Dominic Campbell, Director and founder of British consultancy FutureGov, has taken time off from his day job to volunteer for the Labour party election campaign. Dominic kindly found the time between meetings with the likes of Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband for me to interview him about government, what can be learned from the US, and his role in the Labour Party election campaign.
Dominic’s comments relating to the Labour Party are made in a personal capacity and not as director of FutureGov.
John Heaven: Hi Dominic. Many thanks for your time today - I know you must be very busy with only three days to go until the general election. First question: Why did you found FutureGov?
Dominic Campbell: I first became involved in local government as a graduate trainee at Barnet Council. Within four years, I was heading a department. Despite being promoted so quickly, I didn’t have the influence that I had expected. In order to change things for the better, I decided I needed to influence the whole sector instead of being dependent on one manager or one council leader.
JH: What is it about local government that fascinates you?
DC: Funnily enough, I was asked the other day which part of government I’d most like to work in. My answer was unequivocally “local government”: it’s the most diverse, interesting and closest to people. It has a different culture from central government, and the right people at the right time really can be agile and make change without asking for permission. I don’t have time for council leaders who say that government isn’t decentralised enough that they don’t have autonomy to do stuff without asking.
JH: I noticed your work with Harvard University for FutureGov on “eGov” and “WeGov”. What is that all about?
DC: eGov - eGovernment - is top-down and centralised. It’s about maintaining the old way of doing government but doing it more efficiently by adding a layer of IT over old bureaucracy. eGov is expensive, and you have no autonomy as a human being to change things and make them work better. It has gone as far as it can: we’ve had web forms, SAP systems and the like. eGovernment has made government better, but now we’re moving onto the next stage, which is WeGov.
WeGov is about harnessing web 2.0, and promoting social innovation to change the way government works and redesign services. It’s about saying “people are getting on and doing things without us. How can we make the most of what they’re doing?”
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not one of those people who says eGovernment is rubbish and web 2.0 is the only way. eGovernment served a purpose, and it is now evolving to the next stage.
JH: What can the UK learn from the US and vice versa?
DC: The UK led on eGovernment for a while. Many ideas originated in the UK: for example, the Power of Information taskforce, which laid the foundations for open government.
But although we had the ideas, we didn’t have the political drive. Barack Obama pushed these ideas through and that has now given the UK permission to follow. This has been reflected by Gordon Brown inviting Tim Berners-Lee to advise him on opening up government.
The US is good at, and more interested in, inside-out change: they can turn around shiny new websites, and have struck deals with partners - for example Google. They have a collection of New Media Directors, who have a weekly conference call. So there’s a very powerful and co-ordinated group of people dedicated to new media.
The US has the money and focus, but crucially they also accept that culture change is necessary. This is a big struggle in the UK.
On the other hand, in the UK we’re good at just getting on and doing stuff. We are entrepreneurial and good at getting things started. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is really helpful.
The UK is leading the US on social innovation, e.g. Enabled by Design (which FutureGov supports) and School of Everything. These and other organisations take chunks of government and imagine them in a completely different way. The School of Everything has redesigned adult education on a peer-to-peer model.
With my party-political hat on, this is an example of how, under Labour, government can shrink in a more managed way than it would under the Conservatives.
JH: That brings us neatly onto your role as an election campaigner. Why did you get involved in politics? What do you feel you can influence through politics that you can’t change through your work with FutureGov?
DC: I had never been active in party politics before, but I agree with the core values of the party. I felt frustrated because Labour needed some help getting their message out. They were allowing other parties to dominate, and needed help to connect better.
JH: How can politicians “connect”?
DC: Many people assume that politicians don’t want to connect. This is completely untrue, but politicians need the capacity to connect. I was accompanying Gordon Brown the other day and he visited 10 places in 7 hours. I can help by giving him extra capacity to connect using social media.
JH: How is the Labour campaign designed, and was it influenced by the US experience?
DC: We have put something together that nicely matches the US philosophy of community building, but this is also something that fits neatly with the Labour tradition of bringing people together to change things. The Conservatives have generally taken the PR and marketing route - for example using Google AdWords - but Labour is relying on word of mouth in the Labour movement’s tradition of collective action.
JH: We’ve talked a bit about what can be learned from the US. Is there much that the UK can learn from Europe?
DC: Europe isn’t on the radar as much as it should be. I’ve been trying to connect with Europe more for a while now. At the Personal Democracy Forum conference in November, there were a couple of interesting things - for example mapping political influence - but by and large Europe doesn’t feel very energetic. I felt that the European understanding of the role of technology in government was more about conventional PR, not about service redesign.
Continental Europe is more wedded to the EU than the UK - other European countries look to Europe to deliver massive eGovernment funds. David Osimo is doing good work in shifting the focus to smaller, interesting gov 2.0 things.
JH: Thanks very much for your time - I’ll let you get on with the campaigning now, as I know you’re very busy!