What to expect at UKGovcamp

If you’re coming to UKGovcamp for the first time it may seem a little weird, but relax — it’ll be great. Here’s what to expect…

UKGovcamp is an ‘unconference’ which means things are less structured than normal conferences — and that’s what creates the space for serendipity to step in and make great things happen.

It starts in a big room, with 250 people and no pre-set agenda at all. This is because the delegates are the best people to decide what needs to be discussed.

The Session Pitches

To build the agenda for the day together, Govcamp starts with delegates lining up and giving short (less than 30 seconds) pitches about the topics they think should be up for discussion.

Delegates line up to pitch their sessions at the start of the day (Photo by David Pearson)

There will be a lot of session pitches (really a lot) so you may want to take notes of ones that particularly interest you to help you remember them later when you just see the title on the session grid.

And maybe you should pitch a session too. Anyone can pitch a session. It doesn’t matter if you have never been to one of these before, what your job title is, or anything. It only matters that you are at this Govcamp and you have an idea for something people might want to discuss.

Some tips on giving session pitches:

  • Don’t worry, you are not expected to present anything at the session you propose — in fact giving presentations is kind of against the spirit of things. The idea is just to be a group of people round a table having a conversation. There is no pressure on you beyond suggesting the topic to discuss. You don’t need to have prepared anything, and you don’t need presentation skills.
  • Keep the pitch short and focused
  • Make the topic clear, and then give some ideas of what it might cover.
  • You might want to highlight the kinds of people that it’d be particularly relevant to.

A (very) made up example would be: “Hello I’m Dawn from the Ministry of Early Mornings. My session is on Flexible Working. We’ve been looking at adopting more flexible hours and maybe working from home sometimes so we can get up a bit later and avoid the rush hour commute. It might also help us recruit a more diverse team. I’d love to hear from anyone that’s already doing this, but it’ll also be a good session for others who have just started exploring it so we can discuss the potential issues and share any tools. Thanks!” (applause)

For further examples, you can view the real pitches from Govcamp 2016 on Youtube.

Once you’ve given your pitch you’ll move to the side and write it up on a post it note to stick on the wall.

Pitching a session is fun, and it’s a really warm and friendly atmosphere (photo by David Pearson)

Building The Session Grid

Once all the topics have been pitched there’s a coffee break and the organisers build the mammoth ‘session grid’. This shows all the available rooms, and all the available time-slots, with the session ideas arranged in them.

Similar sessions will be merged into the same slot, and that’s ok. (If this happens to yours, it’s a good idea to try to chat to your co-hosts before the slot, or at the start, to agree how to lead the session.)

Building the session grid (photo by David Pearson)

Once this is done you can study the grid (it’s also made available online) to decide which sessions you want to go to in the first timeslot. Usually this is hard. It’s worth taking note of your top two or three favourites, because it is perfectly fine for you to leave one session part way through to go to another.

Taking Part In Sessions

The basic rules of taking part in Govcamp (photo by David Pearson)

Tips on taking part in a session:

Scan the list on the screen in the photo above — those are the basic things.

Don’t be shy and do join in. Ask questions, share your own stories, talk about articles you’ve read, and so on. You don’t need to be an expert with all the answers, part of the Govcamp is sharing a wide range of experiences.

If you’re tweeting or blogging it’s generally ok to tweet about what’s said (but do respect it when people share something and ask for it not to be shared), but it’s generally best not to refer to who said something without their permission (this is known as the Chatham house rules). And use your judgment about whether tweeting something might get someone in trouble.

A typical govcamp session. No presentation, someone leading the discussion, others taking notes. (photo by David Pearson)

If you’re in a session and not finding that you’re learning much, or able to contribute much, it is perfectly okay to leave that session midway through and go to another one. It’s called ‘the rule of two feet’.

Lunch and other breaks

Lunchtime at Govcamp (photo by David Pearson)

It’s important to understand that while sessions are one part of the day — the time between them is just as important. Not just because of the free lunch (see, there is such a thing!), but because it’s the chance to let serendipity happen by meeting new people and seeing what discussions happen.

Yes, it is always daunting to walk into a big room with lots of people in groups chatting, but I’ll let you into a secret — they’re all just as scared about it as you. Everyone at Govcamp is really friendly, so do make the most of the chance to meet new people. Any group will welcome you joining in. And you may also see people floating round the edge on their own too — stop and chat with them. Just ask people about the last session they were in and the chat will flow from there. (I’m making a point of explaining this because I know how I felt at my first Govcamp)

Leading a session

Tips for session leaders (photo by David Pearson)

The first, and main, rule of leading a session is to show up! Ideally get to the room a little early.

It’s positively welcomed if you actively lead the session, setting up the topic at the beginning, asking questions to the room, making sure everyone has a chance to speak. If you’re a bit timid there’ll be others in the room who can help with this, but you should ask for this as people won’t want to step on your toes.

But don’t think that leading the session means you should dominate it — everyone must have lots of opportunity and time to speak.

Make sure there’s someone in the room taking notes in the official google doc for that session (listed in the google spreadsheet agenda for the day). If not, ask for a volunteer — you can’t do that as well as lead the session.

Keep an eye on time, and keep to time.

It’s okay to ask people to wind up their point so you can move the discussion on, or invite other people to speak. Don’t let anyone hog the floor.

One final thing to mention. Don’t be put off if people do leave your session part way through. Just as I mentioned above, this is normal. People will have a few sessions they are interested in in each slot, and will try to catch a bit of each to find what is the right one for them to be part of.

That’s about it — the rest is up to the people in the room. See? It’s not that bad.


At the end of the day everyone will head to a pub for drinks. Just as with the breaks during the conference, feel free to join groups and conversations. It may seem like there are cliques, but there really aren’t and you’ll be very welcome in any group.

So that’s a simple introduction to the basics of Govcamp. I’ll be there, and am looking forward to whatever serendipitous conversations I end up being part of.

And if it’ll be your first time, you can catch up with what everyone discussed last year in this blog post I published yesterday — Previously At UKGovcamp.

Convivio is a digital agency that brings people together. We design and build digital services for government in a highly collaborative way.

Coming to Govcamp? Come and collect a healthy energising snack from our table in the sponsor area.

For more information see www.weareconvivio.com

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