To conference or unconference, that is the question

For the last three days I’ve been at the LGComms Academy in Birmingham. For those of you who think it was a a good excuse for getting out the office, let me tell you I feel like I’ve crammed a fortnight’s work into three days – a holiday it was not.

The event kicked off on a high with a breakfast session from Louise Kidney (@LouLouK) sharing with us the Guide to Social Media that she has put together for the Government Digital Service and its implications for local government employees. I’ve been following Louise on Twitter for a while now and it was great to meet her in person at last, after numerous online chats.

The conference proper then set high standards with excellent sessions from Neil Wholey from LGInsight with a session on evaluating your communications tools, swiftly followed by professor Chris Roebuck on the art of leadership and employee engagement. I’ve heard Chris talk before and it’s compelling stuff. He reckons that the poor performance of employees is mostly down to poor leadership and that if just 30% of ‘just getting by’ leaders were developed to become competent and the competent leaders were developed to excel then the organisation would grow as a whole and would outperform others in the same sector. If you ever get the chance to hear Chris speak, go do it. In the meantime you can check out his theories at

Another highlight was Carl Welham’s presentation. Carl is the assistant Chief Executive of the London Borough of Hackney and he told us about the consultation process and the rebranding of Hackney. It certainly made me think that although councils still need corporate branding, perhaps they should take an active role in branding their area too.

Unfortunately I missed the social media market lessons with Nick Booth (@podnosh), Darren Caveney (@darrencaveney) and Sam Thomas (@samontheweb) because I took the opportunity to visit my brother-in-law who is in hospital in Milton Keyenes but at least I got to meet Nick and Sam, again after a couple of years of following them on Twitter.

Day two got off to a lively start with some presentation tag. The team was made up of Ally Hook from Coventry (@allyhook), Dan Slee from Walsall (@danslee), Andy Mabbett (@pigsonthewing), Geoff Coleman (@colebagski), Dave Musson (@davemusson) and Caroline Beavon (@carolinebeavon). Not only is Dave doing marvellous digital things at Solihull, he pipped me to the post as the most prolific tweeter at the event (#lgcomms12) – how dare he! They had five minutes each and were kept in line by Darren Caveney who had the horn – a comedy horn to tell them when their time was up.

Richard Stokoe certainly put a cat amongst the pigeons by suggesting that in these straitened times comms teams should be paired right back because, let’s face it comms, isn’t a statutory function. He also suggested that we should stop worrying about reputation. He used a threatened fire strike on bonfire night as an example where 999 calls plummeted because people didn’t expect a service and were therefore more careful. All controversial stuff and although I could see some of his points I didn’t necessarily agree with all of them.

Day three’s highlights, apart from meeting Sarah Lay (@sarahlay) at long last was a session from Simon Ruda who is on the Cabinet Office’s Behavioral Insights Team and Becky Rowe from ESRO on how to engage with the hard-to-reach. Both presentations were linked but what I learned was that for campaigns where you want to change behavior, you first have to understand why people do what they do. Simon’s team seems to try subtle iterations of processes until they find the version that works best – a bit like real life AB testing. Becky’s presentation was fascinating. For instance the signs in hospitals reminding staff to wash their hands is perceived as highlighting incompetence by patients – it doesn’t instill confidence if they have to be reminded to do something as basic as to wash their hands.

Aside from little flashes of inspiration the format of the three days seemed a little tired, a little 1980s. It was basically people standing on a podium telling us how they do things and how they see the world. The workshops weren’t workshops – they were more presentations. These sessions, IMHO should have been mini-unconferences. I reckon the majority of the people these have never been to one – what an eye-opener that would have been for them. Just calling it an Academy didn’t change the fact that it was a good, old-fashioned conference.In fact I got so fed up with the workshop sessions that Sarah Lay, Nigel Bishop (@ashroplad) and I did our own breakout session and put the world to rights. We came to the conclusion that even the unconference format, for those who are used to them, needs a bit of a shake-up.

So for me the big highlight of the three days in Birmingham was the social side: my one-to-one with my Future Leaders mentor @davidhold; meeting up with the @comms2point0 team, @sargo, @cybrum, @pigsonthewing, @siwhitehouse and @psfnick for a drink, a curry and some banter; meeting @sarahlay and @samontheweb for the first time and; making new Twitter friends in @ashroplad, @AnneTthomas who shared her Nigella recipe for rhubarb schnapps.

So the gauntlet has been thrown down. @LGComms next year let’s add an unconference element to the proceedings. I know plenty of people, including myself who could facilitate.

Let us pimp your 2013 conference.

