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.