My Govcamp story (so far)

Just some of the #UKGC20 organisers and camp makers [photo by Nigel Bishop:]

My #UKGC20 experience was all kinds of wonderful. The entire day passed by in a blur and our amazing community energised me through the day. I’m still reflecting and structuring my thoughts to sum up the day – so in the meanwhile I thought I’d tell my Govcamp story. In my usual storytelling style, it will meander off into different directions and include people and life events around Govcamp that have shaped me into the person I am today.

‪I went to my first Govcamp in 2011 (#UKGC11 @ Microsoft) with the excellent Nick Keane.

Nick & I at our colleague’s wedding (2013)

Nick was my first mentor at work and someone I’m incredibly grateful to have met. I’d come out of university, pretty crushed there was a recruitment freeze on hiring police officers and wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. He’d always put me forward for different opportunities, saying he saw a spark in me. We worked on the early days of digital and social media in policing together — it was amazing. Nick would often say that my vulnerability and openness was a gift. It took me many years to understand that.‬

My organisation was full of folks that would go to events and hold back the knowledge they gained for some kind of advantage.. but not Nick. He’d take me to all his meetings with awesome people. One of my favourites was a meeting with Tom Loosemore back when he worked at Channel 4. He swore a lot and talked about sailing. Nick took me to my first Govcamp and Teacamp. He even introduced me to Twitter.

A screenshot of my first tweet. Polcasm was the hashtag for our policing conference on digital/social media.

It was at Teacamp that I met David P. I think I was happy-hyper with nerves; he called me a ball of energy. It was said such a serious and dry tone that I wasn’t sure if he liked me. When I told him this years later, he laughed a lot.

Accidentally giving David Pearson ‘bunny ears’ as I geekily made the peace sign in this Teacamp photo (2012).

Back to #UKGC11.

‪I was told there was a tradition that all newbies had to pitch at their first GovCamp – LOL – which I did. I pitched a session on police data and I was petrified. I can’t really remember the words that came out and there were lots of nervous giggles and shakes. The brilliant Dave Briggs took great care of me. I loved the session. It was small but perfectly formed and directly helped to shape improvements to‬ I enjoyed listening to other sessions, but I felt they were too technical(?) for me and I wasn’t sure what value I could bring. I worried that I’d be repeating old ideas/stating the obvious. I wanted to meet new people but I didn’t want to interrupt the catch ups and conversations folks were involved in. I think I probably left the day before the last session as I felt too shy.

The UKGovcamp 2011 grid featuring my first ever pitched session (obviously on a pink post it note). Photo by Glen Wood.

After that, ‪I struggled to engage with Govcamp for a while. I felt crippling anxiety and imposter syndrome and shied away. When I did apply for a lottery ticket and got one, I panicked and asked to cancel. I didn’t think I had anything interesting to say, worried about arriving there alone, felt intimidated about being in a room with my absolute heroes (who I was often too shy to say anything to) and the ticket would be wasted on me.‬

In the meanwhile, I left the Civil Service. My workplace was unbelievably toxic. I’d been following the creation of the Open Data Institute and realised it was my dream to work there. So I applied (with the help of a data themed pub quiz) and I got the job.

The data themed pub quiz I designed to get the attention of the ODI. Yes, that’s a ‘guess the person’ round featuring Paul Maltby and Hadley Beeman.

Those four years were glorious — I totally flourished as a person. Having someone like Jeni believing in me helped me to believe in myself. I went to new countries on my own. I set up new communities, ran international meet-ups and hosted events, even though I was blushing and shaking when I would open them. I hated public speaking. So I decided to try and overcome it by gamifying it. I set myself mini achievements. I convinced myself that fear and excitement were one in the same. And every time I did it, I felt better.‬ Even now, I keep a list of everything I have spoken at. I use it to remind myself I can do it. ‬

In 2017, Government felt different to me. ‪I couldn’t put my finger on why. It wasn’t just that I’d grown, it felt like there was a renewed sense of optimism and the culture was becoming more inclusive. I knew it was time to come back.

In 2017, James tweeted for volunteers to help with #UKGCXL (#UKGC18). Being the keen bean that I was, I raised my hand. I thought maybe I’d get a chance to be a campmaker — I hadn’t realised that the organisers were keen to add someone new to the team. I can’t even remember the moment I was asked to join them, only that I was really humbled and leapt at the chance. I joined mid-2017 and the following year was responsible for leading the camp makers (our fabulous group of volunteers, without whom we simply couldn’t run Govcamp). That year I also closed the event after much encouragement from Janet. Of course, I spent nearly an hour hiding alone in the quiet room to write and run through my slides.

Janet, David, Vanessa, Mustafa, myself and James. My first Govcamp as an organiser — January 2018.
A photo of Janet hugging me after I closed Govcamp 2018, with a rather excellent reply from David P.

