A #Goodlaw unConference?


Why we need an unConference to tease out some of the issues discussed at the launch of the Government’s Goodlaw initiative

For those of you unfamiliar with what an unConference is, have a look at UKGovCamp. Some of you may also be interested in the Guardian’s Public Leaders’ Network Live debate from 12pm Friday 19 April on GoodLaw.

I took Puffles along to the launch of the Government’s Goodlaw initiative at the Institute for Government on what was a gorgeously sunny afternoon in that part of London. As Jill Rutter (hosting) remarked, there were a number of new faces in the audience, many of whom perfectly reasonably wondered why some chap had turned up with a big cuddly toy.

“Yeah Pooffles, why did you go?”

During my civil service days when Puffles had only been around for a few months, I went along to Opentech 2011, organised by my good friend and expert in all things computing, Sam Smith. At some mind-blowingly brilliant sessions, I stumbled across this little project about bringing law to the people: Making it much more accessible, making all of the judgements available and linking the various bits of law that feed off each other in a manner that makes scrutiny a damn sight easier than at present.

The problem at the time was that no one was backing it with either the resources or the political clout that was required to make it work. Having spotted that at this time Mike Bracken had been recently appointed executive director of the new Government Digital Service, I stood up in the Q&A session and pointed him out to everyone, saying that he was about to join Cabinet Office at a very senior level, perhaps he can help. I think at this time Mike wanted to thump me for having such a big mouth. I think I learnt my lesson. It was also at this gathering that I met Joanna Geary (then of The Times) and reacquainted myself with Jon Worth. The brain power at that gathering was massive – you couldn’t help but be inspired in such surroundings.

“So…then what happened?”

Fast forward to two years later and Richard Heaton – First Parliamentary Counsel (his lot draft the laws) and John Sheridan of the UK National Archives (no, not the ex-Sheffield Wednesday footballer) launched the Goodlaw initiative, with a little help from my school’s local MP Andrew Lansley, and his Lib Dem deputy Tom Brake MP. Having seen lots of presentations in my time, Richard and John’s presentations were superb. In the grand scheme of things, I’d like to see both of them putting those presentations onto a digital video so that the likes of Puffles and co can cascade the challenge of #Goodlaw to an audience far beyond Whitehall and Westminster.

“Why would anyone beyond Whitehall and Westminster care about the law?”

Because the law belongs to the people, not the government and not even Parliament. We just delegate the responsibility of passing laws to Parliament via elections.

“What’s this got to do with an unConference?”

The scale of the challenge and the breadth of the audience that needs engaging.

At one end you’ve got people looking at some core principles about the language that is used in legislation. When I was in a policy team working on a particular bill, I never got to see the person who was drafting the clauses that my policy area was responsible for – even though I was one of the people writing the ministerial speaking notes (100+ pages of speaking notes for about 2 pages of clauses in the bill). We had this very archaic system of going through departmental lawyers through to Parliamentary Counsel on the drafting.  I’m glad to say that this is one of the things that Richard says he wants changed. Rather than having his team squirrelled away in an ivory tower, they want a greater amount of interaction and feedback.

“How do you feedback to Parliamentary Counsel?”

Well, this is what needs to be unpicked – along with many other things. One of the striking comments for me was around engaging with ‘practitioners’ – the people that use the law on a day to day basis. I’m not talking about the police or lawyers alone, I’m talking about people that have to use, or are bound by specific pieces of legislation that at the moment simply do not work for them or for the benefit of the people.

This underlines the importance – as Lansley said – of pre-legislative scrutiny. Interestingly I think it was Mark D’Arcy who, at the event went after Lansley over the shambles of the Health and Social Care Act – something I spoke out about at the time it was going through Parliament, and also on the issues around the Freedom of Information Act and the Bill’s risk register.

“Hang on Pooffles, what’s this unConference jazz?”

Oh, that. Well, given that the scope of GoodLaw is massive in timescale, breadth (areas it covers) and depth (the amount of detail it could go into), there is a risk that the whole thing is dealt with in little silos, with only a small number of people seeing the big picture. At the same time, there is also the risk that we don’t get the crossover and the multi-disciplinary input that is required in public policy. Bringing people together in a manner that allows people to take on problems on the basis of what they are interested in (& passionate about) rather than on what their job title says could provide the kickstart that such a long term programme needs.

An unConference model is better suited to this because it’s not a day filled with speakers or ‘expert panellists’ giving you death by powerpoint. Rather than having a pre-defined agenda, the principles of unConferences look something like this.