Let’s push some boundaries

Apologies if this sounds like a rant but I’m angry. What follows is in no way the opinions of my employers but if I’m right will be the opinion of most of the population of this country.

Tuesday’s newspapers were awash with the wonderful findings from the right wing think tank Reform Scotland.

The basic gist of what they are saying is that the reason for the low turnout at our local election was not party politics but rather that ‘a great number of people find the existence of 32 councils unpalatable’.

Really? Not from where I was sitting – beside a ballot box in my role as Presiding Officer.

The main topic of conversation in my polling station on May 3 was that politicians are all the same, there isn’t enough of a difference between the parties and you might as well stick a pin in the ballot paper blindfolded for all the difference it would make.

And that was the people who’d made the effort to exercise their vote. What about those who didn’t. I doubt very much if council boundaries entered their conscience.

We’re still bedding in/recovering from the last reorganisation. Shuffle us about again and there will be widespread disruption in back offices all over the country whilst trying to provide unbroken frontline services.

Any savings made in losing a tier of management will be lost in the huge spend in rebranding. Think of all the new letterheads, signage, fleet livery, uniforms, websites – the list goes on.

With the bigger council areas Reform Scotland are proposing will come a more stagnant employment environment. It’ll be back to the days of a council job for life but this time it will be down to logistics. How can you move to a higher position at another council if that council is too far away to commute to and you can’t uproot your family for the £2000 extra a year you’d earn? It will stifle workforce mobility and probably creativity into the bargain.

To me the low turn out has nothing to do with the size of the council area. It’s all to do with communication and community engagement.

I came to my job via the private sector and until then hadn’t really been aware of the huge range of services a council provides. However now  work behind the scenes at a council, I’m aware that focus groups, citizens’ panels, councillors’ surgeries, council forums etc tend to be populated by the usual suspects. They are people who know how the council works, who have used their services at some point or who their councillor has helped in the past.

If I didn’t work for the council I wouldn’t be one of those people. Councils’ idea of hard to reach groups is the disabled, our unemployed youth, the elderly – in general the socially isolated.

I disagree.

Most of these people are already using council services – they’re in the system.

The hardest to reach group is the one I slot into – working full time, with busy kids whose leisure activities take up most evenings and the weekends. The only real, solid contact I have with the council is when it comes to empty my bins and when I see my children’s teachers at parents’ night. Everything else like paying council tax is done online. I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head where my councillors hold their surgeries because I’m never in the community centre or library to see their posters.

Basically what I’m trying to say is that boundaries have nothing to do with the low turnout but communication has.

Gone are the days when everyone would see a poster in a community hall or a library – we’re somewhere else reading our Kindles waiting on our kids coming out of this class or the other.

We need to think multi-media campaigns placed where the different audiences are. For me that’s Twitter and Facebook, for my mum it’s the local paper and for my daughter it’s BBM.

We also need to shout from the rooftops about what the council does. Apparently the man in the street can only name seven council services when asked. The average council provides just shy of 800. That’s a lot of stories to tell.

That’s why projects like the Scotland-wide Twitter24 and Walsall Council’s Who Cares (@whocareswalsall) are really important. Twitter24 showed the huge range of services councils provide while Who Cares tells the real stories of the people Walsall’ social care helps and whose quality of life they absolutely improve.

But that’s just one side of the story. The politicians have to so the same. I don’t have the time to get to my councillor’s surgeries. What I do have time for is a Google hangout or a surgery on Twitter.

If you have a community engaged not only with the council but also with its councillors, the council be better understood. Not only that the public would also understand the party politics that help form council policies. Better engagement and understanding would lead to bigger turnouts.

Oh, and one last suggestion.

How about fining people for not voting – but only if a ‘none of the above’ box is added to the ballot paper so that people can show their displeasure with the choice in front of them.

That way they can boost the turnout figures and officially spoil their ballot papers.

Boundaries? I’m certainly not sitting on the fence.

Great day for blog, with apologies to Dr Seuss

Today I missed the deadline for the Weekly Blog Club because life got in the way.

This is my peace offering, unashamedly plagerised from the great Dr.




Everyone has a blog.


Great day, today!

Great day for a blog!

Blog, whales!

Blog, snails!

Blog, rooster!



Girls and women!

Boys and men!


Great day

to blog

up on a wire


Up, bloggers!

Louder! Higher!



doing blogs!

On phones . . .

. . . and Macs

. . . and microblogs!


Blog! Blog!

Waiters! Alligators!

Blog, folks!

Blog in



Blog! Blog! Blog!

Fill up the page.

Blog finished?


Blog! Everyone!


Except for me.

Please go away.

