Not an official conference season, it just seems as though a lot of opportunities to get out the office and hear about the bigger picture (several different angles on different big pictures) have come up around the same time.

First up was Africa Gathering – and I’ve already blogged about that inspiring couple of days.
Next was a completely different community – the Government Communications Network event: headlined “Towards exceptional government communications”.
Timed to build on the recently published Government Communications Plan , it was a morning of quick fire presentations (probably a bit too quick fire – the whole timetable overran unfortunately and I had to leave before the concluding remarks), and some speakers tried to pack way too much into their slots, but overall the headlines were clear and the challenge of meeting those aspirations lies in the year ahead.

Some highlights from the sessions follow:  first, the challenge, as laid out by Alex Aiken, executive director og government communication, who chose that day to join twitter.
Overall role of government communications people, no matter which bit of it you are in, is to save and improve people’s lives. The aim is to change behaviour for the public good (which sounds kind of big brother-ish now I see it written down) – but examples are clear: blood donor recruitment, fire safety, Scottish government campaign against breast cancer (powerful evaluation which followed up with calculating how many lives saved).
So, there is much excellent work, but the problem is that this is not universal.
Two acronyms mentioned: the old = SOS, sending out stuff. The future is ROSIE: research, objective, strategy, implementation, evaluation. Future government communications needs to remember and implement this planning cycle, needs to be more professional, more shared services, better planning.
And that was the event in a nutshell – these themes came up in all the sessions that followed.

Conrad Bird presented a case study of the GREAT campaign – whose overarching purpose is about jobs and growth for Britain. It uses credible voices and showcases Britain as world class destination for business, investment, education and tourism. It is rigorously evaluated, has a strong visual identity and the campaign leaders message was to “Think big, be iconic.” And calculate business benefits relentlessly, as this is the way to secure future investment in the programme.

Conversation followed about the role of the Government Communications network in supporting the work of individuals. Lots is planned – and shared via the website. Again and again the importance of evaluation was mentioned, and a key quote for me was that one of greatest barriers overall is inertia, people just don’t want to change things.
A later speaker endorsed this – in the private sector, evaluation is your best friend, a way of getting the best impact out of limited resources. You can go to a board and show what is working, what should be invested more in and what can be stopped.

A key point from another speaker reflected the change he saw in the role of communications teams is that we are no longer communicating for our organisations, but communicating through our organisations, getting as many others as possible to be chief narrators and brand champions/advocates.

A session on digital gave a powerful example of what can happen when end users are actively involved in designing a campaign. He spoke about the disability working campaign, where at the start, activists were their biggest critics, now they sit round the table, and are becoming advocates. He mentioned the written by one of their partners. Other quotes that rang true: “Social media is a discipline not a tool”. “Measurement should focus on conversation and communities, not coverage”.
“Experimentation is key to success”.

An intriguing session about the changing environment commented how we are moving from deference to reference: Katie Price has 1.8 million followers, David Cameron has 400,000 – conclude from that what you will.

Next conference was Civil service live 2013  – again using word exceptional, this time as their strapline: “Be exceptional”. The event took place in 3 separate locations this year. I spent a day in London Olympia hearing from a diverse group of speakers and looking at case studies from right across the public sector. Where else would you find in one hall a heap of tiger, bear and zebra skins, a full size Austin 7 car, a “workplace of the future” that looked like the Starship Enterprise – all white surfaces and shiny gadgets, plus a military installation complete with camouflage-clad soldiers and sand bags.

Interesting points I picked up included from Carole Thompson, former COO of BBC, on managing change. She oversaw the move to Salford, and talked about how she built a team to focus on the vision, not just manage a project to build. It was about creating a new BBC, “the BBC of your dreams”. She also talked about the need to continue to manage even after official project end, so that it continues to work successfully.

I heard about the Vodaphone better ways of working initiative which is spookily similar to our new offices, with people being equipped with laptops and able to work anywhere in the building, with a variety of different spaces depending on whether you need to be quiet and focus on your own work, or catch up with colleagues. They, as we, have introduced a system of shared spaces, where no one has their own desk. They have identified different profiles for fixed, field and flexible staff (defined as those who need a fixed location like receptionists, or security guards; those who are virtually always away from the office like engineers; and the rest – who can work wherever is needed to achieve their objectives.

I saw the Kahootz collaboration platform in action. Its more like share point than yammer, but has a clean looking interface. I’d heard someone mention it recently, so its good to find out how it works and what its strengths are (also interesting uses in consultations, and finding people interested in an issue even if they don’t self select.)

The main plenary speaker was Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who shared his reflections on civil service reform.
Unknowingly continuing the theme started in the GCN event, he repeated that in some places things do work fantastically well, however the task is to identify these, showcase, and make things work well everywhere.

He reminded us that when the civil service reform plan was published a year ago, it was criticised in some quarters as it wasn’t very high flown, with grandiose ideas, but it was actually practical, gritty. In a week or so, a one year on report will be published, a sort of scorecard which monitors how well we’ve done.
Openness is vital, he said the civil service needs to be more open, more permeable, more honest with ourselves. ‘Confront the truth, so can be clear about what needs to change …. And make it happen’
Statements about the age of the generalist either being dead or having arrived are not true. Organisations need both: generalists who can think issues through, prepare choices, make decisions; and experts with deep knowledge. The era of the specialist makes people less likely to admit when they don’t know something, while a good generalist will be quick to recognise, and find the person who does know.
A reformed civil service will be smaller, flatter, more unified, more accountable for delivery, with better talent management and modern terms and conditions. He repeated that it’s not about just one thing – however if he had to, he’d say it’s about being focused on outputs, not on process.
Interesting side comment about traditional civil service values – impartiality can be interpreted as indifference – passion is what is needed so people think differently and come up with innovative solutions to challenges.
End comment: one of the reasons he enjoys his job is because its difficult, Times mean we need to live by wits, innovation etc. What civil service does IS important, it matters, and it can be done.

Next main speaker on civil service reform was Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service.
He echoed Francis Maude in saying that the true story of civil service activities rarely gets any exposure, especially in the media.
His message covered why reform is good for Britain, for the civil service and for individuals.
For Britain, because it will improve services for individuals across the country. In focusing on services to the public, they will be made clearer, easier, simpler.
For the civil service, because it will make us more unified, reduce duplication, and people will be able to move around more easily. Policy making will become more collaborative, working across departments.
For individuals, because they will have well designed workplaces, equipment and tech that works, simplified security arrangements so people can work in different places, plus better performance management and flexible working.

The day ended for me on an interesting and energetic note, with the presentation on open data and innovation by Paul Maltby. I’ve already used some of the examples he shared to help illustrate these concepts to colleagues.
He started with a brief overview of what open data is – and the main thing is that data is freely available, no conditions placed on reuse. He talked about the much wider environment, which includes linked data, big data, and the internet of sensors/things.
Common questions are what people do with this data – and he mentioned the familiar Guardian data log and their bubble diagram visualisations.
The Cabinet office team focus on extracting the data and making it into raw material for others to use. He praised the government portal:  as a world leading model which is influencing many which are being developed in other countries.
Note that besides making data available, it is responsive: people can use it to make requests for data.
Recent highlights in the open data world include the Shakespeare review which lists priorities, plus the Lough Erne open data charter.
He mentioned the Open government partnership, of which the UK is co-chair, and planning going on for their conference in the Autumn. He described the formation of Open Data Institute, which is focused on creating value from open data by incubating startups and providing training.
So, lots happening, and positive glimpses of how things could be in the future.

Which works as an overall wrap up of these events – lots happening, and positive glimpses. Three down, one to go!