Notes from GovCamp #ukgc19

A post about GovCamp that might not be entirely about GovCamp

Sam Villis
11 min readJan 24, 2019


A list of pitches that I wanted to go to. I only made it to one of these!

Last Saturday I got up early and headed off on a cold train to attend UK CovCamp at the MoJ offices in Westminster.

Lots of people have already written their thoughts down about the day (you’ll probably find them if you search #ukgc19) and, as there were so many different sessions, I recon you’ll get a different perspective from each of them.

You can also find the session titles with accompanying notes here courtesy of Convivio…

I got to Kings Cross and met the gorgeous and brilliant Jenny. I confided that I wasn’t feeling too strong, so it was good to have a buddy to arrive with (and especially good if that buddy is Jenny).

When we arrived Lizzi was there and over the course of the day we spent a lot of time together which I really enjoyed. I saw Louise, and Cate, and Julia and Doug and Alex and Dan and Terence and Ben and Audree and, and, and…

Within the first half an hour I’d met probably 20 people that I knew and it was great that lots of my favourite people were all in the same place.

I did however feel like I didn’t have the strength to bring my A-game, and on that note…

Who even are we?!

A key theme of the day for me was around identity. Who are all these people?

Quite aside form the actual “who are you and do I know you? Have we met before?” of which there is some (and which Stefan has a handy solution for here) there’s also (for those of us who score more highly on the introverted or worrier scales) something along the lines of:

“Am I being the person these people might think I am?”

This might be a particular trait of people who write about ourselves on the internet, but it might not. In the past I’ve described wiritng on the internet as “the tidier version of me”.

There’s an inherent vulnerability to putting yourself out there and representing yourself online. I guess a gathering like GovCamp is where this plays out big time in the real world. Becoming fairly well known for a thing comes with it’s own challenges. More thoughts on that later.

I didn’t sleep well the night before, I couldn’t bring myself to pitch, Amanda’s lovely mention of David P made me cry, and I struggled to concentrate. All of this added up to making it much harder for me to approach anyone and speak to new people.

More of the list of sessions I didn’t make it to.

Dan and Louise both wrote after the event with a lot of subtlety and thoughtfulness about this. I particularly enjoyed this observation from Louise’s weeknotes:

What I see is a poor reflection of myself through nerves. I see me over-compensating with many, many words, not all of them ones I’d have chosen had I been more my normal self. It’s like the times I come back to reality after having power-eaten a family bag of crisps in under two minutes. It’s a birds-eye view, a slow-mo of me shovelling them in by the fistful like a bait ball feeding frenzy. I think: who is this person?

Or this from Dan:

I’d really like an amnesty for “I know you from Twitter but I’m shy.”

So what am I saying, I guess, is this: if you saw me and you were expecting a certain me, then I’m sorry if I wasn’t that me on the day. In reality I am many me’s (as are a whole bunch of us).

By writing about this I hope that anyone else feeling a bit odd after GovCamp knows that they aren’t alone.

Also know that if you ever want to talk to me please do and I will hugely appreciate that you made the effort on my behalf. If I seem a bit aloof or cold know that internally I’ll be working overtime in an attempt to be warm and present for you.

As a side note, I can’t fault the organisation of the day and nothing GovCamp did caused or exacerbated these feelings for me. The sessions I attended were well facilitated and welcoming, Faces were friendly and there were plenty of spaces to break away and have smaller conversations (or hide).

Anyway. Onwards!


I was stunned and humbled by the number of people that attended the weeknotes session that Jenny and Lizzy pitched. The picture below shows that there were at least 30 people in the room, though I suspect some people are hidden from view.

I thought the conversation was warm and open. People asked lots of questions and people gave their views on why we do this thing.

A packed room for the Weeknotes session at GovCamp

@jukesie gave a really good reminder of where weeknotes came from and how they serve a function within teams. To communicate progress, to give updates and to bring others along with you.

It’s fairly obvious (maybe? is it?) how this fits in with working in an agile way, but the practice has slightly evolved and expanded to become more like traditional blogging, with self-reflection, learning and culture being key aspects of the writing.

Its important to note that both are equally useful and valid and, even though I have written about weeknotes styles in the past, this is by no means exhaustive and there is no right way of doing this. You can’t do it wrong.

I hope weeknotes continue to evolve and expand. Please, bring your uniqueness and thoughts to the space, I am so interested to read them.

There were a number of questions that came up so I thought I would answer them here:

Questions about weeknotes from GovCamp

When to do them?

Finding time to write was a problem for a number of people and something that a lot of us weeknoters have struggled with in the past. There is no real answer but it depends broadly on what you would like to achieve.

Are you communicating about work or a particular project or service? Can you carve out work time to do them? If so, do!

@jukesie said he takes an hour on a Friday afternoon to weeknote and symbolically close the week.

Others who use weeknotes as self-reflection prefer to leave some space after the week to take stock and think about themes rather than details. T(his can also often take the heat out of anything you want to write about but aren’t sure how.)

A big shout out to James who spoke a little about his daynotes here. He described how when he blogs he keeps a record of where he was when he wrote them, when he started and when he finished. This practice demystifies the process for people and it’s something I’m going to take up (although I spend waaaay too long on these things and it may be slightly worrying so don’t pay too much attention to it).

Is it worth the time?

It depends what you are trying to achieve. If you’re trying to communicate your team’s progress internally and your weeknotes are taking several hours to produce then there might be something going wrong somewhere.

