The Gov 2.0 Camp LA Drama: Lessons for Community

Community events have become very common these days. Ever since the days of the first BarCamp – an unconference event that caters mainly to developers and techheads and is organized around attendees picking time slots to speak in on the day of the event – and transitioning to other similar style events,  like PodCamp, WordCamp, and now Gov 2.0 Camp, these events have become a catalyst for grassroots movement in the areas they focus in.

As a WordPress guy, my roots are with the WordCamp events that are held around the country. I just got back from WordCamp NYC 2 and we’ll be announcing details on WordCamp Mid-Atlantic 2010 around the new year. I’ve been to a ton of these kinds of events. I flew to Boston for PodCamp Boston 2, attended the inaugural PodCamp Philly a few years ago (still the best of its kind, in my opinion) and been involved with a variety of other events like it.

One thing I can say is that through a variety of events, in a variety of communities, with a variety of organizers… the same consistent lessons about community always shine through. If you have a motivated community that is supported by each other and encouraging each other to champion on and grow; if there is a sense of collaboration and alliance; then and only then, the greater community of artists, developers, innovators, business owners, entrepreneurs and enthusiasts can thrive.

To this end, I’m disappointed by the negative turn that has been aroused around the Gov 2.0 Camp LA.

Picture A Day September 13, 2009 - Heaven Community Rules

Mark Drapeau, referred to commonly as @cheeky_geeky, has been the target of many blog posts around the ether including on this blog. He comes out swinging hard at Gov 2.0 Camp LA for no apparent reason that is suitable or conducive to growing community:

My opinion can be briefly summarized as the following: I think it’s thrown together. I think it’s careless. I think it’s Mickey Mouse. I cannot figure out what the objective is beyond getting a bunch of hyped up people together in one place to drink kool-aid, despite seeming to promise the opposite. I see blanket statements and marketing slogans, but very little original thought. I see remarkably little tie-in with the mainstream conversation about what Government 2.0 means philosophically, experimentally, and practically. I don’t believe the word “policy” is even mentioned in the blog post above that describes the event – how can you describe a Gov 2.0 event and not mention policy? When what the conference stands for is dissected, it is difficult to determine how anything will be advanced by it, or how it will truly differ from numerous other mundane events sprouting up around this hot topic.

I understand Mark is passionate about Government 2.0. He wears that mantle very publicly and seems to, after a regression into a fairly normal existence in the greater community, rear his head again to slap down a localized community event suited for the LA government community, not DC.

A major problem here is that community is not built through attack. Through this entire article, he seems to be on the defensive in what can only be described as a territorial fear for the loss of stature. Or perhaps, it’s his affiliation with the O’Reilly Media folks who put on a competing event. Either way, Mark’s position in the Government 2.0 community is perceived to be threatened here. There can be no other explanation for the vitriol that goes into the intentional effort to relegate another Gov 2.0 community event into a vilified event. Is there a blacklist that future events can sign onto in advance?

Instead of attacking, which is apparently the modus operandi in this particular fight, let me offer some constructive criticism from my experience as a community event organizer. Mark, since this will undoubtedly appear in front of your face, let me go on record and say that you have publicly asked for people to respond to your comments and not ad hominem. I cannot do that because I can’t speak with any authority on your comments. I can speak with authority on community and community events, though, and that is what I will do.

  • Local events are local events. Unless there is a foundation or organization of some sort, as is the case with Social Media Club, that dictates formats and expectation, leave the local event to the local organizer.
  • The local organizers know their communities better than you ever will.
  • Local events are meant to be local. Not national. Not international. If you want national or international, throw a full conference, not an unconference.
  • Lead by example. If you want your event to be the model for other events, then make sure the public face on the event is approachable and well-liked. It’s not a popularity contest, but people shy away from polarizing people. Like me, trust me.
  • Yield the floor to any competing views or events. What’s good for the Gov 2 community somewhere is probably good elsewhere. It may not be what we need in DC, but maybe it’s exactly what is needed in LA.
  • Support other organizers. Don’t shoot allies. You may need them at some point.
  • The coworking communities of Independents Hall in Philly, New Work City in NY, Citizen Space in San Francisco and the Beehive in Baltimore all thrive because, as communities, they all recognize that they feed each other and are built in that way. What one person lacks, someone else brings to the table. Innovation and collaboration birthed out of working together.

Now that I have criticized (hopefully constructively) Mark’s reaction, it is only fair that I make some (hopefully constructive) observations about the Gov 2.0 Camp LA effort. First, they do seem to take the approach that G2CLA is the same event as G2CDC and that it is just “going on the road”. This is not the case. They are two different events. Fix this and remove any question. The LA event is the LA event. The DC event is the DC event.

