20 things I learned at CommsCamp 2017

I’ve been at the annual summer CommsCamp unconference event in Birmingham today organised by the awesome Dan Slee, Emma Rogers and volunteer team.

The 20-things-I-learned format is a good one, so here goes again:

  1. The General Data Protection Regulation kicks in from May 2018 and we should all learn more about it: not least because we’ll need to rewrite those wordy T&Cs pages into something people can realistically consent to
  2. I found this handy summary of the other lawful reasons why an organisation might hold or process personal data where consent isn’t obtained
  3. The Scottish Government have a nice Individual, Social, Material model for looking at behaviour change, including the barriers which hold people within the organisation back from engaging online
  4. The Film Cafe team know their video onions, and are generous with their knowledge. You should probably book yourself onto one of their workshops with Comms2Point0
  5. A classic ‘cutaway’ in film editing is 6 seconds, as that’s apparently the conventional wisdom on how long it takes a viewer to tune into something. (In other news, six second video service Vine is no longer with us…)
  6. The optimum film length for Facebook is 21 seconds; Instagram 15 seconds; YouTube 3.5 minutes. Bear in mind though that 80% of your viewers will have tuned out/scrolled past after 30 seconds of your film, so put the key info up front rather than building up to it dramatically.
  7. 360 video and VR is pretty cool (it was fun seeing people experience it for the firs time) and you can make your own with a £150 camera. But it’s not really about gadgetry: it’s about really immersive and powerful experiences, in a world of flicking through feeds. Big implications for charity fundraising, media and public sector comms.
  8. Check out Purple Planet for royalty-free music for your film soundtracks
  9. Use lapel mics, rather than directional mics for good video sound. There are options from Rode and Tonor on Amazon for sub £10
  10. Maybe we’re returning to a new era of silent movies: so many videos on social media are viewed with subtitles on/sound off
  11. Facebook can auto-subtitle live video now (and lets you correct errors, thankfully)
  12. One organisation changed all its departments’ Twitter passwords to force them to get in touch with central Comms about purdah… and to identify which accounts which nobody was taking responsibility for in the organisation. Brutal but effective.
  13. You can be overwhelmed not just with hostility but also with supportive messages during a crisis: during the recent Manchester attack, the Fire Service had to work hard to sift through and subsequently acknowledge the sheer volume of positive feedback and encouragement (we’ll bank that idea for future simulations)
  14. Encouragingly, the multi-agency Tier 1 flooding exercise we helped support last year in Greater Manchester helped at least one organisation feel better-equipped to handle a real crisis when it hit. That unprompted feedback is great to hear.
  15. Politicians and political advisors are a growing challenge for emergency comms. The last few months have turned up the pressure on them to respond quickly, show emotion, and make the right strategic decisions. Right now, managing their information requests can be distraction for emergency responders.
  16. All is not what it seems on Twitter. I’ve followed Kate Starbird’s work on fake accounts for a while, and Andy’s example of copy/pasted statuses is intriguing (and another reason to be sceptical about numbers and automated monitoring)
  17. Sainsbury’s allegedly shot a fox near one of its stores (there’s a story that begs some questions by itself) and didn’t handle the online backlash well
  18. Facebook Groups are a challenge for digital engagement: critical to working with local/subject matter groups, don’t get picked up by monitoring tools, but hard to participate in as a professional without overwhelming your personal feed or seriously blurring the boundary between work and home. For ref, here’s the golden oldie case study I mentioned from Al Smith on turning a hostile Facebook group into a positive crowd
  19. Christian from the Scottish Govt bakes a mean brownie.
  20. And on that topic: you can eat your bodyweight in cake from the bake sale stall (thanks Kate Bentham!) and still walk away empty handed in terms of the charity shop tat raffle. Next year… *shakes fist at sky*

I had an exchange with Esko from Satori Lab about to what extent public sector comms people can really be expected to start adopting networked behaviours when so much of the world around them, from unions, to leadership, to the press office model, is so hierarchical and naturally adversarial.

But on reflection I think I was wrong – or at least, not ambitious enough.

It’s clearly good to do classic corporate comms better with more engaging video, faster crisis comms and better co-ordination of Twitter accounts. But there’s a bigger opportunity for the individuals working in organisations to properly work with each other and with citizens through digital tools. It’s the kind of community engagement I’ve been blogging about here for almost a decade, that takes courage and passion. Depressingly, that kind of digital comms is still rare and some are still being burnt as heretics in their organisations.

CommsCamp, OneTeamGov, UKGovcamp and events like it are about reinforcing the network and building our collective confidence to agitate for change, not simply to accept the status quo and our place in it.

