Conferencing


Just waiting for the arrival of the 9:22 train

I was once invited to speak at a local government conference; I’d been doing some interesting work and someone somewhere thought I might be the perfect person to speak in workshop number 7 at some wonderfully specific conference.

I was absolutely thrilled and preceded to annoy my wife, my colleagues, my pets and even my car stereo by alternating between boasting and practising for my big moment.

Little did I know how monumentally insignificant my big moment would be.

You see, conferences in local government are a very odd thing. People from across the country cough up £100 or so (well their council’s do) and trek half way across the country to hear from ‘experts’ in the field about what it’s happening in their little part of the sector.

These conferences always seem to follow the same pattern:

  • Arrive at about 10am having been on the train since very early o’clock.
  • Event begins with some speeches in a large central hall. There may be a panel of people or just a series of back to back speeches. In at least half of the cases you will probably be graced by the presence of Ben Page and his powerpoint of public perception. Those who are really on it will already know nearly everything they hear as the presenter seeks to ensure that everyone is on the same page before the rest of the day kicks in.
  • The workshops will commence. At every conference the same thing will be said: these workshops will be focused on all the participants working together and developing solutions to real problems in their work. And all of them will end up with a series of more presentations.
  • Lunch will follow: For those who are really good with people this will be a pleasure with lots of impromptu conversations. For everyone else it can be a little awkward.
  • More workshops. By now at least 10% of the attendees will have been involved in presenting or facilitating a workshop in one way or another. Many of the workshops will have been delivered at similar conferences both before and after.
  • The wrap up. This will have terribly noble aims trying to tie everything together and ensure that everyone leaves with some positive messages. However, as the wrap up continues people will keep slipping out, desperate to catch a train that will get them home at a reasonable hour until the conclusion of the conference will come with only 50% attendance.
  • We’ll all be asked to complete evaluation forms as we leave.

Meanwhile conference organisers make a tidy little profit on the back of our involvement.

It’s a mighty peculiar way of developing your staff but local authorities are reluctant to not attend the conferences.

After all what if something is missed?

And more importantly how else will this good practice get spread and learning take place?

Not all conferences are bad and many are useful; however, I’m pretty sure conferences aren’t the best way to learn. However, right now I just can’t think of anything better. Has anyone get any ideas?

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14 Comments on “Conferencing”


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by WeLoveLocalGov, PublicSectorBloggers. PublicSectorBloggers said: Conferencing: Just waiting for the arrival of the 9:22 train I was once invited to speak at a local government c… http://bit.ly/g8EIze […]

  2. Jon Harvey Says:

    Could not agree more! So many opportunities, talents, insights & energy are lost by these traditional formats.

    (Although they have their uses, sometimes – if only to give some councillors & officers expenses paid trips to the West End…)

    So much more could be achieved with a better & more open / interactive process.

    http://jonharveyassociates.blogspot.com/2011/01/process-matters.html

    I discuss some these ideas here.

    Let’s do something different!

  3. LG Worker Says:

    As someone who has organised a number of conferences and been to a few not organised by me, you describe the pattern of a conference very well (though you missed out the 30 mins before the beginning speeches when everyone is trying to wake up by drinking weak tea and trying not to look greedy by taking two of the very small pastries on offer).

    I do think there are two things of interest about conference; 1. What do the organisers get out of it? 2. What do the participants get out of it? One answer is a day out of the office but in reality, though learning is an important part of the conference process, I always think it is networking that is more important (though it is very awkward talking to people you don’t know). I meet people who do similar work as me and so now have a list of people (participants included) who I could talk to later about this work. This is why the conference a manager sent me to a few years ago did not work very well. I turned up and was the only participant. The organisers went on to try and tell me why their process, which it turned out my team did not need, was the bees knees. After an hour I made my excuses and went back to the office (the conference was free by the way).

  4. Roger White Says:

    Great post and spot on but you failed to mention the “keynote”. The best keynotes are by ministers (of the crown not religion) and have a number of characteristics.

    1. Short (their main advantage)
    2. Scripted, usually woodenly so
    3. Civil servant(s) hovering in attendance to ensure s/he commits no indiscretion and is hurried away a.s.a.p. to the next engagement
    4. If you’re lucky (?) enough to have questions allowed, they’re usually preceded by the formula “Time is short. So to get as many questions in as possible I’ll take 3 or 4 at a time” – this neat and apparently democratic device means that awkward issues can be lost in the generalised response that follows
    5. Timed to suit the minister’s convenience – hence the not unknown sight of a keynote at 1345 after half the day’s jollity is over when it becomes more of an afterthought than a scene-setter
    6. Despite implications by the organisers in pre-event publicity, nothing new or unknown is said. How could they when they’d be smacked hard in the Commons if they announced anything significant outside Parliament first? Why would they when confronted by an audience of dozy local government officials with a scattering of even dozier councillors whose turn it was for an awayday? (Key councillors won’t be going to most of *these* events)

    The second best keynotes are when the advertised minister can’t make it and a civil servant delivers the script on their behalf, making it clear by their even more wooden delivery, lack of deviation from said script and unwillingness to take questions that this doing this is a supreme self-sacrifice and a slightly distasteful political act.

    For a complete antidote try an unconference see e.g. http://www.unconference.net/.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Pete McClymont Says:

      As Roger says: “unconference it”!

      Though I must put in a plug for the Local by Social SW conference at Bristol, which was mostly a traditional conference.

