steph-portraitDigital Heroes; our series of quick chats with people doing interesting digital work in and around government, has so far been a roaring success (well, my mum likes it). We’ve heard from engagement people, culture hackers, social entrepreneurs and big data types – but I feel like there’s been an obvious and glaring exception. That exception is Steph Gray of Helpful Digital, arguably one of the most well-known, well-liked and well-respected people in the field. A lot of you are probably already aware of him from his work organising Gov Camp, the Social Simulator, the Digital Engagement Guide and his blogging, but for those of you who are reading this on another continent, you might not have come across him. For those people and also to give the rest of you an idea of how much influence Steph has, I decided to hack the format somewhat and ask a few notables what they thought of him.

This isn’t a blog post, this is a tribute.

“In terms of digital in government, I don’t think there is an opinion I value more – whether face to face or in a blog post. He cuts straight to the nub of an issue and does it in such an elegant way that it makes you embarrassed for your own daft and muzzy thinking.  All hail the new Apollo!”
Christian Storstein, Digital Engagement Manager, The Scottish Government.

“Steph is a veritable giant of the digital world and an inspiration to even those of us mere mortals who know him from afar. He somehow combines an unassuming and mild demeanor with the ability to just get things done and get other people to work harder than they thought they would, producing not only great work but also a sense of team and direction that people want to be a part of. I genuinely wish I could do some work with him in the future and tick him off my bucket list of top digital collaborators. Steph, you are a true digital hero.”
Glen Ocskó, of ‘We Love Local Gov’ fame.

“You don’t realise how good it is to work with Steph until you stop. I have never come across anyone so able to marry a deep understanding of government with the ability to make technical magic happen quickly and beautifully. A real star of the sector.”
Anthony Zacharzewski, Chief Executive, The Democratic Society.

“Steph is a true digital hero who has helped move Government digital forward in the last few years. He is creative, innovative, very supportive and always happy to chat and give practical advice where it’s needed. It’s been a pleasure having the opportunity to have worked with him and Helpful Technology.”
Marc Archbold, Content Lead / general digital dude, Ministry of Justice.

“Steph Gray ranks high in my top 10 public service heroes because he has this genius knack of mediating his encyclopaedic frame of reference in an accessible, generous, and gentlemanly manner for the benefit of others.  If the public sector were full of Stephs the business he has since moved on to wouldn’t have an addressable market.  Try saying Sir Steph Gray quickly three times in a row, you’ll need the practice.”
Esko Reinikainen, Co-Founder, The Satori Lab.

1.  What’s your name and where are you from?
Steph Gray. The ‘lesteph’ thing was a university nickname (I’m half French) and comes in handy getting social media profiles. I’m from the south coast originally, now in London.

2.  What do you do for a living?
Apologise profusely, much of the time. Mainly that’s because I’m juggling running Helpful Technology, a digital engagement firm, and also The Social Simulator, a social media crisis simulation service. We’re also building the Digital Skills Gym, a new way to develop digital skills that’s aiming for the gap between e-learning and conventional training.

3.  Favourite band and/ or artist?
I like a bit of late 90s indie, Kula Shaker and the like. I secretly put Coldplay on when there’s nobody else around.

4.  Android or iPhone?

5.  PC or Mac?
Mac, ever since a black and white Classic in 1991. I think I’ve probably owned 20 different machines. I get good use out of my MacBook Air 11″ which has travelled the world with me. I’m basically just like this guy from the old ads:

6.  Creature of habit or maverick thinker?
Bit of both. I admire revolutionaries but I’m a big believer and more naturally at home on the evolutionary side of change.

7.  Your house is on fire, what do you save?
Is the correct answer ‘my wife and children’? (I’d check my phone was to hand too, probably. You have to Instagram these things.)

8.  Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?  
Only ginger nuts.

9.  Best project you’ve worked on at Helpful Technology / BIS/ whenever and why?
There have been some crackers – a consultation on credit card regulation was probably the highlight of the digital engagement work I kicked off at BIS, combining some (at the time) pioneering outreach, votes and public commenting – and it got a big and interesting response. Earlier this year, we were commissioned to build an iPad web app for the Royal Academy’s Sensing Spaces architectural exhibition which helped people find out more about the architects and installations. That was a lot of fun, and a rare opportunity to literally watch users playing with our work.

In recent times, I’ve enjoyed the thrill of simulating a crisis situation in social media for all kinds of corporate and government organisations – including a great trip down under in February this year running one with Delib Australia & New Zealand. I get to be rude to people in return for money and gratitude, which is all you can really ask for in a job.

10.  Where do you hope Helpful Technology will be in 10 years, in terms of wider digital democracy? Opportunities and pitfalls.
The big thing for us is digital capability: how can organisations – rather than just a couple of smart individuals within them – make the most of low-cost digital tools to work collaboratively and openly? Leaders in the private and public sector are taking an interest in digital now in a way they weren’t five years ago, but things are still getting stuck at the level of skills, process, technology and strategy. I think we’re building a team with some of the right skills to unblock those things.

11.  Best gov site you’ve seen and why? Other than GOV.UK.
I like what The National Archives have been doing with their site – in a slightly utilitarian world, the stuff around the centenary of the First World War ( is rich and engaging, and they back it up with brilliant social media and blogging.

So there you have it, 11 questions answered by the ubiquitous Steph Gray. We’ve partnered with him on a few projects of late, including the Big Lottery Fund’s ‘Your Voice, Our Vision’ and I’d recommend him unreservedly if you’re ever in need of an engagement site. He does Twitter here and electronic mail here.

Anyway, if you’ve got any thoughts on Steph, post a comment; I promise I’ll actually check and publish them for once.

Until next time.