“How can we make our events more accessible to a wider audience?”


Are we becoming a clique, and if so what can we do to deal with it? Also, some thoughts on events – in particular unConferences

This picks up on a number of points that were expressed by various people at CommsCamp13 and at other events that I have been to. In part it stemmed from a few people wondering whether we had become our own ‘clique’ in the world of public sector digital and social media. If you don’t know what an ‘unConference’ is, have a look at this blogpost by Kelly Parkes-Harrison.

“Time changes everything, and time will change us all”

The haunting tones of a childhood history tape from someone pretending to be Queen Elizabeth I of England talking to some time-travelling children. Compare where we were with digital and social media in the public sector two years ago to where we are now. Directgov has been zapped, replaced by GovUK, designed from the perspective of the citizen’s eye rather than a senior manager overseeing the infrastructure of Whitehall. You have various senior civil servants having taken to Twitter (albeit still getting the hang of it, but several are there). You also have a greater use of things like digital video and internal social media such as Yammer.

There are many more achievements great and small testament to those that worked on them, trying to turn around the supertanker that is the civil service.

Over that time, working relationships have grown and developed, reputations built, and networks strengthened. Two years ago I could wander into an event and hardly know anyone. Today I can wander into an event without my social media sidekick and get asked questions about why Puffles isn’t with me. Interestingly, this indicates two parts of the problem on accessibility. The first is on the social culture of social media public sector world, and the second is on people’s physical or virtual access to what is going on and where.

Social culture of social media public sector world

I’m using familiarity of Puffles as an example. There are many others in different organisations and professions. As someone unfamiliar with Puffles and/or completely new to social media in a working context, it can be disconcerting to go to an event and see lots of people being familiar with this cuddly toy. ‘What is it that they know that I don’t? Is it something that I need to be part of the group to get?’ It’s similar with working language that builds up in institutions – think of acronyms and the civil service, or even the language that people become familiar with at public school and/or oxbridge. It’s all too easy to forget about what it’s like to be that new outsider.

In public sector social media land, I sort of see two perspectives. One is my interface with those who are expert coders and computer programmers. The other is with those who are unfamiliar with, or even intimidated by this global social phenomenon that is people’s use of social media. I may know some of the basics but there are times where I simply have to nod and smile so as not to either interrupt the flow of the conversation or not wish to look as unfamiliar with the subject concerned as I really am. Delivering training, there are a number of terms and phrases which I sometimes take for granted – which is why I often pull myself up and ask the question: “Is there anyone who doesn’t know what I mean by [insert name of term – eg ‘crowd sourcing’]?”

Because there is now more than a critical mass of us in public sector social media world that have known each other for quite some time – a few years in some cases, the simple existence of such a mass of people can be intimidating for someone new to it all.

“Ah! I know the answer to this! We’ve got to make ourselves more accessible and open – break down the barriers and smash the glass ceiling to give everyone access to the blue skies thinking that we currently do ourselves!!!”

Ok, how are you going to do that?

“Ah! I know the answer to this! By making ourselves more accessible and open – breaking down the barriers and smashing the glass ceiling, giving everyone access to the blue skies thinking that we currently do ourselves!!!”


Now you see why we hate management-speak and jargon? One of the big problems I find with traditional conferences is that few people go away from them with any tangible actions. In part it’s one of the reasons why I ask annoying questions at the end of workshops such as “What do you now know that at the start of the workshop you did not?” The better workshops are those that for me teach me something new that I did not know previously or inspire and energise me to go out and do something that will make a real difference – whether to me or to someone else.

Now, in terms of breaking down barriers, one of the things I try – possibly too hard – to do is to connect people with others that may have either similar interests or similar dispositions – but ideally both. You can have people with similar interests who absolutely despise each other. We see that all the time in party politics. At the same time, you can have people with zero career interests in common but their dispositions are suited towards each other that they get on like a house on fire. Think of all the unlikely celebrity friendships on fly-on-the-wall TV shows. This is one of the reasons why both through Twitter and through my Twitterlists on my blog I make recommendations with reasons. It’s up to the reader as to whether they follow the recommendations. What happens afterwards in the grand scheme of things is none of my business. What I do know is that such introductions broaden, strengthen and deepen my social community. Which makes me happier.

“But I can’t get to London!”

Ah, the accessibility issue. In the paragraphs above, I tried to seed the idea of what we can do to bring people into what is becoming this mega network of public sector social media – or perhaps rather recognise when we may unwittingly be freezing people out when we don’t intend to.

