In praise of unConferences

I first stumbled across unConferences when the lovely Sarah Baskerville took me along to UKGovCamp back in January 2011 – when I was still in the civil service but just after I had taken the decision to apply for a voluntary exit.

I had attended, taken part in and been a speaker at a number of normal conferences during my time in the civil service which meant that my digital footprint started to grow. It was also at this time that I began to ponder on the conferencing industry as a whole – especially when looking at the size of the industry – £18.8billion to the UK economy in 2010. When you think about the amount of money that has been spent by the public sector on hosting and/or attending these conferences…well…let’s not go there shall we?

Towards the end of my civil service career I asked myself who was paying for all of these spin-off industries and in whose ultimate benefit were they functioning? The specialist magazines, the consultancies, the venues, the hotels…then recalling the comment about the UK not manufacturing anything. What made me feel uncomfortable about all of this was having visited and/or worked with people working parts of the country suffering from multiple deprivation and struggling to reconcile conferences on ‘regeneration’ being held in plush conference venues or hotels. It just didn’t feel right – & still doesn’t now.

In terms of the people who attend these conferences, most ordinary people are priced out of these things. Who can afford the several hundred pounds fee to attend? Hence it’s only those who have benevolent employers who can afford to go on these things, irrespective of whether they are going to make a positive contribution or not. Hence one of the biggest weaknesses of these conferences in my opinion is that they seldom include the people on the frontline who are going to be impacted by the subject area that the conference is dealing with. Chris Mullin, the former Labour Minister observed the questionable benefit of some of the conferences he attended when giving evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee. His response to Robert Halfon MP (Con, Harlow) at Q6 is particularly revealing.

The unConferences that I have attended have been different beasts altogether – and with good reason. The first is about the sort of people that are invited to these things. Traditional conferences list job titles.

“This conference is essential for senior policy advisers, chief executives, directors, opinion formers, influencers, academics and if you’re riff-raff, keep away”

Closed shop anyone? Basically if you’re not in that ‘club’, keep out. unConferences are very much about inviting people who have something to contribute or share. This concept is completely different to being passively fed stuff by guest or expert speakers. Passive sessions lead to passive attendees – trying to engage in conversation with some of the attendees can be like getting blood out of a stone. Placing the emphasis on contribution by all and you have an event that has far more energy and dynamism in it.

This is what I found at the first UKGovCamp event that I went to. It was a strange feeling to be in a room full of people who had come together in their own time to solve a number of problems in the public sector that on more than one occasion had me tearing my hair out. This was a different feeling to my early days on the Fast Stream which was very much a sense of being with a group of people who had the shared experience of having been through a gruelling selection process but whose disposition and outlook on things was not necessarily the same. (This is not a criticism of the Fast Stream – diversity is essential and Cabinet Office knows that it still has more to do to increase the diversity of both applicants and those who succeed in getting onto it).

The first thing that struck me about UKGovCamp was the timetable – there wasn’t one. The organisers put up a big matrix on the back of a wall and then gave everyone who wanted to run a session 30 seconds to ‘sell’ their session to the audience. This is a totally different proposition to having your name listed as a headline speaker and having marketing people selling your speech for you based on who you work for.

The second thing that struck me was the informality of it all. Yes, there were quite a few people who knew each other personally, but there were also many who were familiar through social media only. I’ve since lost count of the number of people who have said to me ‘Oh! So you’re Puffles!” Hence why I decided to commission a cuddly toy – I felt the need to differentiate myself from a baby purple dragon fairy. Far easier to have something tangible rather than a picture on a twitter account. The freedom to pick the sessions I wanted to attend and lounge around in the breakout areas for the ones I didn’t was a huge difference from the standard conference setup. Such a set up I think is far more beneficial for attendees than to be cooped up in a room listening to a speaker that they weren’t really interested in boring them to sleep.

Finally, the unConference set up is much more suited to digital and social media. Will Perrin did an excellent session on hyperlocal websites which allowed people to bounce off the various sites that he referred to.

I met a number of people at an event run by Kerry at Dell which was informal to the extent that we had beanbags for us to crash on. Can you imagine a minister of the Crown slouching on a beanbag contributing to a workshop session like that? Me neither. The session that Kerry facilitated was very much a problem-solving session – as many of these sessions were.

Traditional conferences I feel are from an era of “top down” communications. Organisers bring people together to hear from the expertise of guest speakers with the option of a Q&A session at the end. People might have the option to ‘network’ over lunch (I hate that term too) but the gathering is not structured in a manner for people to get to know each other. Plush conference venues can be inhibiting to people not familiar with them. Expensive price tickets are the ultimate barrier to ordinary people who may otherwise be interested in joining in the debate.

The more accessible, fluid and dynamic nature of unConferences I think is more in tune with how people are using social media – whether incorporating the contributions of those following online & outside of the venue to widening participation beyond the usual suspects.

The biggest barrier to me attending future unConferences? Costs of public transport. But that’s not something any unConference is going to solve anytime soon.

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9 Responses to In praise of unConferences

  1. Erinma says:

    Well said.

  2. “…unConferences are very much about inviting people who have something to contribute or share.”

    …or maybe ‘star’ names to quote on the advertising bumf for the next one?

    One of the issues with the cost is that it will only seem viable to organisations to send their highest paid staff member to those conferences. So pitch it at the big lads and lasses, you can charge more, lots of mutual backslapping, everyone’s happy.

  3. rbridge says:

    This is a model I’d like to see more of in higher education (I’ve been to big conferences which contained an unconference strand, but I’ve not yet had the chance to go to a complete unconference that matched up with my expertise and my availability). I can see there would be times when an institution wants to go full whack on hospitality (and charge accordingly), but the more of us who are responsible for finding our own conference expenses the more one thinks that it *can’t* have to take upwards of £250 just to use heat, light and space.

    I’m sure that some of the conference fee that strikes us as exorbitant will be taken up by things that an institution ‘has’ to charge for such as insurance, security etc – but then shouldn’t we be thinking of using other public spaces? (Which rarely seems to happen as yet outside the field of academic projects that are specifically activist.)

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