmes exist. YLAB has instituted a reverse mentoring programme which has been hugely successful.” - Public sector housing lead
Culture change in every instance, everybody agreed, flows from top to bottom. If we want our organisations to have healthy cultures then leaders need to demonstrate what ‘healthy’ looks like by setting a good example. Boundary setting, compassionate but firm adaptive leadership and letting go of the guilt are all essential to setting the tone for healthier organisations. “If we don’t do it, how can we expect those who look up to us to do it?”
The session ended on an encouraging and motivational note.
Image by Jo Carter
Creating trauma-informed work environments
How might we redesign recruitment pathways to increase hiring of talent from disadvantaged backgrounds? And, once they’re sitting in boardrooms: how might we create trauma-informed work environments so that they feel safe?
The next workshop that I attended was, to my own surprise, one that I had pitched. I’ve had the topic on my mind since attending SDinGov last year. It’s this question around the evolution of bringing the people you’re designing services for along on the journey.
Within the public sector, we’re often tackling complex social issues with emergent outcomes that are challenging to unpack. Here, the difference between a service well designed or poorly designed, such as . a software platform that facilitates foster care placements - can have huge implications on the trajectory of an individual's life and their ability to overcome their particular sets of developmental, relational and economic challenges.
Aware of the flaws inherent in designing services with no understanding of context or nuance, the discipline of ‘User-Centered Design (UCD)’ attempts to remedy this by advocating for empathetic enquiry. However, aware of the challenges in eliminating ‘research bias’ entirely - new disciplines such as ‘Co-Design’ and ‘Co-Creation’ have taken the concept of service user empowerment to the next level.
This is all really encouraging but particularly pertinent to the context of social services and policy design, whether it’s ‘UCD’, ‘Co-Design’ or ‘Co-Creation.’ Insights gathered will always be filtered through the lens of the researcher and final decisions will always be made by those sitting in boardrooms with access to budgets. Ultimately, we want to get to a place where we are not the ‘voices for the voiceless’ but where the ‘voiceless’ are speaking and making decisions for themselves and, importantly, are being remunerated for the contributions and value they offer through diversity of thought, grit, resilience, adaptability and life experience.
This means diversifying our workforces and the demographics of those in senior leadership positions by designing better recruitment pipelines as well as pathways for progression. There’s already widespread awareness around this but how can we speed up the process of instituting it?
I see two challenges here.
Barriers to the ‘right’ experience
People most vulnerable to the implications of poor social service design and delivery often don’t come from backgrounds that offer the security needed to follow a linear education model, particularly not up to post-secondary education. Nor are they often able to access the support needed that would enable them to participate in unpaid internships in order to gain experience. They’re at a disadvantage the moment they’ve put forward their CV.
The question becomes 'how might we rethink the design of recruitment pipelines with these conditions under consideration?” A question that Joanna Goodwin has already been asking with plans in place to trial a new recruitment policy at the WLGA (Welsh Local Government Association).
Supporting employees with a history of trauma
The second challenge is that hiring anyone from an underrepresented group will likely associate with a history of trauma. This implicates challenges in sensitivities around:
- communication conflicts
- navigating perceptions of rejection or failure
- managing emotional reactions to unavoidable triggers
- building trust in order to support healthier relationships where trust had been broken before
- managing wellbeing while being less resilient to stress
- carrying the same workloads as everyone else while having less experience, exposure and support at home.
- managing consistent feelings of ‘otherness’ and low self-esteem.
A struggle with these challenges is not necessarily isolated to employees with traumatic histories alone. As Barnardo’s highlighted: “a lot of trauma-informed practice is actually just good-practice. It’s healthier for everyone. We should normalise it.”
Building resilience amongst our teams
Resilience is characterised by an interaction between the willingness of an individual to grow through discomfort as well as an environment that offers appropriate levels of support that adapt to encourage growth and development. We cannot control the former but we are responsible for the latter.
The question of addressing recruitment deficiencies and trauma support was impossible to unpack in just one hour but it felt good to create a safe space in which everyone could talk about it. Particularly within the wake of COVID, refugee crises and eco-anxiety where trauma-support is increasingly becoming an unavoidable component to leading positive organisational culture-change.
“How do we create trauma-informed work environments?” This is now a universal question.
Building empathetic relationships
How might we build empathetic relationships between policy-makers and frontline services? How can we bridge the policy / delivery gap?
This workshop centred around a combined question posed by Hebe Foster from We are Rocket and Azulita from Mighty Blue. It’s a question gaining quite a lot of traction in online public sector community conversations as designers realise the futility of developing new technologies and ways of working if policies don’t also evolve and shift to support implementation.
Tying back to recurrent themes around the need to bridge silos and encourage transparency in order to collaborate more effectively… “There’s this challenge around policymakers and frontline service workers having empathy for one another” Hebe said. “And, this creates a big gap between the way that policies are thought out and their real world impact,” Azulita added.
The rest of the group suggested solutions that emphasised:
- The importance of storytelling as a way to encourage empathy
- Leaning on both “individual expertise as well as insights from collective collaboration” when working through problems.
One Team Gov offered another resource. They’ve been working hard to build both local and global communities to support better public service design. James Reeve introduced their case study. He’s a policymaker at the Department of Education where they’ve been developing an apprenticeship levy service. “The solution I see,” he says, “is not about bringing policy and delivery closer together. It’s about making them the same thing.”
Image via Wikipedia Commons
A roundup of thoughts on language and culture
For me, GovCamp Cymru ended not on the Friday evening but on a trip to the Brecon Beacons the following day.I took a little extra time to explore and learn about Welsh History and culture.
As I processed all the information downloaded from the day before, I considered the overarching theme of the unconference as language fundamentally tied to culture change.
“Where empathy fails and collaboration fails, it often boils down to simple miscommunications. Working in multi-disciplinary, cross-sector teams - my experience has been that even though, technically, we’re speaking the same language - the words that we use and our interpretations of what things mean are often wildly different. For example, what service designers call ‘user research’, policymakers might call ‘consultations.’”
Often, words like ‘agile’ and ‘transformation’ start out with strong and clearly defined definitions but over time may get lost in translation in the jump between theory and application. This often leads to diluted definitions that give rise to new phrases like ‘transformation fatigue.’
To avoid this, we have to continuously redefine words and re-create shared meanings and narratives. This, done on repeat over the long-term is what drives and institutes culture. Esko Reineken added “it’s what GDS have shaped their entire approach on...”
This understanding, that “to change culture. You have to shape language.” It’s a practice we have also shaped our values around at Unboxed: continuously learning, learning by doing with care and attention for healthier relationships to better navigate complexity.
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