My First Unconference – Localgovcampnw

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.


8 Responses to My First Unconference – Localgovcampnw

  1. markbraggins says:

    A nice summary Simon. I think you’ve got a point there about veterans knowing how to “play the game”. I liked Andy’s suggestion of lightning updates where everyone gets the chance to speak if they want to.

  2. johnpopham says:

    Hi Simon

    Really good to see your observations as an unconference newcomer.

    I was very conscious of two things. One was that I didn’t get to speak to you, or to several other people I would like to have sought out. My problem that I was multi-tasking like hell, trying to run three simultaneous live streams, and running a session myself. Usually at unconferences, one of the best bits is the opportunity to chat with people at the end; but that didn’t happen on Saturday because people were fleeing to beat the snow.

    My second point is about how first-timers feel at such events. As I was videoing the introductions, I was very aware of some people being uncomfortable about speaking in front of so many people. It seems to me that unconferences may work best for extroverts, and I wonder if there is a way to make it easier for the introverts. I wouldn’t want to lose the freeranging structure, but, I wonder how we can help people find their feet. Maybe a buddying system might work?

    • Simon Hope says:


      Thanks for comments. I realised you were busy, but should have said hello. And I had to leave early too.

      Re: first timers, I think the current system is fine, people need to join in otherwise there’s little point going. Ice breakers can be hit and miss though, but Saturday’s worked well.

      Don’t really know about the buddying system, I think the issue may be that some experienced attendees may want to hang back a bit when pitching at the beginning.

      • johnpopham says:

        Thanks Simon

        I think you are right about experienced attendees needing to hold back. I think part of the problem with that, however, there are lots of people who have been burning to get things off their chest, and the temptation is to blurt it all out as soon as possible

  3. Hi Simon,

    thanks for writing up a blog on the event. I’m glad that you enjoyed it. You raise some important points and this gave me a chance to think-aloud on some of them, they’re a response to you blog but directed at you (if you know what I mean)

    I think we perhaps need to do more to let new participants know what’s going to happen in advance. At one time we have all been newbies, and the expectation-anxiety hit us all. The difference now is that there is growing veteran-newbie gap but I’m not sure what we can do about that. The good news is, you’re only a newbie once! Hopefully, you’ll attend other events in this format and you’ll know what’s coming!

    The pitching session clearly demonstrates that while the event has no agenda some of the participants do. At bigger events this tends not to matter as crowds go where the interest is, on smaller events this is harder to achieve. Without asking everyone in advance to think-up a pitch there is going to be a veteran bias. This one was a little ‘mock the week’ but at others they form a queue, sometimes orderly and sometimes chaotically.

    The format does much to flatten the hierarchy of conferences but it will never get to grips with human group dynamics. If we take Okham’s Razor to the issue the ultimate test is do participants get more out of the conversation because the theme was suggested by a peer? On the whole I think it does. Some participants just sit and soak-up the conversation happening between more expert\extrovert peers – but importantly they remain peers.

    I love that people have laptops and other tech constantly on the go at camps – some are making notes, some are playing angry birds while others tweet their experience simultaneously. The latter is as much appreciated as John Popham live streaming the event, it makes it accessible to more than the participants who attend in person.

    People following you because were at a the same event even if they didn’t say anything to you or vice versa seems to me a gain. It may not add much on a 1-1 basis but if you are trying to get to grips to this new world going to one of these events and collecting a lot of new tweeps to follow seems like a good search strategy to me, they’ll definitely expose themselves to some interesting networks.

    Like you I find people’s frustration at councils can become a bit much at these events. We should try an use these occasions to find disruptive momentum and seek out ways of getting things done rather than focus on barriers. For example, following the ‘bin collection open data’ session we now have a council, Eden, who will act as a trailblazer for this. But then we’re human, we like having a moan as much as we like getting things done.

    So, having dealt with the minutiae, lets deal with the big stuff: “Inspiration, knowledge, connections, learning, passion” – I reckon there was a lot of that and ultimately that’s what the events are for.

    • Simon Hope says:


      Being a newbie wasn’t an issue, it was fascinating both to watch and be a part of the event. I had some interesting conversations, and I will go again.

      I think you may have a point about asking people to think of pitches in advance, which some clearly do, but on the other hand do you want to lose the spontaneity?

      And I agree, let’s concentrate on solutions rather than barriers.

  4. Really good summary Simon and as a new person to this too I agree with lots of it. I find the symbolism of different kinds of computer interesting in conferences. I don’t find it at all weird seeing people write on Ipads, can cope relatively easily with people using a laptop, but am not at all sure about phones where I know they’re probably not just texting…

    Like you I enjoyed the freedom and freshness of it and will definitely go to the next one if I can.

  5. I wouldn’t worry about the veterans taking all the pitches, I would just do what you did and save the last hour for the three minute sessions, then any newbies can be ready for that. Then the next camp they go to they will be ready to pitch at.
    I think if you deter the veterans many newbies wouldn’t know what to do, and the start of the day would be a lot flatter.

    I think it was brill.
    I was a newbie, I have attended many camps virtually but never in real life.

    Congrats to all the organisers, thanks to the sponsors, and lovely to meet, talk, argue, laugh, brainstorm and agree with many others at the event.

    I loved the levelling.

    I loved putting faces to avatars. I loved shaking hands with people I have chatted to online for years.


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