Yesterday I attended my first unconference, localgovcampnw in Preston. I’ve never to been to one before, and didn’t know what to expect, but I was told not to have any expectations, just to take it as it came.
A day later, I still feel as I did at 3.00 yesterday when I had to leave, that I’m really glad I went. And I will go again, especially if there is one in Yorkshire. Some bits worked better than others, but overall it was worth the trip. So how did I find it?
For those that don’t know, an unconference has no prior agenda, except that the first item is that people pitch sessions for them to lead the discussion on, and we all vote on which sessions we’d like to attend. And then we get on with it. You also get a namebadge to fill in, on which you put your Twitter name and your real name, which I thought as a first timer was a great touch.
There’s a bit of Mock The Week about it, with some people very quick to step up and bid for the pitches. I got the impression that some people would have been very disappointed if their sessions hadn’t been chosen, but everyone who wanted one got to have their slice of the cake.
In truth, there is an agenda of sorts, as veterans of these events know how to play the game, and the ‘show and tell’ associated with traditional conferences does rear its head from time to time during the sessions. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, let’s put it down to passion.
Before we started, we were each asked to give one word to describe what we wanted from the day. Inspiration, knowledge, connections, learning, passion, and even anger were just some of the responses, and they proved to be more than apt.
I went to three sessions, one on occupying social media, one on open data and bin collections, and finally a discussion around hyperlocal websites and their use in reviving high streets. They varied in size, interaction, and their relevance to me personally, but that wasn’t the point, I was fascinated by the dynamic of the whole day.
There is a great deal of enthusiasm for innovation, frustration around getting some things done, and a huge amount of creativity. And the honesty is very refreshing. There are no hierarchies at these events, which is great, and I’m guessing they act as a catalyst for building networks and ideas in the coming weeks and months. I certainly came away with a lot to think about.
I found some things strange. In one session I found the moaning about councils tedious, especially as it didn’t seem to have a point, apart from there only being one answer to the issue in question, unsurprisingly their own. Also, although it’s not compulsory to have a definitive outcome, the odd session did meander around its sell-by date.
And amusingly, although I quickly got used to the fact that everyone was using a laptop, tablet, and smartphone during the sessions, I did smile to myself at one point. This was when I noticed that several people in the room had started to follow me on Twitter, but at no point during the day did they talk to me, or vice versa. I think we missed the point there.
Unlike some of the conferences I’ve been to in recent years, I enjoyed the freshness of this event, which seems to be missing from the traditional conference circuit. It was also free to attend, thanks to sponsorship from Jadu and Learning Pool (not to mention all the hard work of the organisers), which is a big issue in local government these days.
The cost of many conferences/courses is still way too high, and is stopping many people from getting out to learn and make connections. We had a basic room in an Arts Centre, with some break-out rooms, with sandwiches at lunch time, which was more than adequate. LGComms and others should take note.
I met some interesting people, learned some useful things, and left with plenty of food for thought. And then I went to see Man City beat Fulham 3-0. A very good day.