At the beginning of this year, the New York State Senate brought in Andrew Hoppin as their CIO with a mandate to revolutionize the way the NY Senate engaged people. The NY Senate’s new website is the first major tangible product of Andrew’s new and talented team. On June 5th, I attended another result of this newfound momentum in New York’s government, CapitolCamp. A one-day BarCamp-style conference, CapitolCamp was in Albany, at the New York State Capitol, hosted by the New York State Senate, CIO, and the New York State CIO.

This is the first time (that I know of) that a government agency at the state-level or above has held an “un-conference” like this. Most of you know this already, but for those who don’t, the main idea behind such a conference, and what many government agencies might find threatening, is that it’s participant-driven, and without a predetermined roster of talks. It represents an experiment and a risk by its nature, so I was eager to see how New York would pull it off.

As it turned out, CapitolCamp was inspiring — and yet a bit of a letdown. Both the Senate CIO and the State CIO offices seemed to feel the need to control a great deal of the show. There were 3 rooms set aside for breakout talks, but the opening remarks, and subsequent official presentations by each CIO office, held the audience in their seats in the main room until past noon. It was interesting to hear each office’s plans and roadmap, but the talks were very formal, longer than they needed to be, and strictly PowerPoint. It must have gone longer than even the planners intended, for they had to cut the first time slot for participant sessions out of the schedule.

Once the main sessions began, and people broke out into the 3 different rooms, things lightened up considerably. The sessions fell roughly into two categories – social media in government, and the data of government. Among the latter variety, one speaker was from Civx, an intense data aggregation and visualization website that focuses on New York State data, discussed their platform and the startlingly comprehensive amount of data they’ve collected.

Most of the other data and website-oriented talks were by members of the NY Senate CIO team. This was great, because we had the opportunity to hear tech-savvy government employees discuss their plans, and to give them ideas and feedback of our own. The interactions felt genuine, and it often seemed like ideas from the audience would make it into later discussions inside the Senate.

I think CapitolCamp was definitely a success, and I really hope they do it again next year. Not only did it succeed at putting a human face on the technical hurdles government faces in doing what we want them to, I think it left many attendees more engaged with the mechanics and potential of state level government, something that needs to happen everywhere. Its main problem is that it remained too much a top-down conference. Next CapitolCamp, the CIO offices need to relax, lose the PowerPoint, and allow themselves to be part of the participant schedule. It also just needs more attendees to salt the audience and speaker roster, and that’s something that will improve each year.

Thanks to the NY Senate and NY CIO for running such a unique event, and for allowing everyone to be a part of it for free. Seeing such energy and work coming out of the government of such a large state, especially one in a budget crisis, was very uplifting, and I hope that the New York Senate’s model becomes the model for many other state legislatures.