Because if not us, then who?

Walk a mile in our sandals

guardian ukgovcamp

I’ve written a piece for the Guardian’s Public Leaders Network on UKGovcamp, as part our plan to broaden the reach of UKGovcamp in 2012:

Informal, social-media driven events like UKGovcamp and the recent WordUp Whitehall have an important role in bringing together SME suppliers, open source specialists and government digital teams to share practical experience and make connections. Participants in the January 2011 UKGovcamp heard a presentation from Defra, which had recently replaced a static 20,000 page corporate website with an open-source platform based on WordPress, working with long-term Govcampers, Puffbox Ltd. Since then, a trend has emerged with the Departments of Health and Transport joining them. DfT alone recently calculated savings of £150,000 per year on CMS licences and a 70% reduction in hosting costs.

One public sector IT conference is much like another. CIOs from large organisations talk about the impact their innovative strategies are having on the bottom line. Vendors talk in buzzwords about their new ‘turnkey’, ‘as-a-service’, ‘2.0 products’. Panels of shining case study speakers talk about the successes they’ve achieved… though you come away somehow unsure how to emulate it. The coffee’s OK, the company is passable. It’s a day out of the office.

UKGovcamp isn’t like that. It’s an ‘unconference’, or a free-to-attend event without a predefined agenda, where the sessions are proposed and agreed at the start of the day. They’re written on scruffy post-it notes and added to a big grid on the wall. Govcamp participants consult the grid throughout the day to work out where they want to go next, and there’s plenty of time for the informal hallway chats which, let’s face it, are the best bit of any conference. The so-called Law of Two Feet applies: people move freely between sessions which interest them, tweeting, blogging, snapping pictures and filming as they go. What emerges is always a high-energy, dynamic event which leaves people buzzing with new ideas and connections for weeks afterwards, because they’ve been talking and hearing from their peers inside and outside the public sector, rather than listening to the great and good.

The first UKGovcamp took place in January 2008, initiated by Jeremy Gould, a civil servant from the Ministry of Justice. The 2012 event – the fifth in the series – will be the biggest yet, with around 250 participants over two days. For a second year, Microsoft UK are providing a venue for the event at their London Customer Centre, keeping the Govcampers in food and wifi, and taking the jibes about Internet Explorer and Windows with good grace.

The 2012 event is shaping up to be a new style of Govcamp, following up the traditional mix of presentations and discussions with a new ‘Doing Day’, where participants work on practical solutions to the issues being discussed. Nobody knows quite what will emerge, though it may involve the hacking together of new web apps, collaborating on writing policies or strategies, or training colleagues in new skills.

Govcamping has grown into a year-round movement of smaller events (think: LibraryCamp, Shrop(shire)Camp, Localgovcamp) as well as monthly, informal ‘teacamp’ get-togethers in London and Birmingham where the talk is of social media and the new public sector IT, amidst the tea and Victoria sponge (none of it publicly funded).

If this all sounds a bit hippy and Californian for a UK public sector audience…. well, come and walk a mile in our sandals. The combination of tight budgets, consumerisation and socialisation of enterprise IT, and politicians’ expectations of digital-by-default public services has clearly shaken things up in the last couple of years. The Cabinet Office is leading perhaps the most credible effort in a decade to bring more open source and cloud-based tools into the public sector, tackling the gnarly barriers of procurement, open data and IT security head-on (their open data team are submitting a regular blog to the Public Leaders Network).

In this turbulent new environment, the informality and openness of govcamps are the key to their success. By leaving job titles at the door, mixing people from different sectors with different agendas and experience, they become a source of contacts, inspiration and good old-fashioned moral support which promises to help deliver real change in public sector IT.

This article is published by Guardian Professional. Join the Guardian Public Leaders Network free to receive regular emails on the issues at the top of the professional agenda.

A bit of structure for your unconference

Briggsy and I have been chatting to some good folk across the pond recently about running a Govcamp-style event, and how unconferences work. Some of their senior folk are nervous, understandably, about trying what seems like quite a radical approach. What if the conversation veers off course? What if the sessions go round in circles? What if we don’t get the right kind of sessions proposed?

Govcamp corridor

Here’s some thoughts I just emailed over, which I thought I’d post here and see if anyone else can contribute more good ideas. Without destroying the value of an unconference-style event, how can a bit of a structure help things along? Here’s what I came up with:

I think we all have the fear as the unconference kicks off that we’ll all end up just sitting round uncomfortably in silence… though happily that never happens! The other risk is that it’s structured too much, and people switch in to passive-recipient mode (as per a traditional conference) rather than actively engaging and taking responsibility for making sessions useful.