"May I.C. your tikket **pwease**??
“May I.C. your tikket **pwease**?? 

UnConferences are different. For a start, they are generally only possible with the help of volunteers – volunteers who are passionate about whatever the theme of the gathering is.

And why have a finely manicured corporate type at the reception desk when you can have a dragon fairy handing out star stickers instead?

Think of all of the rules that you’d like to do away with at normal conferences…and you’ve got an unConference.

“Why would an unConference work for #GoodLaw?”

For a start there is a difference between your employer saying: “You need to know about this stuff, go to this conference” and someone asking you: “Would you like to help make a difference in this area that you are interested in?”

Given that much of the day will be taken up with workshops facilitated by different people pitching different things, (ones you can drift in and out of), it allows attendees to take a specific issue and, with a group of people, unpick it. This is what I did over a year ago at UKGovCamp 2012 – examining the impact of social media on Whitehall. In particular, I wanted to see what the reaction would be to my view that the press office as we currently understand it will become obsolete.

“What issues could be unpicked at unConference sessions?”

  • Big data: How do we go about the task of collecting, cleaning, crunching and analysing the data that is out there? What are the technical barriers and how do we overcome them?
  • I fought the law and the law won: In schools, ‘the law’ is often framed within a policing context rather than a ‘these are your rights and responsibilities as a citizen context’ – or even as a ‘the reason why we have laws is…’ context. How do we change the framing of the law within schools so that it is in an empowering context rather than one that is in a ‘don’t get arrested’ context?
  • Crowd-sourcing Parliamentary scrutiny: How can we the people help MPs and peers do their jobs better at scrutinising legislation? This is both at a policy and at a clause-by-clause level
  • The cross-over between policy and law-making: I’m privileged to have worked in a policy team working on a bill, seeing it pass through all its stages of Parliament with a front row seat. (I even got to sit in the civil service box in the Commons during its second reading too, which was a nice buzz even though it meant 7 hours of solid concentrating during the entire debate. And you think a 3 hour exam is hard going!) Yet I came away from that experience deeply unhappy with the legislative process, turning policy into law. Too much decent scrutiny is missed. How can we use social media to overcome this, and increase the capacity of our parliamentarians when scrutinising?
  • What are the outputs of GoodLaw? What do we want to create, how do we want to create them, what safeguards need to be put in place and how do we make them accessible to as wide an audience as possible while making sure they are fit for purpose to specialists?
  • How do we apply the outputs of the Goodlaw project into day-to-day work? It’s all very well having these fancy tools, but if users out in the real world can’t use them, then what’s the point? Also, how will the use of these tools be built into the policy-making processes? How can they be used to develop not just better law but better policy too?
  • How do we market and publicise this whole initiative? Does it sound like it’s only aimed at lawyers, or public administration types? How do we say to people far beyond Whitehall and Westminster that actually, this matters. And it matters a great deal?

“Who would host this thing?”

Again, we could use the UKGovCamp model, but perhaps apply it to the legal world in the first instance in terms of finding premises that we could use on a Saturday. UKGovCamp has managed to get hold of some massive IT firms’ offices in recent years, so is it beyond a gathering of social media legal types (I’m sure I recall at least one in existence in London) that could secure premises for this, as well as sponsorship.

Organising one of these things is far beyond both my capacity healthwise and competency, but certainly I’d recommend bouncing off the likes of Steph Gray, Lloyd Davis and Dave Briggs (who set the standard with UKGovCamp) if you are interested in organising something like this.

How would it be different to UKGovCamp?

For me, rather than taking all things digital and applying it to the public sector generally, this gathering is looking at improving law within a social and digital media context. The big picture outcome is similar in terms of making society a better place, but this is very much about looking at law through a given lens rather than say public services or public administration in general through a social/digital lens.

This sort of picks up on something that I want to end with regarding law.

Law is not just for lawyers – it’s for all of us.

Politics is not just for politicians – it’s for all of us.

Even science is not just for scientists – it’s for all of us.

Yes, specialists are important – essential even. But that’s not to say we should leave it to them alone to deal with the problems facing their area of expertise. Given the complexity of the problems that we face, it’s just as important to have the generalists who can provide input, challenge and scrutiny too. It’s important that the non-specialists feel they have the ability and the knowledge to ask the informed questions of the specialists so that the specialists can bring their expertise to a wider audience.

An unConference on #Goodlaw could be one way to kick that off.


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