If you’re interested in the self-reflection angle then I would say it’s like anything, you get out what you put in. By making weeknotes a practice I’ve become much better at identifying my strengths and weaknesses, thinking more deeply about what makes me good or bad at my job, and how I can get better. I believe that the couple of hours I spend each week are definitely worth it.

Dan noted that there’s also an upside if you’re bad at small talk — people already know something about you and it’s easier to get talking about something you have in common or care about (which chimes with what I’ve said above about being our best selves at events).

Cate said that she uses weeknotes as a way of holding herself to account to do the things she says she will. I know a lot of people will probably identify with that.

What is the right way?

There is no right way, steal whatever format you like, try something, try something else, and if it doesn’t work go your own way!

What tools do you use to create weeknotes?

Lots of us use Medium because it’s an existing platform and has a smartphone app meaning you can add notes to a draft during your week. This is also where you’ll find the Web of Weeknotes community.

Some people take notes on their phone or on paper during the week.

Others publish to their own sites. Some people even just use Twitter for a very short reminder. HT to Joanne for this:

How to filter content (and keep it appropriate)?

I think that this question relates to how you know what to write and write things that will be of interest to others. I don’t have a good answer for that, though there are some more thoughts on this below.

One key piece of advice which is good in all instances is “Don’t be a dick” – if you wouldn’t say it in real life then don’t say it online.

People talked about venting and then deleting lots of their weeknotes in order to mentally process things but not publish them.

Civil Servants are bound by the Civil Service Code which provides more guidance. But I would also say, get support from your peers, ask other weeknoters or people you trust to read through them if you’re not sure.

Or write them for yourself but don’t publish. All of these are options!

Leadership and role modelling?

I think this question was around how weeknotes enable you to role model good behaviours within a team or organisation but I can’t quite remember. I remember that there was a point about how you might do this if you actually can’t weeknote, and we talked a little about sharing other people’s work and amplifying the good things in order to help build understanding within your team.

What kind of voice to use?

An actual language question that I’m not sure we answered in the session. I would say that people probably prefer to read the active voice, but do whatever suits you, short and snappy bullet point lists are perfectly valid if you’re not sure about writing.

Do you have to have permission?

I’m fairly sure that most of us have not sought permission to write. Cate spoke about seeking forgiveness instead when she started.

Jenny has said before that for her blogging is directly related to performance management and trust. If you trust me to do my job effectively and for me to understand how best to do my job, if I decide that blogging helps me to do my job it should be ok. If I blog something which suggests otherwise that’s a performance management issue. I know not everyone else is this empowered though.

Amanda talked about being told when she started her job that she would not be allowed to blog but she decided when she was promoted that she had the authority to overturn that decision and allow others. So there’s something here about finding senior people in your organisation (or wider) who understand these benefits, they will be your allies.

How do you feel? and, How do you separate work and life?

We all have different levels of comfort with sharing. Do as much (or as little) as feels comfortable.

You might not want to write about your life outside work and that’s totally fine. For me, I feel that the two are inextricably linked and, as part of role modelling and leadership behaviours I believe it’s important for me to share information about my mental health and life outside work because I want my work environment to be inclusive and respect people’s full selves. But that’s what is important for me, you might have something else you want to write about.

Has anyone been sacked?

No, nobody’s been sacked but some people have had battles about publishing. Seek allies per the above. As with any social media be careful.

Working in the open

Dan’s session on working in the open was one of the most interesting conversations I’ve been part of in a long time. I won’t go into huge levels of detail here because you’ll find the notes in the link at the top of this blog, but there were a few things that stood out for me.

“Feeling the edges of what it was acceptable for me to say”
  • I liked how Dan described blogging in the open as a way of “feeling the edges” working out what’s important to us and to the wider organisation. I sometimes like to think of us a little list experimenters, working out how best to communicate and tell stories
  • We work in organisations that are (rightly) subject to public scrutiny, so our work is interesting to a wide audience
  • There’s a tension between writing as an individual and writing as an organisation and that line often gets blurry
  • People expressed a frustration about organisations being too risk averse to communicate properly, working secretly or putting up barriers to working in the open because of fear of representational damage. Examples of organisations “shutting down” after being embarrassed or shamed by something is really frustrating to a lot of people
  • Sometimes people kick off on Twitter. This shouldn’t be a surprise because it’s Twitter. But Twitter isn’t representative of everyone and when you polarise sides of an argument there will always be a winner and loser

On a side note I sometimes wonder if (and worry that) by blogging as individuals we are acting as failure demand for our organisations.

In some instances personal blogging can lead to people being perceived as the face of an organisation which is very different from the real situation. But people like accountability, and they like to go to a single source of truth and a “face” they recognise. Are we inadvertently making people the face of their organisation, and what does that do the the safety and vulnerability of those individuals?

I think this will only get better as more people start working in the open.

There was more said in this session but as you can tell from the picture above I got too engrossed and didn’t make any notes as a result.

And finally

More than this happened, but these all felt like they added up to a wider theme. What do you think? Please let me know here or on Twitter.

Thanks for reading.

I wrote this blog post on a train journey from Worcester to London which took approximately 2 hours. Ok, full disclosure, the journey was delayed by an additional 20 minutes and then I wrote more when I got on my next train (another 20 minutes) and then tidied it up and added pictures the next day. So maybe 3 hours, or a little more to write this.



Sam Villis

Now: @socialfinanceuk Prev:@ldgovuk, Head of Digital at National Leadership Centre. GDS. Proud to be @OneTeamGov.