Where the wild things are

This week there has been a bit of a flurry of activity on Twitter with people looking up their first tweets. As novelty tools go it’s quite a sweet one, showing how much people have changed or stayed the same on their journey on the network.

Mine was made on 17 July 2008. That probably makes me somewhere towards the back of the early adopter pack by joining date alone, given Twitter has existed unemcumbered by my twaddle for two years before that point.

It said: “Feeling enthusiastic about the possibilities again.” To the outside this may seen like a pretentious, inward looking statement. Thinking back to where I was in my life at that point I think it was more to do with feeling brighter after post-natal depression following the birth of my first son, getting into my MA and a relighting of the fire under my love for online communication.

So 17 July 2008 was the point at which the spark caught, and an evolution of my professional life began. A year later, in June 2009, relationships and conversations built up online; 11 months in which I’d networked more with colleagues and cohorts across and around my sector than ever before, accelerated my learning and thinking, and had conversations that would lead to strong friendships, that all culminated in LocalGovCamp.

I’m incredibly grateful to Dave Briggs and those other organisers of the first unconference for the sector. That day was a whirlind of enthusiasm, and those possibilities I was excited about a year before became business as usual. I was no longer a lone wolf, I’d found my pack. We were the wild things and localgovcamp 2009 was the start of the wild rumpus.

Over the last couple of years I’ve disconnected with the unconference scene, on a personal level. I’d still enthuse about it to others and if you’ve never been to one I really, really think you should. I think it will disrupt your thinking, probably make you step outside your comfort zone, but put you in a place where your voice can be heard. And whether you love the format or not, I think it will open your eyes to look at work and problems anew..

Why did I disconnect? My biggest fear was group think and at the last couple of camps I went to there was a sense I was in an echo chamber. The pack was verging on becoming a clique and my thinking was not being challenged anymore. It was not the fault of the organisers, or the other people that went, or even me. But that was the feeling I got and so I disrupted myself a little by stepping back, going lone wolf again for a while and then ultimately finding a new pack of wild things, LocalGov Digital (an idea which had started at GovCamp in 2012 btw).

The rumpus with them over the last 14 months has led to me turning gamekeeper and returning to where it began by organising LocalGovCamp 2014 on the group’s behalf. It’s been a challenge full of excitement and stress (afterall, organising a two day event run on sponsorship alone, in your free time, is all well and good but I’m also delivering the biggest project of my professional career, have somehow become features editor at one of the biggest music websites in the UK, have two children under 8 and am supposed to be writing a book). Most of all it has been an honour though.

As a group, LocalGov Digital did not set out to recreate LocalGovCamp 2009 or follow a prescriptive ‘how to’ recipe for an unconference. We were grateful that when Dave Briggs handed the name over to us, he stepped back to let us do it our way. And while the bones of the event remained the same (a Saturday, in Birmingham, no agenda ahead of time) we wanted it to reflect the ethos of the group (supporting local government and public sector practitioners, collaboration in the sector). We also wanted to disrupt the format, mainly by really encouraging a new cohort of campers through the doors.

So, this is where we pick up the story. The chapter for this weekend began with the first batch of tickets being released on Friday lunchtime and those for local government, public and voluntary sector being snapped up within nine minutes. It was wonderful that the enthusiasm was there, that many more were poised to swoop on the next batch, and that there were names on the list of first time campers. Not only that but through FutureGov lending us their CouncillorCamp brand and kudos we’d got elected members on the list too. The disruption had begun.

However, the happy high of this little tale doesn’t last. The wild things have roared their terrible roars, gnashed their terrible teeth, rolled their terrible eyes and shown their terrible claws.

To be honest I spent most of Saturday (a day that for balance in my life was to be spent with my family, and my music commitments, not this event) in tears. This sunny Sunday morning it is with the heaviest of hearts that I write this post. Excited by the possibilities has turned into being saddened that disruption is not just questioned but turned on, tied down. How do I feel about LocalGovCamp and Twitter right now? That healthy debate is dead, that expressing a view that differs or trying to do something different is not only unwelcome but an invitation to make unconstructive and close-minded comments. Have I taken the whole thing too personally? Possibly, but then it’s not only all the effort I’ve put into this event so far called into question but also my idealist hope of what this event could be for local government.

While it is true I am leading the organisation for the event, all decisions about it are made by the group based on the outcomes we hoped to achieve. What we do next will be a group decision and response.

I continue to welcome (as does the group) the constructive feedback and debate from those who, whether they agree with how it has been done or not, are still open to being disrupted and faced with a different view. I shan’t engage with those who are abusive or arrogant enough to think their way, is the only way.