      The leader of Bristol CC spoke at the beginning, took 15 mins of questions and, I think, stayed for most of the morning. There were also other councillors who stayed for most of the day and made some telling interventions.

      The workshops produced valuable outputs – potential web/mobile apps – which were fleshed out the following day by the nerds.

      http://localbysocial.net/2011/02/community-apps-day-two-of-local-by-social-south-west/

      As an aside, the worst example of a Minister speaking at a conference was in my previous life as an aviation lobbyist. A Home Offce Minister parachuted in at 9.05, hectored us for 20 mins, then buggered off without taking any questions. The rest of the day was filled with workshops on how we, as industry, were supposed to comply with what the Minister had demanded we do.

      • localgov Says:

        That was a really good conference overall and I’m glad I too was able to make it (we may even have spoke there…), although perhaps one or two too many presentations.

        I always prefer a bit more interaction at these events. Thankfully Twitter gave me the chance to talk with as many people over the interweb as I did face to face throughout the day!


  5. […] a great post over at the WeLoveLocalGov blog about the horrors of the average […]


  6. […] morning I read the latest from WeLoveLocalGov, a post on Conferencing. It’s a mighty peculiar way of developing your staff but local authorities are reluctant to not […]

  7. tomsprints Says:

    I love this blog.

    I have a conference coming up in a day or so from the date I’m writing this. I have been one of the organisers for this, and sadly, it falls into several (though not all) of the pitfalls described. Being a conference anarchist myself, why is that?

    Largely it is simply because organisers like me seldom have the last word on the arrangements. Those who call the shots/control the purse-strings often have such tightly limited comfort zones, that history repeats itself over and over again.

    Like the obsession with getting a compere. Usually ends up being someone that most people present will have never heard of. Often a has-been tv or radio personality. Good continuity can make a conference go really well. But how often is it any good? These sorts of compere usually end up revealing their total ignorance of the topics, people etc, and add nil value for the big fee they invariably charge, and get. I had proposed that very able colleagues from my own work team should front our conference. Banned. A “personality” was to be deemed far more “suitable”.

    “Happy sheets” for evaluation – what a waste of time. Throwbacks to some sort of vague TQM ethic. I’d suggested giving everyone a chance to blog their reflections (as with things like LGovCamp etc). Banned. “We will stick with what we know”.

    Happily, the job of putting a large conference together can be rewarding nonetheless. That’s almost always down to the great people who are available to share their skills, views and wisdom, and good people who attend. However, much of the original blog here is so true.

  8. Whose Shoes? Says:

    A very interesting blogpost and I think we have all attended this particular conference! Frightening really that they are SO predictable!
    However, I think that any set formula is in danger of attractingg similar criticism. In my view it is important to get a balance – ie expert speakers, real opportunities for Q&A, maximum participation and crowdsourcing / unconference style benefits and networking.
    To achieve this, it requires new attitudes, confidence and commitment on both sides.
    Conference organisers should come up with a bold, exciting programme. Facilities such as a live video link and Twitter feed should be routinely provided to widen participation. Workshops should be fully interactive and long enough to explore new concepts and share good practice. (One of the main reasons I developed my Whose Shoes? learning and development tool was for this very reason as I was suffering a slow and painful death by powerpoint!)
    Similarly, there should be facilities to help people network and explore specialist interests. An outcomes focus should be adopted – What DIFFERENCE is this conference making?
    But delegates should also be held to account. Are they taking notes or adopting some means of sharing learning back in the workplace? Are they sticking together in safe huddles with colleagues or taking every opportunity to mix and learn? And what’s all this sloping off early – even if sometimes the conference ends as early as 3pm?
    I think a good “rule of thumb” would be: imagine you are paying for your place yourself. Is it worth going at all? If so, make the most of it and get full value for the people you represent – ultimately the public.

  9. Whose Shoes? Says:

    A very interesting blogpost and I think we have all attended this particular conference! Frightening really that they are SO predictable!
    However, I think that any set formula is in danger of attractingg similar criticism. In my view it is important to get a balance – ie expert speakers, real opportunities for Q&A, maximum participation and crowdsourcing / unconference style benefits and networking.
    To achieve this, it requires new attitudes, confidence and commitment on both sides.
    Conference organisers should come up with a bold, exciting programme. Facilities such as a live video link and Twitter feed should be routinely provided to widen participation. Workshops should be fully interactive and long enough to explore new concepts and share good practice. (One of the main reasons I developed my Whose Shoes? learning and development tool was for this very reason as I was suffering a slow and painful death by powerpoint!)
    Similarly, there should be facilities to help people network and explore specialist interests. An outcomes focus should be adopted – What DIFFERENCE is this conference making?
    But delegates should also be held to account. Are they taking notes or using some means of sharing learning back in the workplace? Are they sticking together in safe huddles with colleagues or taking every opportunity to mix and learn? And what’s all this sloping off early – even if sometimes the conference ends as early as 3pm?
    I think a good “rule of thumb” would be: imagine you are paying for your place yourself. Is it worth going at all? If so, make the most of it and get full value for the people you represent – ultimately the public.


  10. […] WeLoveLocalGov blog post on conferencing and my own footnote on the dreaded conference keynote speech got me […]

  11. Roger White Says:

    Your as always insightful post got me thinking about even more conference horrors here http://bit.ly/gF3VYN. Enjoy – and thanks for the inspiration.


  12. […] year the truly excellent WeLoveLocalGov wrote about Conferences which prompted me to cite blogs as an important alternative: I am so impressed by the government […]


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