Wednesday 26 January 2011

I'm not doing something to do with work on a Saturday!

Those words came from the mouth of my line manager today. In speaking the words, I supposed there was an undeclared but intimated indictment of the way I chose to spend my Saturday - at an 'unconference' relating loosely to my work, along with 200 or so other people, who had chosen to do exactly the same.

In the process of explaining, I realised something. Well actually, I realised a lot of things. And it seems important to share those things, because if we truly are to expand the circles that the camp and unconference encompass then we are going to be increasingly asked to explain and justify why we choose to do what we do.

Some people work in central or local government because it's a job. It pays bills. It puts a roof over families heads. And some of us don't. We work as an extension of an ever ongoing internal conversation which looks at processed, workflows, systems and services and wants to make them better. The motivation for this questioning is as varied as the type of person you will find doing the asking, but one thing unites us all - passion. A pride and love in what we do, and why we do it and an increasingly unashamed attitude to collaboration and sharing. A determination to be part of the conversation which defines where we go in future and how we get there.

So, the question then becomes, how do you share that with people? How do you explain that talking about how to make things better and sharing ways of solving problems can make deliver you back at your desk on a Monday morning with a new way of looking at the world and with a new assurance that you are on the same page and that you are not walking alone. How do you explain that time passed so quickly while you were at the unconference that somehow you missed lunch and never noticed, that you wanted to clone yourself 3 times over because there were Unlibrary sessions mixed with Flickr sessions and Open Street Map sessions mixed with hyperlocal and there was so much to learn that you'd go again and again and again and give up more Saturdays to heasr it all.

How do I explain to someone that's never experienced the wonder of seeing a grid of 50 empty sessions magically fill in seconds because so many people have something to say but also something to ask and that this is amazing, that yes, some of those people are selling services quietly, be it their own or their companies, but in the majority, expertise and learning is given freely and with no other motivator than that it is a cool thing to do.How do I explain the relief in finding other people just like me, who want to change the world a bit, want to think about how to do that in all seriousness, a group of people who create buzz and enthusiasm, who are Italian with their hands, French in their passion, but terribly British in their ability to queue? So many personalities, so many hubs, so many interpreters, willing to share and be questioned?

Then there's the fact that egos are checked at the door. That job titles are never referred to, only Departments and then only if it's relevant. The liberation of being able to speak freely of problems, but also of successes, of being able to share workarounds and say 'we tried this, it didn't work, if you decide to go for it, try this instead'.

But most of all, the very most of all, how do I explain that I am a different person, almost entirely because of an unconference called City Camp, where I met some people I'd never normally meet, who blew my mind with their simple assumption that the world will change and it will be a good one. That this weekend was an entirely different experience to that weekend but that one could never have happened without the other, that the gift for a shy person of being able to choose and sit quietly and listen, and that that shy person will grow, grow up and start to contribute, will sit and listen but also say something if relevant, that finally, after years of trying and trying, confidence has landed in a lap which had almost given up all hope, that the professional development which I have obtained at these events for free is only counteracted by the personal development which I have taken away with me as I have walked a little taller day by day as I have realised that I do not know everything, but that I do know something - how do I explain that?

Well, I suppose with a blog post. One which comes as a result of a government camp I wasn't even supposed to be at but where I was welcomed, and learnt so very much, about facilitating, project managing, presenting, public speaking, sheep herding, as well as the more obvious things like Agile system design and how to encourage people to get blogging. For free.

Why should you attend an unconference? Because it will change the way you see your job. Your desk. Your team. Your Department. Your role in the behemoth which is government. Because you will feel like your voice is heard, no matter how small and insignificant. But also because you will learn from the very best - because (this girl excepted, I'm still learning) only the very best turn up on a Saturday. Only the best bother.
But it rubs off.

And glitter has a habit of sticking.


  1. 'only the very best turn up on a Saturday' says it all for me, and 'glitter has a habit of sticking'
    and those who turn up in their own time and share the joy also are the ones with glitter to share.

  2. Chris> In this case, all that glitters, is most definitely gold. (One day I'm going to drag you along ;o))

  3. Love the post. I think my colleagues have noticed that I've been on a high since #ukgovcamp

    I'm very interested in trying the barcamp concept internally or at least amongst people from neighbouring councils or other public sector bodies: if only encourage new thinking.

    Breaking down barriers is very difficult, especially in the current climate. But, maybe, just maybe, giving up a Saturday morning (at the very least) could make a start.

    Loving your blog and enthusiasm: looking forward to each post.

    I'll be at LocalbySocial in Bristol so might catch up.

  4. Great post Louise - sums up perfectly and sublimely how UKGovCamp exploded in my head on Saturday - and the aftershocks that are continuing to be felt!

    GovCampers? "A group of people who create buzz and enthusiasm, who are Italian with their hands, French in their passion, but terribly British in their ability to queue?"

    Ha! Bloody brilliant :)

  5. So gutted I was poorly and missed it. Was really looking forward to it. Sounds like you all had a fab time.

  6. I think this is the nicest, most relevant blog I've read of the event. The final paras should be on the home page for all future unconferences. Say it all.

    Girl done good!

  7. This post really made me smile and feel inspired. Yesterday was possibly the lowest day I've had this week since attending ukgc11 on Saturday. You are by no means the only one who is learning from others :)

  8. iamadonut> Say hi - I'll be wearing a pocket watch necklace, red hair. I'm going at it from the other direction - 3 ppl from BwD have said they'll come to the next one, someone from Childrens Services, our Corporate Comms Manager and a local Voluntary sector CE. I think once they've been and come back again, things can start to happen here too.

    Jamie> Me too. I keep wandering away from it while I disappear into some bit of work, but I keep coming back.

