Today I had my first experience of an unconference (1), having headed up to Preston for a day of discussions and networking from people working at the heart of Local Government, many in organisational development, service R&D and communication roles. A range of subjects were suggested and I decided to attend those on organisational culture change, digital inclusion and bringing organisations and communities together in co-production. Almost all of the twelve proposed subjects were interesting and potentially useful.
The session on culture change and occupying social media explored new ways of thinking about organisational culture in the digital age, and the question of how to ensure that public sector organisations get their message across using social media, rather than being afraid to do so.
Looking first at culture, I gained a very clear sense that there was a need for organisations to trust their staff to engage with the public more freely, using the full range of channels and including social media. There is a need to encourage challenge and risk taking within organisations, through what one presenter called disruptive and/or purposive innovation and positive deviancy, and to challenge the current way we do things. However concern was expressed that there is a risk that such change can be agenda or provider led. There was also a question as to what the role of politicians should be in helping to foster and endorse such change.
Turning to councils’ social media presence, a parallel was drawn between these and other media. If councils are not ensuring that they have a presence and are addressing reputational questions then it will be done for them by others. However there are some interesting questions as to the role of employees. Should they be freed to engage with service users, for example by allowing front-line workers to let the public know that they have carried out a task or checked out a complaint? Why can’t our officers be operating in digital social space guiding discussion about services or promoting new initiatives? One council had gone further and withdrawn its traditional news release service, replacing it with a social media-based electronic newsroom, so that its message got to interested members of the public before press interpretations of it. Others talked about freeing up electronic conversations within the organisation and linking up the employee communities of interest across departments.
Participants thought that the identifiability of services is key because they engage with people in very different ways, as users, customers or citizens. It’s therefore not good enough just to have a single approach. They also felt that there would be an inevitable culture change as new forms and channels of engagement developed. A book that I have been reading The Social Organization provides very good coverage of some of the issues and, like those at Preston emphasises the need to engage with people where they are communicating, including places such as local neighbourhood websites and specific interest blogs, rather than wait for them to come to the council website. There was general agreement that it is a significant mistake to write a lengthy digital media strategy, and that it is more important to ensure that people feel that they can get on and use such channels in line with the values of the organisation.
However, whilst all of the above is helpful, I came away with a feeling that this debate has not yet managed to engage with matters concerning reputation and the political or community leadership life of local government. I think that work with elected members is needed to explore emerging communication channels and understand how they might change the debate.
I found the discussions on digital inclusion and co-production somewhat frustrating as they promised a lot but it was hard to get past a firm push towards a focus on social media as an end in itself rather than a means to an end. For example the debate on digital skills and literacies was illustrated with some problematic examples of adult education and provider capture and misunderstanding of what digital literacy actually is. Why teach people Powerpoint rather than how to access services using new channels? Possibly because the tutor can’t either?
So the focus of discussion ended up being mostly around either formal education methods or how to convert people to using social media, rather than the benefits to people of engaging with new access channels and how to give them access. I was very interested in exploring the question of assisted access for people through community networks, but also understanding risks to their privacy and the need for informed consent. Curiously, though, the session had an absence of numbers or a strategic overview of the extent of exclusion. I believe this carries a risk of policy development by assumption and that much more work is needed at the local level to develop community insight.
The session on co-production focused particularly on sharing delivery of services with users and other providers and started very well, including the wider social impact of co-production, with the riots clean-up cited as a good example. I would identify a number of forms of co-production, from encouraging service users to get involved in data-entry, through methods such as joint service design, planning for real, community take over of services, and community networks engaged in prevention, for example helping older people live independently in a community support network. However the discussion drifted away from such specifics and ended inconclusively, partly arising from a range of different understandings of the subject and why it might be useful or important.
As I left to get my train, there was a final session of flash presentations where participants could opt to raise a subject for a strictly time-limited three minute slot. This provided an interesting insight into people’s concerns and I would have liked to stay longer.
Overall, all the initial presentations were interesting and those that were more ad-hoc were actually the better for it. Some of the observations in the discussions were real gems, but some others were fool’s gold, and I felt that there is a danger of hijack of the air-time by single-issue evangelists and people who turn up with personal agendas. Perhaps I have too controlling a stance but I believe it is worthwhile considering how such interventions might be managed to provide a better experience for attendees. The lesson for me from the day was that there is work to be done by senior managers in helping the fantastic innovators I met to see how their work contributes to political and strategic priorities of local government and its partner organisations. I think this is a significant gap and I will be thinking about how better we might address it. As always, the chats in the break were just as helpful as the sessions themselves. So for me the day was definitely worthwhile, as always for the dogs that didn’t bark as much as those that did, and for the energy and enthusiastic welcome of the group.
(1) An unconference is a no agenda conference where the attendees self organise by agreeing to turn up at a particular venue, pitching a number of topics for workshops which the others then decide to attend. The following links, here, here and here, kindly supplied by Ken Eastwood, give a flavour.