COMMUNICATE BETTER: On putting the show on right here

8509492809_a9766a9e56_bIt’s like a line from a Sixties ‘B’ movie: “Hey everyone, let’s get a converted banana warehouse next to a canal in the West Midlands and put on an event! With no agenda! It’ll be a sell out!”

Which is pretty much what we did with Commscamp the first unconference for communicators in and around local and central government.

Held at The Bond Company, a lovely converted warehouse in Birmingham’s creative quarter of Digbeth, we drew people from all over the country. It’s 135-capacity we could have sold four times over.

More than 170,000 saw the tweets on the day, a tweetreach survey revealed, and more than 500 joined in the debate on Twitter. More watching the sessions which were livestreamed.

People left the day fired with ideas with connections having been made with the unconference format allowing debate to flow over the tea, coffee and cake.

What is an unconference? It’s attendees deciding what gets talked about and voting with their feet to choose the break-out sessions they want. Want to crack a problem? Pitch a session and help run it yourself.

A revolutionary approach? Not really. It’s based on the success of sister events like UK Govcamp, localgovcamp, librarycamp and Hyper WM with many of them being staged in the highly networked city of Birmingham.

Why has there  been such an explosion? Simple. A perfect storm of budget cuts, new technoplogu and people excited a little by the new and better things they can do with them.

A couple of years ago I talked to Home Office press officers.

“Why would I bother with a few thousand people on Twitter when the frontpage of the Sun gets read by two million?” one asked.

A few months later the riots struck and those organisations without a Twitter presence were hopelessly exposed.

I thought of that press officer when the streets burned.

But commscamp was far more than just geeks needing to understand how the web has changed.

It was also about the real human day-to-day problems of how not just to do better for less but how to do completely different for less too.

There was the central government comms person sharing in her session how they coped when their team was cut by two thirds almost overnight.

There was the local government officer talking about how comms people should be letting go of the reins and allowing frontline staff to use social media to tell their day-to-day story.

I’m biased, but people like Morgan Bowers, Walsall Council’s tweeting countryside ranger should be revered and held up as an example to every organisation. You can connect with people with a realtime picture of a newt. Morgan does.

There was the heated debate over the future of the press release. Some thought they had just as important a role as ever. Me? I’m not so sure. Not when you see what things like Torfaen Council’s excellent singing Elvis gritter YouTube can achieve with its 300,000 views. That’s just brilliant.

There was the local government press officer who button holed me with the words: “I just didn’t know comms people could help democracy” or the central government comms person almost drunk with the ideas and possibilities they’d breathed in the asking anyone who would listen how things like commscamp could be repeated.

But the simple answer is it can. With enthusiasm, some volunteers and a smidge of sponsorship you can run your own and it was heartening to hear how others were planning their own.

The fact that it was planned by three people – two local government people myself and Darren Caveney – along with the Cabinet Office’s brilliant dynamo Ann Kempster really shows the power of a good idea, drive and some free social media platforms. The helpers who helped on the day showed that too.

The real value of unconferences is not just the lessons learned on the day and there are plenty. But it’s the connections made and the experiences shared that will still be paying back in 12 months time.

There’s no question that local government and central government have got so much in common and can learn from one another. Fire and rescue people too. And NHS. And the voluntary sector. We need to work with each other more because we face the same problems.

But the golden thread that ran through everything was a determination to do things better by sharing ideas. That, people, is just a bit exciting.

A version of this appeared on The Guardian.



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