This section looks at some of the specifics – in particular with events. My line with social media is that you get the best out of it when you can use it to enhance what you do ‘offline’. I won’t be able to use that phrase forever as there’ll become a time where those that have grown up with internet access being the norm will soon be running the show. It’ll be a bit like cars – not being able to imagine a time or an age where we didn’t have them.

“Why did so few women pitch suggestions for workshops?”

This question looks at a point made by Lorna Prescott here. Is it something about public speaking? Was it that many of the women who came along were first-time unConferencers? From memory, the gender split seemed evenly balanced, so why was it us men that rushed to pitch ideas? Is there something particularly ‘masculine’ about standing up in front of a large audience and speaking so as to persuade someone of what it is you are talking about? (Versus say a smaller group discussion?) Perhaps a better question would be to ask women in particular: “What is the best method of getting all of the ideas up on the matrix board to produce the agenda of workshops?” It might be that standing up at the front might not be suitable for all audiences and delegates.

There’s also an issue with facilitation at conferences in general. Being a good facilitator is not easy, even though those that are superb at it (such as Lloyd Davis at CommsCamp) make it look effortless. You’ve got to be constantly on alert, looking around the room to see how and whether people are engaging, making sure you keep loudmouths (such as myself as I can be on a subject area I’m passionate about) on a shorter leash, while allowing those that might otherwise find things a little intimidating that safe, free space to make their points.

What is the role of social media in your event?

This is a particularly interesting one for me, because there is a difference between using social media passively and actively at events. If we look along a passive to active spectrum/scale, we get something that looks like this:

  1. Use social media to advertise your event – simply let people know that it’s on
  2. Use social media to get an idea for who is coming – whether Facebook or say EventBrite
  3. Get someone to live-tweet the very basics of what’s going on, possibly taking a few pictures too
  4. Organise a hashtag and have people live-tweeting updates and engaging in some discussion
  5. Livestream keynote speeches
  6. Ask people from outside the event to use social media to submit questions either to speakers and/or to workshops

Now, those are ‘off the top of my head’ thoughts on what a passive-to-active spectrum might look like as far as social media use at an event may look like. At one end it’s very much very basic broadcast mode whereas at the other end, not only are you broadcasting but you are also listening and engaging, feeding back live into the event as things happen.

The reason why it’s worth thinking about these things is that there may be a lot of interest and/or expertise that would like to follow and/or engage with proceedings but are unable to. In my case, it’s mainly cost. I have the time, but not the money. For others, it may be the other way around. They can afford to get there and take part, but they have work and family commitments that prevent them from doing so. For others – in particular the mobility-impaired, getting to an event may involve the sort of planning that requires military precision. Rocking up last minute because you got a discounted train ticket or hotel is not an option.

What do you do when you have two different conversations in the same room, separated by who is online and who is not?

Lloyd Davis makes this point in his blog here. This is often illustrated in my local council meetings. What is on the record is what is said. What is not on the record is what is tweeted. The debate I see on Twitter is often far more punchier than what happens in official council-speak. How do you bring those conversations together? Does it mean that a “Twitter wall” inside every gathering becomes the norm so as to persuade people not to throw insults at each other? (I didn’t see any at Commscamp but in a party political arena…exactly).

Food for thought – especially with the rescheduled UKGovCamp13 coming this weekend!


2 thoughts on ““How can we make our events more accessible to a wider audience?”

  1. I think you raise a number of really important and challenging thoughts in this post Anthony. Publicly funded services are being providing by an increasingly diverse range of organisations. I see technology as an enabler not an end in itself. I believe the next big challenge is to use digital technology to make more effective and meaningful connections across the public, not for profit and private sectors for social good.

  2. Provoked into making a comment… i have to start of by admitting that I’m a social media skeptic. I think that the platforms for social media (twitter, facebook, google+, blogger etc) are somewhat restrictive in their functionality. Also a lot of the evangelical talk about “opening up” and “new horizons” makes me fear that this is a bit of a bubble. I would go as far as to say that social media feels a bit like dot-com did in the late 90s.

    However step away from the term “social media” and you can see that there are a range of new web technologies that are enabling some exciting developments. These include: –
    – Collaboration – the ability to share information easily with people inside and outside organisations making it easier to develop and implement ideas.
    – Education – Sharing ideas and values with the outside world using online tools
    … there are probably others but I cannot think of them right now….

    I think therefore the challenge shouldn’t be seen through the prism of “social media” but instead about what information you want to share with whom and what level of input you want from them. In terms of engagement I suspect (outside the technically illiterate and digitally excluded) the main challenges with social engagement are lack of time and lack of expertise… much as they are outside of social media.

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