Camp Culture: The Rise of The Unconference

Camp Culture: Rise of the unconference

For the uninitiated an unconference is essentially an event that is set-up without an agenda. Participants book their place, and come along. The agenda is then set on the day by those attending; agendas are therefore driven by the topics that the participants want to cover. At each unconference I have attended the event starts with the participants introducing themselves in quick succession by stating their name, twitter ID (if they have one – they usually do), organisation, area of expertise, and a single word of their choosing to describe how they are feeling. The second task is to create the agenda. To do this anyone with an idea for a session is encouraged to pitch it to the other participants. Pitches usually have a time limit of 30 seconds and if the general consensus is that the idea is good, it gets added to the agenda. Around 15 minutes later you have a full program of events and a room full of people fuelled on tea, coffee, cake and sandwiches (generously paid for by the event sponsors) who can’t wait to get started. Those who have pitched ideas usually run the sessions, but an unconference is so informal that the sessions are usually a collaborative affair, with the idea generator acting as a chair to loosely steer the discussions. No presentations are required, just a willingness to come along and talk. The whole thing is organic and if the conversation moves away from the original topic, and the participants are happy for it to do so, then so be it. The main difference between an unconference and a standard conference is that you don’t have to sit through loads of boring presentations and listen to things that don’t interest you, and you are even actively encouraged to use the ‘law of two feet’. The Law of Two Feet states that if you feel like you have given and received all that you can from a session, or find that you don’t feel that you can give or receive anything from the session, you can take your “two feet” elsewhere, without fear of offending anyone, and it works well.  No formal minutes are taken but participants are encouraged to tweet throughout the event and blog about it afterwards (this sometimes happens during the event). The beauty of the unconference is that they are usually held at weekends or in evenings, more often than not resulting in them being referred to as a camp (BrewCamp, LocalGovCamp, GovCamp etc). This therefore makes them a lot more accessible to those who might find it difficult to attend during a working day. It is therefore unsurprising that the unconfernce is growing in popularity. Once the preserve of local government officers working in IT, Communications, or Design, the camps are starting to become more popular with public sector senior managers, chief execs, and the VCS and charities alike. However,  job titles and job descriptions are left at the door so no matter who you are, if you have something to say, the unconference allows you the confidence to say it.

On a Saturday in July I attended LocalGovCamp 2012 in Birmingham. It was my first unconference and I was really impressed. So when I saw a tweet telling me that tickets for Hyper Local Gov Camp West Midlands 2012 were available via Eventbrite I was straight in there booking my place. So it was with great joy that I made the journey over to The Public in West Bromwich yesterday and joined around 130 likeminded people at my second unconference. The event with was excellently put together by Hyper WM members Stuart Harrison, Andy Mabbett, Mike Rawlins, Kate Sahota, Dan Slee, and Simon Whitehouse and was introduced by Andy Mabbett. Following a standard unconference format the introductions were made and 19 sessions were created within the first 30 minutes of the event.  The sessions run in parallel, so the only problem is choosing which ones you want to go for.

I chose . . . .

  • Session 1 – Disrupting Silo’s / Local Government Employment
  • Session 2 – Making Education Better
  • Session 3 – Self Sufficient Communities

. . . . and I wasn’t disappointed.

The main reason I like the idea of these camps is that you get to meet so many great, likeminded, talented people. I always have trouble ‘networking’ at a standard conference, but for some reason, I think it is because they are more laid back and less formal, it comes quite naturally at an unconference. Whilst Hyper WM was only my second unconference the format is becoming more popular, and some bloggers are starting to debate their purpose and their return on investment (ROI). Paul Coxon’s recent thought provoking blog post includes some really interesting observations and questions surrounding the unconference format. But for a less seasoned camper like myself it’s still less about finding a tangible ROI and more about the energy that I pick up from the events. We get quite used to justifying our every move in the public sector with a measurable outcome, but for me the camp culture is about changing attitudes and behaviours over time. In the first session I attended yesterday there were several senior managers present, one of them a chief exec, and the group talked freely and openly about the importance of introducing new roles into the public sector, such as those suggested in the University of Birmingham report entitled ‘When Tomorrow Comes – The Future of Local Public Services’. The report suggests that new roles should include a storyteller, creative weaver, resource architect, and a citizens’ navigator. There will always be people who leave an unconference and implement something they learned about the next day, but even if the senior managers who were present in the session I attended don’t go back and challenge their HR departments to create these four new roles today, more important is the networks that were created, and the thought that the discussions that happened yesterday might be the seeds that in several weeks, months, or years will germinate into an entirely different local government culture. If the culture changes in 5, 10, or 15 years can be attributed to a specific camp or even the camp culture in general then great, it will be recognition to all of those people putting in their own time to set them up and attend them, but in reality it doesn’t really matter. The fact that the culture change happened is the main thing.

I’m really glad that I participated in Hyper WM 2012 and I would like to thank all of the organisers for making it such a great event. The unconference is certainly growing in popularity, and because it is so innovative in its approach there is a feeling of riding the crest of a wave that will break or floating in a bubble that might one day burst, but until it does I’m happy to be a camper. Here’s to the next . . . .

For more information on Hyper Local Gov Camp West Midlands follow at Twitter: #hyperwm  @hyperwm or look them up at


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