Secondly, stop posturing against G2CDC. As mentioned above, the two events are connected in that they are both catering to government professionals and contractors as well as vendors and others looking to revolutionize the government interaction with citizens. This should not be toned in an us and them (LA vs DC) framework. LA should take what makes sense from DC and put their own spin on it. Leave what doesn’t make sense.

If I were the LA organizers, I’d keep the whole event tightly focused on state and local politics – specifically California and southern California. Additionally, with no offense intended toward whoever designed the official site, it needs work including schedule, sessions, etc. We will not go live with WordCamp Mid-Atlantic’s new site until we’re good and ready for it.

Community is only as good as the participants in it. Pissing on fire hydrants and shelling people based on personalities? Not so much.

Photo taken by Matt High

10 Replies to “The Gov 2.0 Camp LA Drama: Lessons for Community”

  1. You make some valuable points. As the primary organizer of the Government 2.0 Camp: LA I would like to state that there has never been any intention on from anyone involved with this camp to “compete”. Additionally, we felt we were paying homage to what has already occurred and want to build on that. The event site, is a continual work in progress and will soon have everything you suggest above and more. Most importantly, we want to emphasize this is about societal change. Change at the Local, State, Federal and even International Levels. It is a big community, and and early one. It is a very exciting time.

    Alan Silberberg
    CEO, You2Gov
    Organizer, Gov20LA
    @You2Gov on Twitter

  2. Aaron,

    I have a feeling that I am going to get flamed for this as well (perhaps deflecting some from you), but my perspective is that of someone who spent 15 years in the private sector and the last two in government.

    And being a government employee, I have to preface this comment by stating that the views expressed in this commentary are mine and mine alone and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

    Back to business.

    I feel the collective pain in this post — by both you and Mark, and here’s why.

    I am director of new media in my agency and I am happy to say that I have had some successes in getting social media initiatives accomplished. I’m lucky, because I have support at the highest levels.

    That said, early on in my government career, I sought out networking events and came in with expectations that they would be like those I knew so well in the private sector. Well, I stopped going because for me to invest time in something, I need to LEARN. Learn what is next. Learn what is cool. Learn about a new social media tool that I was not familiar with and how to make it work. I’m not interested in networking for socializing or job seeking. Not my style.

    What I encountered at these events was people asking question like “what is twitter?” and “how do I use it?” rather than the subject matter of events that I was used to in the private sector. This is not to say that there is s differing level of sophistication between government and the private sector, but when I found myself doing more teaching than learning, I stopped going. Selfish? Probably.

    And to the other point about Mickey Mouse events, I can’t speak to the planning (except for what I said above), but I can say that, in order to have events in the federal government, we have to pay for stuff out of out own pockets. That’s right. We had HUGE event at my employer just last week and since it began at breakfast time, I jokingly asked where the coffee and donuts were. And I was told that if they were to be served, the employees of my agency — the organizers themselves — would have had to pay for the stuff out of their own pockets.

    So for me, Government 2.0 events ARE different than private sector events for some basic reasons:

    1) The private sector pays more. And the talent usually follows the money — but not always. I am the exception to the rule. I got OUT of the private sector.

    2) Many — but not all — of those who have assumed a role in social media in government were promoted from within and NOT recruited from the private sector. This leads to an on-the-job training and a slower learning curve.

    3) Social media is an enormously tough sell in government. you have to have buy-in at the highest levels if you want to accomplish anything. And accomplishing things gives you the opportunity to share success stories with colleagues. This leads to collective learning, rather than (“Can we get this through legal?)

    4) Compared to the private sector, the government is NOT good at putting on events, especially with precious little budget. We don’t have four color, glossy brochures and the most powerful Macs to do cool stuff (or the talent, in my case). And I have yet to meet anyone in government whose title is “Event Planner.” Combine this with the fact that the overwhelming majority of these events are done on someone’s personal time (see point #3 about support) and you often get a well-intentioned, but ultimately, amateur event. I saw a lot more willingness in the private sector to put on a bar camp (and give you the time to do it) than in government, where many people still don’t GET social media and are reluctant to green-light activities that take away from work time.

    My two cents.

    Flame away.


    1. Hey Mark-

      Can’t argue with a word you’ve said. However, I think it’s important to note my context around Gov 2.0. It is both public sector and private sector. Additionally, the Gov 2.0 Camp DC and LA are not paid for by government agencies. This does not change the greater challenge in this post and that is community.

      1. Good points. I think that there will be pride of authorship for whomever puts on an event, and rightfully so. I’ve never known someone who says “Let’s make an event that sucks.”