‪And then we lost David P. The man I’d met at my first Teacamp, who I’d always kept in touch with, and who I’d shared my feelings of shyness and imposter syndrome with. Since then, I’ve felt even more of a drive and responsibility to get this right. To do what I can to help make our community inclusive, open, supportive and sustainable, and to make us all proud. ‬

The marvellous David Pearson.

‪In 2019, Janet encouraged me to open Govcamp for the first time. As I’ve shared before, I was feeling anxious about how I could replicate the magic that Janet brings to GovCamp and the energy she brings at the start of the day. Suddenly something clicked on the Friday before — I realised that I can never be another Janet or deliver things in the way she does, I can only be myself and do my best. I then started to feel calmer and excited about it.

We celebrated David’s life and the lives of other friends our communities lost in 2018, like Hendrik. At the end of the day, James C announced he was standing down and handed over the baton of lead organiser to me. As you might imagine, following Janet and James in anything is hard. They are the most exceptional people — they’ve always inspired me.

Opening Govcamp 2020, photo by Coco Chan []

‪And now to present day.

This year, despite opening Govcamp the year before, I was still nervous at the front of that room.‬ But I really LOVED it. I’m more excited than nervous about public speaking these days, but when you really care about a community and you’re looking back into a crowd of your friends and peers, you want them to have a great time. That’s harder than speaking to a room full of strangers.

I’m pretty sure the sequins are (a) FUN and (b) help with my confidence and energy to open the day. And I definitely couldn’t do it without Janet by my side throughout, and the music/dancing beforehand. ‬Especially when us organisers are dancing to Beyonce, led by David B and Janet.

Getting ready to open Govcamp 2020 with our usual tradition — dancing to Beyoncé.

‪I adore the cohort of organisers I’m part of. They’ve always been kind, generous, supportive and loyal, and taught me so much about myself.

The way Vanessa speaks about diversity and inclusion is beautiful and thoughtful. It’s like poetry — she truly shines as a person.

Mustafa has the most calming energy — and actually has a pin from his organisation that shows he saved a person from taking their life.

Janet really is boldness in a person. She always stands up for what is right, is a natural leader and has helped me (so much!) to grow in confidence.

Coco is such an artistic and creative soul — talented with music and dance; the type of person the entire room is captivated with, and she’s so joyful and in the moment that she doesn’t notice.

David Durant is incredibly witty, with that dry and sarcastic sense of humour that’s good for my soul. He was the one I buddied up with my first year as an organiser and taught me all about looking after our camp makers, whilst answering all of my obvious and annoying questions with absolute kindness.

Hugh (Shug) is a complete sweetheart and ridiculously smart. He’s such a force for good — the type that does everything they can to create a fair future for everyone — not that you’d know it, because he’s happily running around behind the scenes.

David Buck is pure sunshine in a person — I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say an unkind word. I say all the time that I don’t know what we did to deserve him, and I really mean that.

And Baskers (who the other night I revealed to that I was the most intimidated by meeting her and longed for us to be friends) is fiercely loyal; when I tell her stories about people that have hurt me, I still try to look for the best in them. She calls them a cunt many, many times, and hugs me really hard.

Baskers and I (2018). The matching t-shirts were a complete coincidence.

Putting all of this down in a blog post is pretty confronting. I want to be really clear that I don’t think there’s anything the organisers/camp makers/event could have done those years ago to change how I felt.

Govcamp (amongst other things) showed to me that I like an imposter, that I was more shy than I realised, and that I needed to work to build my confidence — but it wasn’t the reason I had those feelings. I had to go on a journey over a number of years to look deep inside myself, to recover from both a toxic relationship and a toxic workplace, to figure out what energises me and to push myself from comfort zone to growth zone. That’s also not a linear journey — I go back and forth all the time. Right now, I’m feeling those fear zone feelings for an opportunity I have this year.

Moving from your comfort zone to your growth zone (plus yay, rainbow unicorns!). Illustration by Larry Kim.

There are people who have been open about the anxiety, nerves, shyness and imposter syndrome they feel around Govcamp. I thank you for your vulnerability and openness. It’s hard to put your whole self out there. It’s because of you that I’ve shared this story, and I’m absolutely feeling the fear of pressing the publish button.

I treasure our community. I want to keep evolving Govcamp and learn from where we are getting it right, where we can improve what we do, and where we can learn from others. And I’m absolutely here to listen to your session ideas beforehand, to stand by your side when you’re up at the front pitching, or do anything else that can support you.

Most of all, thank you to everyone who’s supported me. Thank you for listening when I say I’m nervous and telling me I’ll be okay; thank you for keeping the positive energy throughout the opener and for laughing at my appalling jokes; and thank you for your kind words — they mean the world to me. ❤

Photo by David P.

Design, leadership, open culture, data, ethics, justice. These are my personal thoughts on work.

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