No blog.

I’m sleeping in today.

If you want something new, stop doing something old

Last month I travelled down from South Lanarkshire Council’s HQ in Hamilton to spend the day working with Darren Caveney (@darrencaveney) and the Comms team in Walsall Council.

Kim Neville (@kimneville) and I are taking part in the LGComms Future Leaders programme, part of which is a peer review day at another council.

The programme of events was released in back in February and I knew exactly where I wanted to visit – Walsall to see the very rare but not exactly shy Dan Slee (@danslee) in his natural habitat.

Dan and I had met before and I’d heard him speak about the shift from traditional media to social media and how the Walsall Comms team has adapted and adopted new media. Aside from that Dan and I regularly chat on Twitter and I’m a total convert to the new Comms2point0 resource for digital comms, set up and run by Dan and Darren.

I must admit that in the few days before my trip south I felt like I was off to do some work experience but I left with my managers words ringing in my ears, “Campaign measurement and evaluation – find out how they do it.”

So Darren picked me up at the hotel and we had a good chat all the way through Birmingham to Walsall about our office set up and our common issues, mainly journalists with pages to fill in newspapers with falling advertising revenue and circulations.

After a quick tour of the council chamber and introductions, the Comms team did its quick 10-minute daily round-up of what everyone had in their diary for the day which is captured on their Yammer group. I really like this idea and it’s something I’ll suggest introducing to South Lanarkshire’s team. At the moment we do a weekly round-up which can run on for over an hour but 10 minutes a day seems much more manageable.

Next I had a session with Mel Lee to talk about how Walsall Council uses Yammer. Now, I’ve used Yammer before but for some reason I’d always thought that for us to use it as a council we’d have to pay for it. To discover that the basic version is free was a revelation so as a pilot I’ve set up a group for our web publishers to see what they think. I suspect that it will be a fully used, essential tool across the council before long.

Mel also showed me the Chief Executive’s core brief, the internal magazine Team Spirit and the Weekly Bulletin, all of which are on the council intranet. Again this is similar to what South Lanarkshire Council has except that we also print our monthly magazine The Works as we have 11,000 employees who don’t have access to work PCs. However the Weekly Bulleting seems like a good idea – I’m wondering if we could produce it as a wiki on our intranet. That may be a step too far at the moment though – maybe we should start with the web publishers collating and publishing the information on our CMS in the meantime.

After a quick bite to eat, Dan and I then headed off to Walsall Central Library where I met senior countryside ranger Morgan Bowers (@walsallwildlife and @brumbats) . Morgan has been tweeting under various council and personal guises and just that morning she’d announced a new strawberry seed beetle record for the area on Twitter. It was really heartening listening to Morgan – not only is she passionate about her job, she’s passionate about telling the world about it using social media and has struck up many conversations with people in the process. This is exactly the type of person and the type of job that lends itself to social media and is something I’d like to kick off at my council. I want to involve trading standards officers, environmental health officers, countryside rangers – all ambassadors for the council and the area.

The main reason for the visit to the library however, was to do some live tweeting from an author event. Steve Jenkins was born and brought up in Walsall but after an early career as a local DJ he made the move to London, then the US where he became one of the music industry’s top promoters, working with Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, R. Kelly and The Stone Roses, to name just a few. It was a pleasure to be tweeting as Walsall Council, although I may have tweeted a bit too much – but then Steve had so many great stories that he made it an easy job.

Next it was back to the office to have a chat with Kim and Jo Stewart about media monitoring, campaign evaluation and working with community groups. I learned loads during this session and it was good to see that there are many areas of the business where our two councils work in very similar ways, for example multi-media campaigns. For both teams evaluation is a hot topic – often our outcomes are actually another department’s outcomes. Often it is behaviours we are trying to change – measuring them can be tricky and difficult to pin to a comms campaign. The results sometimes aren’t visible until well after the campaign has finished. There is a seismic shift going on in comms teams across the country, not only in what our day-to-day activities are but how we deliver and measure what we do.

I had a bit of a eureka moment talking to Jo about partnership working. She was explaining how Walsall shares information for local community and third sector groups. This would be such a simple thing to do I don’t know why we hadn’t thought of it before.

Before I knew it the day was over and Dan and I were heading for Birmingham for Brewcamp where I met more people that I’ve spoken to on Twitter but had never met – always a weird experience.

I learned more in those 12 hours than I have at any 3-day conference and I reckon all services in councils across the country should consider exchange schemes. Dan is coming to see how we do things in South Lanarkshire in June – hopefully he’ll go back to Walsall with his head buzzing as much as I mine was on train back to Hamilton.