  3. Aaron: Thanks for a thoughtful and constructive post. My post was written quickly, but not out of feeling threatened. If I were threatened, I would have joined the planning committee as Alan asked me a couple of times. Rather, I wrote it because from everything I understand, I don’t support it at present. Now, that’s my preliminary opinion, as the title says, and I don’t tell people not to go, but rather I tell them to take a critical eye and decide for themselves. I’m not trying to lead a boycott or anything. But it is a relatively high-profile camp, people ask me about it, and I don’t understand a lot of things in the materials that have been put out so far.

    Your points about all-camps-are-local are more subtle. I’m not sure I agree. But with your premise, yes, maybe I shouldn’t comment. On the other hand, half the planning committee isn’t from Alan’s local area. That’s actually an interesting panel discussion best saved for a IRL event from SMC or something. – Are all camps local?

    1. The “Are all camps local?” question is a major defining question and I agree that more discussion needs to happen around that. I’ve clearly made my thoughts known on that but to re-emphasize, a camp that is not geared to a locality or region is counterintuitive and counterproductive. The goal is to engage the local communities in a grass root effort.

      The camps that I’ve seen that cater to a larger audience have less impact than smaller audiences and since localized events are more effective in doing than talking. Think Startup Weekend, which is not technically a camp, but is a hyperlocal event anyway. 54 hours for an entrepreneur or team to go from concept to prototype, including business resources and planning. The resources are there. The bloviating that goes with conferences isn’t.

      Then you had the PodCamp Boston 2 event I mentioned in my post. I believe the number of registrants was approximately 2000… way too many for a local event. Only 700 showed up. They had the Boston Convention Center thanks in no small part to Jeff Pulver giving space out of his VON event that year. People came from NYC, DC, London, Australia and other places around the world and the event was largely seen as a failure. Future PodCamps in Boston went back to their roots.

      All this to say, there’s nothing that restricts event organizers in their scope, but I think the expectation and, in fact, the best return comes on highly local events.

  4. As someone who’s been on the outskirts of the Gov 2.0 space I have to admit I was shocked to read the nasty attack by Mark. As someone asked to help plan the LA conference, I was even more taken aback because we haven’t even gotten down to details yet.

    If this is how the space behaves, I have to say I’m really reluctant to become further involved. DC political pissing matches? Lack of support, infighting, men feeling threatened that they aren’t in control… bah. DC can keep it.

  5. Aaron, you bring some good points to the table and I just recently have been able to put some attention to this, as part of the planning committee.

    As Alan is the main organizer and has put out information thus far, I think the details have yet to be put out. Right now as I see it, it is a marketing campaign to gain interest.

    As Mark and others who attended the Government 2.0 Camp in DC, you will note the details of the event (agenda items, aside from the Movie), were not determined until the morning of, as some unconference do. I do believe this will be the case.

    We do have some themes we do wish to address, as Alan has posted previously.

    This is an LA based event. And at the close of the DC event, participants were told to go forth and start chapters and events on their own.

    We attempted to make Government 2.0 Club (with the guidance of Chris Heuer of Social Media Club) something out of the DC event. Coming up with a mission statement and charter, yet no real action from anyone on the planning committee of getting the club off and running or regular scheduled events.

    In fact, Social Media Club DC would like to extend a formal hand in assisting Government 2.0 Club and Government 2.0 Club DC to get organized if such a desire is out there (especially since my interests cross into both). Additionally, SMC-DC is planning their events into 2010 and could coordinate the launch of Government 2.0 Club events with an SMC-DC event.

  6. Soooo DC to criticize something that hasn’t even happened yet. This culture of “thou shall not”, which seeps down into the lowest levels of Washington life, is a good reason for the rest of the country to hate this city. If I was in LA, I’d want to put on this conference even more. And I would want to make it as wild and as open as possible, in contrast to the permission-seeking and withholding micromanagers of DC.

    Plus, it’s an unconference! Unlike other well known conferences that charge hundreds of dollars a day, this one is free. People who attended Gov 2.0 camp in DC got to hear and meet many of the same people who speak at the high-priced conference – in a much more fun, interactive, open and freewheeling environment.

    It’s bizarre to me that Government 2.0 is all about openness, democracy and transparency yet we have minor functionaries in Capitol City issuing edicts about which are the approved conferences.

  7. Excellent recap, if this isn’t a major organized event and simply designed around a local audience to bring talented minds together to mingle, you can’t expect the world. Obviously, all event organizers should try their best to put together a good collaborative environment, but these community events are about bringing people together to make connections and flourish.

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