So far, some have agreed with our decision to charge for some ticket types and some haven’t. Some of the assumptions about why we decided to charge have been pretty offensive (and yes, I understand some people find it offensive we’re charging) as have the actual tweets, full of anger without any elequence. For the record, this isn’t the first ‘underground’ or grassroots event I’ve personally run either for the local government sector or outside it.

Anyway, it’s meant LocalGov Digital has had more conversations about why we made this decision in the first place and what options are ahead of us now. Again, while being personally stressful, I think this is a good thing. It’s exactly what I wanted – a challenge to my thinking, even if the unintended consequence was that the challenge was more attack than healthy debate. So, for that reason alone I still have the faintest glimmer of hope that LocalGovCamp can still be relevant and useful.

Will LocalGov Digital stick with the decision to charge for some tickets? Will we continue to organise the event? Will I continue to lead that event organisation? Some of those questions I need to consider carefully on a personal level, in the balance of my life. Some are questions for the group to come to a decision on. I am very uncertain what my personal recommendation will be or whether I have the fortitude to find the time to continue being involved on any level with this event this year.

But for now, from across the world I smell good things to eat, time to leave the wild things to their wild rumpus again.

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5 thoughts on “Where the wild things are

  1. Thanks for writing this Sarah. I was taken aback by the intemperate comments I saw on Twitter. I hope I can come to LocalGovCamp. I hope you’ll be there. I hope some people take a “deep knee bend” and the dialogue continues.

  2. This is a sad state of affairs.

    I’ve missed most of this debate…I guess I’m out the loop (and that worries me even more) so I admit I don’t know your reasoning. I’ll also admit I was shocked when I heard you were charging. I’ve had big arguments about this in the past a refused to participate in unconferences that charge. It goes again the very ethos, in my mind.
    But then, when I did my final LearnPod in 2012, we decided to put in a list of outcomes on the invite…what people could expect. To me, it seemed like a nonsense…the whole point is you don’t know what to expect. But we had to adapt. Disruption goes deep, but disruptors are few…to get the deep disruoption you have to disrupt the conformists. I say this as a former conformist.

    I still don’t think you should charge. But the whole point is that I’m not involved any more. To involve others, we need to donit different. And if disruptors can’t tolerate difference without reducing people to tears, what are their beliefs, anyhow?

  3. I’m sorry to read how the last 24 hours have been for you and how you are feeling. You certainly don’t deserve to feel that way. You have done a fantastic job organising this event and you should be feeling proud and excited, not considering your future involvement. Whilst debate is good and change can be good I can’t say the same for hostility or disregard for someone’s hard work. I am very grateful for all you have done. Personally at the moment, I need LocalGovCamp, it’s come along at just the right time to help me with my thinking, and to help shove me back in a direct I think I need to head, so thank you for making it happen. You’re amazing x

  4. I’m sorry to learn that your weekend plans were affected, and that your enthusiasm for LocalGovCamp has been dampened, by the events of the past few days. I take my hat off to you for all the things you are managing to fit into your life. Having irons in lots of fires myself, I know how important it is to be able to switch off from things to have quality family time.

    I’m sure there are lots of people like me who were silent during the ticketing debate but who are ever so grateful to you for the work you have put in thus far in getting LocalGovCamp 2014 set up.

    I hope you are able to now get that life balance after the dust has settled, and that you do still have enthusiasm for LocalGovCamp, I am certainly looking forward to some healthy debate, and to having my thinking disrupted, in June.

  5. There’s a great Buddhist thing that if you mean well and said it with sincerity even though it doesn’t quite deliver what you intend then you’re alright. That’s what I think here. I think Lloyd is right because he cares, Sarah is right because she cares and Dave is right because he cares too.

    I can understand absolutely the perspective that Lloyd has because he has invested a lot of time and effort in seeing how things work. I als9 understand Sarah’s perspective absolutely because it’s darn hard to get an event like this off the ground. I’ve done different ones and it’s a graft. A rewarding graft. But it’s not easy. And on a human level I can appreciate the stress she and others are under.

    And I can understand Dave absolutely, too. I’m pretty sure that Commscamp ended up costing me, Ann and Darren. Not a life changing sum but enough to make you think you’ll work harder at getting sponsors next time.

    We do all this – all of us – because we care, because we are not bankers and because we need to, because its good for our souls and because it’s brilliant as localgovcamp will be brilliant. That’s not false optimism but something I know will be delivered against.

    Onwards. And big hugs and punches on the arm all round.

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