    Charlotte> I did wonder if you were there, you were on my list of people I wanted to meet!

    Tom> Thank you :O) Finally found the words I'd been looking for for 4 days.

    Michelle> One of the wonders for me, is that I think no matter how much you know (and you know a very great deal, and I enjoyed listening so very much) there is always space for someone elses perspective and a different pair of eyes. And that's the beauty of an unconference to me - I see the world through other peoples eyes for a while and as a result can understand so much better others viewpoints, frustrations and fears.

  9. That is a most excellent piece of writing.

    I have nothing further to add.

  10. Great Post Louise,

    What I find interesting is what would the unconference event look like if it were held during a week day and "sold" as a formal event.

    I have stopped looking at why it works and just accepted that it does.....The only way people can really get the benefit is to take a leap of faith, to take a step into the unknown.

    The irony is that for 99.9% of public sector workers, the next few years are a leap of faith and a step into the unknown, so an unconference is really the only thing that they should see as making sense.

    Surely everyday for most people is like filling 50 empty slots with interesting pieces of simply scales up and invite others in as well...So if people value being in the company of other people - very interesting and passionate people - there really is only one answer - They should sign up and we'll see them next time around.


  11. How dare you!

    How dare you suggest that you're not as good, and important, as the rest of us!

  12. There are a number of issues here.

    The first is whether senior managers take unconferences / barcamps seriously. My contention is that these kinds of events are the only kind of professional development that most parts of the public (and vol/comm)sector are going to be able to afford in the next few years, so managers need to wake up to their potential. Those who don't get it are manifesting another aspect of their dinosaur attitudes which will eventually see them swept aside, but probably not until they have secured their considerable pensions.

    The second issue is that Saturday one. Now, I know lots of people say they are not allowed out in the working week, and that Saturdays are the only time they can do these things, but, to this I say, don't accept that attitude, we have to keep lobbying to get such events taken seriously and not just lie down and accept it. If we don't, such opportunities risk being restricted to the young and / or childless. I do go to some weekend events, but I can't go to anything like the number I would like to because it causes incredible tensions if I am not around to be dad's taxi for my teenage kids. Do we want to restrict attendance at events like #ukgc11 to this self-selecting group?

    And finally, and perhaps most controversially. I wonder at some of the language used. Sometimes, what comes out of such events looks a bit like "Look at me! I've been allowed out to play, now where are the toys?". I've been to lots of such events, and they are exciting and full of wonderful people, but, I sometimes wonder that if the principal feedback that comes out looks mainly like people saying "Wow! Awesome! Amazing! I am bouncing and hugging people and having a great time!" then it is perhaps of little wonder that senior managers struggle to take them seriously.

    I hope this does not come across as negative (to some people it will, I know, I'm sorry). I really wouldn't want to stop the sense of wonder and excitement that goes along with such events, it is a key reason why people attend, but we also need to work on evaluating their impact and measuring how what comes out of them truly affects practice.

  13. An excellent piece of writing, I have read it a couple of times now.

    Lots of good feed back as well.

    On the 'Saturday Issue' as highlighted by John, you are between a rock and a hard place.

    If you hold it on a Saturday then you get people doing it in their own time which is great as you get people who 'want to come' coming and engaging.

    But as John points out, working 5 days people often have other commitments at weekends, that said these events don't suddenly appear they are (un)planned months in advance so people can make arrangements. For most people this won't be an issue, there of course is the hard core of people who really want to be involved and do good, who could find events they want to attend 3 weeks out of 5 maybe.

    Weekday events:
    The 'establishment' needs to start to see these events as serious events so they can be run during the week. The danger is then you could remove the 'people who want to do good (the people who will do this on a saturday in their own time)' and replace them with other 'favourite' or 'more senior' staff who fit in to the 'I 'm not doing something to do with work on a Saturday' group, but will more than happily take a trip to London or wherever as a 'day away from the office' and by the very nature of unconferences you don't get delegate packs CPD certificates and presentations to take back to prove you actually did attend and not just go seeing the sites on taxpayers money...

  14. Good points Mike

    On the "arranging in advance" point. I think I am well organised enough to plan quite far in advance, unfortunately, my 13 year-old son and 16 year-old daughter are not sufficiently well-organised either to take note of what might be in my diary or to decide what they might be doing on a particular weekend before it happens ;-) One day, perhaps.....

    And, yes, it is a good point about replacing the committed with the jobsworths. And some of this is tied up in the need to move from systems which reward people for time-serving and risk management, to one which rewards passion, expertise, initiative and innovation.

  15. Hi John,
    Things I got out of #ukgc11:
    New people met to learn from & ask for help from (but also to give help to if needed) +1 collaboration
    Flickr groups. Setting one up as a colleague suggested it 2 weeks ago. Stuff coming out from Dan's session compounded it. We're even naming it something interesting.
    Info sharing, collaboration, better links with the LGIU
    Much better understanding of some of the challenges ICT are facing at the moment
    Much better understanding of the way Whitehall works reducing my frustration massively with civil servants
    More confidence in my own ability
    Lots of ideas on how to get more people in the organisation blogging and communicating.
    I've set up an internal Yammer group for our Dept. as a test after hearing everyone else rave about it.

    Not bad for 7 hrs.

    Mike> I think there needs to be a balance. An acknowledgement from traditional senior management that unconferences are massively valuable learning tools, but also an acknowledgement that some people cannot attend something on a Saturday. My argument would be 1 Saturday per year is perhaps not a massive commitment but then I am not a parent, and so not qualified to comment.

    However, I note no complaints at attending Xmas do's in the evenings, so am giving serious thought to running a local unconference in the evening. In fact I don't much care where it's held so long as it's out of work time and so allows people to sit around a table as equals trying to solve a problem or information share.