Unconferences: Good, Bad or Ugly?

This is the second part of a joint effort by Sasha Taylor and Mark Braggins. In this post we talk about two topics we’re finding difficult to keep entirely separate:

  1. #lgovsm (a weekly chat on Twitter for Local Gov social media folk)
  2. Unconferences (in particular, variations on Local / GovCamp)

We’re struggling because #lgovsm was the subject of one of the sessions at LocalGovCamp (an unconference) a couple of weeks ago AND unconferences were the topic of last week’s #lgovsm chat.

Why blog about #lgovsm?

Tweets aren’t kept for very long on Twitter. For a variety of reasons, attendees can’t always make 8:30pm on a Tuesday and – unless they look soon afterwards – the conversation disappears in the huge torrent of tweets pouring through Twitter daily.

Tweets which share a common hashtag can be captured and stored in spreadsheets which is useful, but still time-consuming to read. Many conversations are comprised of a few original tweets, a mass of retweets, and slight variations as re-tweeters add their own comments.

This post attempts to capture some of the key points raised during last week’s chat about unconferences, and adds a bit of commentary here and there:

Why attend unconferences? (The Good)

  • Screenshot from The Good, The Bad and the UglyIt’s a great way to learn unexpected things
  • Meet people from other services
  • To be inspired and (hopefully) be a bit inspiring
  • Re-charge creative batteries / group therapy / mutual support
  • Broaden knowledge beyond own sector
  • Physically meet people you’ve already met online
  • Learn new things – keep ahead of the game
  • No hierarchy – status gets left at the door
  • It’s addictive – one event leads to another

All change

The various Gov and LocalGov Camps are undoubtably similar, but they are never the same. The mix of people is changing, with events now attended by policy wonks as well as social media geeks; Press Officers have been seen, as have councillors; the occasional  senior manager attends, and even a Chief Executive or two has given up a weekend to participate in constructive disruption.

There are hints that unconferences might – just might – be edging their way on to the corporate radar, particularly as the output is always shared openly, without restriction.

Themed events

Themed events can be a good thing – they provide a focal point and are the nearest an unconference gets to a pre-defined agenda. (Actually, that’s not quite true, as some organisers also invite session ideas in advance).

There was lots of debate during #lgovsm about the need to balance themed events with an open attendance policy. Too narrow a theme stifles creativity and omits valuable perspectives, but too wide a theme risks the event being a free-for-all (although some argue that wouldn’t be such a bad thing).

Why stay away from unconferences? (The Bad)

Screen Shot from The Good, The Bad and The UglyAnother chunk of the discussion was about who doesn’t attend unconferences, and why not ,when there’s so much creative energy available to help overcome business issues.

There are some obvious factors, like:

  • Unconferences generally take place at weekends
  • Attendees generally pay their own expenses
  • If they are held during the week, attendees often take the day as holiday
  • The community forming around unconferences seems cliquey to the uninitiated
  • If extroverts do all the talking, others may be put off
  • Too much dependence on social media excludes non-users
  • There isn’t a pre-defined agenda which puts off traditional managers

There’s probably enough in that debate to be the topic of a future #lgovsm chat, but if you haven’t already seen it, then Daniel Goodwin’s post about LocalGovCampNW is well worth a read.

But what have they to do with the day-job? (The Ugly)

Screen Shot from The Good, The Bad and The UglyBecause of the title of this post, we had to have a section that refers to ‘The Ugly’. We think this qualifies, as it’s really tricky to persuade skeptics that unconferences are a good thing. You really have to be there to appreciate it fully.

Anyway, here are a few reasons why we believe they do connect with the day-job:

  • We often learn through channels not directly associated with the area of business that we work in.
  • Some of the greatest breakthroughs in the field of Archaeology are thanks to techniques borrowed from other disciplines (like geology)
  • If there isn’t a session covering your area of interest, pitch it yourself. You will generally find others are also interested
  • Novices always have something to learn from experts. Experts frequently have something to learn from novices who bring fresh perspectives.
  • Creativity comes from all corners of public and private sector but also from individuals and communities that attend.
  • A network spanning all public services and their partners can be an invaluable source of support, knowledge and intelligence.
  • Unconferences are a step towards the public service holy grail – no more silos

We had a few points left which wouldn’t fit neatly under the good, bad and ugly headings. Just as well there were lots of Spagetti Westerns made:

A Fist Full Of …Unconferences

Could we bring an unconference style event to an internal audience within an organisation? The general view at last week’s chat was, yes, why not. Suggestions from #lgovsm-ers included:

  • Utilise the “JFDI” methodology
  • Try running an unconference over a lunchtime, i.e. during own time.
  • Approach senior management to ask for their support and, ideally, participation
  • Invite some from outside immediate work area (to get a bit of breadth)

For A Few Unconferences More

  • First time attendees at unconferences are often shocked at the enthusiasm of those attending, and the breadth of experience and skill of those present.
  • Attendees could feed back internally when they have attended external unconferences
  • Case studies might help, together with any measurable improvements that have resulted from unconferences
  • @danslee suggested an unconference newspaper people could read after the event. This could be used internally to promote events and might help reach those who don’t use social media
  • Organisers and ‘old hands’ – seek out newbies, try and make them feel more comfortable, and introduce them to people who have similar interests.
  • Could / should themes and session ideas be presented as agendas to encourage new attendees?

Pale Rider

If you’ve made it this far, well done and thanks for persevering. This is the final section, where we return to chats and events and debate whether online chats are any substitute for physical events.


Not a substitute, but definitely complementary. To finish with, here’s a quick list of why we think they go well together, but each has its place:

  • Meeting people in person can add something to augment online connections that you may already have with them, ie Online may start the conversation, but offline can create better discussions, relationships and network when you meet up at an event.
  • Often people go away with new friendships, networks and great memories.
  • Online tools can help complement unconferences/face to face as could be seen from the recent Island GovCamp run by Sweyn (@sweynh) who streamed the majority of the sessions.
  • Digital engagement is still not mainstream enough – particularly in local government –  so events help promote the positive engagement, customer service etc that can be achieved through these digital channels.
  • Anyone can attend events, as long as they are aware of them – digital can’t be the only channel or it will fail.

This post is a joint effort between Sasha Taylor and Mark Braggins. If it appears hasty, or lacks continuity, that’s because it was written at breakneck speed by two different people in different places at different times.

By Mark Braggins

Walking, usually with my two ex-racing greyhounds. Interested in lots of stuff. Work: Business Development and Research at Drawnalism

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