Parkrun – a model for innovation in the public sector

Here are some thoughts about unconferences/barcamps and their role in supporting innovation in the public sector. Apologies if they’re half-formed (my thoughts that is – if I had more time I would throw in more ‘theory’) but I write them on the back of a point I made at work today where ‘cross-innovation’ was being discussed (in the context of this project).

Crossing the start line
I mentioned how there was a time where local government just did conferences and now it does a lot of unconferences. So many in fact that it’s easy to forget what the pre-unconference era felt like. Unconference participants seem to really value them and feel, in general terms, that these are genuine spaces for innovation.

And yet some are questioning how valid the format is. Where’s the Return On Investment wonders Paul Coxon? They’re part of a wider ‘learning mix’ says Dave Briggs in response. Dave warns his readers off “ascrib[ing] overly high expectations for what they might achieve.” I think Dave might be undervaluing this movement and Paul hasn’t thought through how we can solve the ROI bit.

I reckon the unconference/barcamp movement within the public sector could be an amazing transformational tool that could foster the latent innovation in a wider, more diverse range of public sector staff.

In order to do that it should look to Parkrun as a model for participation.

I love Parkrun. In simple terms this is a weekly 5 kilometre, timed, running race, held in a local park. It began in North London in Bushy Park in 2004 and now takes place in 152 locations every week with nearly 225,000 people in the UK having participated. Runners register online and their times are recorded, enabling them to can compare themselves against others from across the UK. The tech bit boils down to each runner having a barcode (printed out from the site after registration), they take it to the run and have it scanned at the end of the race. At some point mid-morning the data is uploaded and you can see how you did.

Now each Parkrun is totally volunteer run (it takes maybe 10 people to make each race happen – marshalling, timekeeping etc.). There’s a light-touch organisation called Parkrun that pulls in some sponsorship money which is then ploughed into growing the movement.

Now in large part running is a totally selfish activity so how does Parkrun connect to the sharing ethos of the unconference/barcamp movement and in what ways does it offer a route to the scaling up of innovation? Here’s how:

  • There are lots of places for it to happen – the UK has plenty of parks waiting to be filled with eager runners. In the same way that there are lots of spaces for discussion and unconferences to happen. See Brewcamp for an example of a micro-level ‘un’ event that makes use of local coffee shops and pubs.
  • Your participation is measured and can be compared with others – you know that there will always be someone quicker/better than you. However, measurement against others doesn’t necessarily create jealousy – most runners don’t want to be the fastest. For example, my current battle is to be as good as I used to be – the data gives me a welcome push.
  • It recognises that different forms of participation should be rewarded more than others – volunteering to organise a race scores more points. Turning up to 50 or 100 events gets you some goodies. If you’re a junior then you only need 10 runs to get some goodies. In some ways the points system here is a kind of Klout for running – it’s a light touch measurement of your social capital. But point-scoring really matters. It’s evidence you did something, that you participated and that the participation made a difference to you and to others (presuming you give back a little by volunteering). It challenges hierarchies rather than creates them, it enables us all all to see a route to the top.
  • The technology behind the measurement system is low-cost and works at scale – each race takes £5k to start-up. I suspect it could be less as Parkrun seem to want to supply you with their barcode scanner + laptop. The point however is that it works. And the same tech works at races with 50 runners as well as 500 runners.
  • It recognises that it can’t make people better runners, it can only create the conditions – Number 5 of Parkrun’s ‘General Principles‘ says that you should have a post-run meeting place. The reality is that as soon as you cross the line you’re chatting; to regulars, or to the person who kept up with you, or who beat you on the sprint finish, or who also wears bright pink socks. Whatever the reason, the adrenalin gives you a little push to be less shy, to smile at other people, to want to share the moment. Parkrun, the organisation, makes none of this happen; but it facilitates the running together at the same time, on a regular basis. That makes it happen.
  • There’s a return on investment that is measurable to which Parkrun makes a small but useful contribution – the reason that some local authorities put money into Parkruns (50% of the £5k is from Parkrun, 50% from local sources) is that it’s easy to write a business case for. Everyone has health and well-being targets to meet and if there’s a low-cost, measurable way to contribute to that target then £2.5k isn’t a lot of money.

So, taking my cue from above, what should the Public Sector unconference/barcamp movement do to be more like Parkrun? It should:

  1. Have many, many more, smaller events. Be more like Brewcamp.
  2. It should measure participation and recognise different levels of participation (reward panel pitching, reward cake-making, reward tidying up afterwards, reward being an event organiser).
  3. People should score actual points, that are trackable online, for their participation.
  4. It should find a simple, low-cost, technology solution to all this.
  5. It should use the data generated from wide-spread participation to demonstrate its value to the public, to politicians, to senior public officials, to whoever asks for it.
  6. It should recognise that it can only create the conditions, not control the outcomes. This blog post is arguing that although the current conditions facilitate discussion that can support innovation, the scale is not there and it is not measurable. This movement has to recognise that I think.

In short, I can’t understand why someone hasn’t seen the potential in this the same way Podnosh has in the Social Media Surgery movement.

Whatever happens, enjoy your running.