If you want to impose some light structure, here’s a few ideas:

– kick off with show+tell, maybe an hour or so which is a succession of short talks, no more than 5-10 minutes each, to provide some stimulus for the rest of the event and enable speakers to pitch a longer session later in the agenda and get people interested in the topic. Then follow that up with an Open Space element to explore those topics in more depth, more interactively

– alternatively, define some broad ‘strands’ to the event, maybe theming the discussion according to room: ‘In Room 1, we’ll be talking about microformats, in Room 2, we’re looking at RDF, in Room 3: business strategies, and in Room 4, user experience’ – explain people can come and go between rooms/strands, but at least that way people have a sense of what to expect

– tee up some people in advance, so they don’t turn up cold. It’s fine if 50-70% of the audience just turn up, but you want a hard core of perhaps 20% at least to be actively thinking about what kind of sessions they could run, and maybe prep some material in PowerPoint or an online demo to show people. If they’re planning it in advance (do you have a conference forum/blog/wiki set up?) then they’re more likely to want to actively pitch in on the day and make it a success

Finally, I’d say remember the way the event will be judged by the participants: sitting and listening to people, however clever, still doesn’t leave you feeling as good as having an active conversation with others about stuff you’re interested in. That could be three people in a corridor or 50 people in a seminar room – the fact is, by giving people the freedom to define what useful topics are for them, they’re more likely to feel positive about the event. And some of the greatest value may come from conversations in the margins of the official sessions – which is kind of infuriating if you’re the organiser, I know.

What else could you try?

The power of unconference

I think it was clear it was going to be a good day during the introductions. Around fifty youth workers, technologists and others with an interest in youth participation from as far away as Lancashire, Devon, Norfolk and Wiltshire had gathered at DIUS on a Saturday morning for UKYouthOnline, organised by Tim Davies. With that much enthusiasm and experience in the room, Tim’s gamble on the open space conference methodology was sure to pay off – even if only about a third of the participants had ever attended an unconference before.

Social Media game at UKYouthOnline

Tim’s a phenomenal facilitator, motivator and organiser, and I think that’s what really made the unconference model work: having just enough structure and infrastructure to enable the interesting, serendipitous conversations, demonstrations and one-to-one meetings to take place.

It was also the first time I’d played the infamous social media game, in a great session run by Dave Briggs (taking time out from tending to the needy and applying creams and lotions in his Social Media clinic). If you have a group of people interested in using social media tools for engagement but not sure which ones to choose or where to start, it’s a good way of thinking through some of the strategic choices involved.

I learnt a whole bunch of things:

  • Examples of how the Facebook MyOffice application is being used as a collaboration platform between youth workers and young people: a great example of going to where the audience is, rather than building a new and unfamiliar platform for them to use
  • Sprout, a widget-building application. Probably best for prototyping since there are some question marks over accessibility
  • The fascinating work being done in organisations with different but parallel challenges to my own: Oxfam GB, The National Trust and the British Youth Council, amongst others
  • The sophistication of youth work on social networking services: for example, the subtle enhancements to privacy in user profiles introduced by the new Facebook
  • Ultimately, the value of truly co-designed online projects, especially when it comes to services designed to be used by young people. I’m still too inclined to go it alone, when I think the lesson of youth work generally is to find appropriate ways to put the power to develop solutions in the hands of young people themselves. I wonder what a co-designed online consultation might look like if we were to bring in the stakeholders, scientists, employers, learners and front-line staff that we want to hear from?

It was also really encouraging to see the enthusiasm and help I got from facilities colleagues and others in DIUS transforming a run-of-the-mill government building into a really good unconference venue with wifi, pizza and the works in terms of AV equipment, registration desk etc – all on a shoestring budget. I’d really encourage others in government to think about what their central London buildings could help to make possible on a weekend. Thanks are due to DIUS colleagues or alumni Justin Kerr-Stevens (for wifi), Michelle Lyons (for social reporting), Jo Simmons and Kim Worts (my boss and a senior civil servant, hopefully now a convert to unconferences).

I presented some analysis we commissioned from Forrester on how young people are using the internet, social media and social networking services – it led to an interesting discussion about issues of gender, and how we design for the social aspect of using the internet with friends (as opposed to a solitary experience) and recognise the challenge of media fragmentation and continuous partial attention. More to come on that one in a future post, I’m sure. For now, here are the slides:

Thanks again to Tim and everyone who came along for their inspiration and ideas.