The inaugural SilentGovCamp was held this week, and was a variation on the increasingly popular ‘unconference’ format which is becoming well-practised across Government. Unconferences are gatherings of like-minded people where the attendees set the agenda, rather than the organisers. They typically follow a more conversational/workshop format than traditional conferences, with very few if any prepared presentations, and are generally acknowledged to be a good thing for prompting cross-sector conversations.

However, these big gatherings do not work for everyone, and particularly those of a more introverted disposition may feel overwhelmed by the occasion. It’s also been noted that those who volunteer to lead unconference sessions (and therefore drive the agenda) are typically a non-diverse group.

So, as an experiment, the team at The Satori Lab decided to set up a silent conference (you can read more about the thought process behind it here).

I went along to see what it was all about…

Why did I go?

  • I think it’s important to get out of our comfort zones in order to learn and make what we do better. Those who know me in real life know I’m quite the chatterbox, so an afternoon of enforced silence was challenge, but also an opportunity to slow down, listen to other voices (or rather, read others’ post-it notes) and contemplate the ‘big questions’ away from the day job
  • I’m trying to improve my facilitation skills (I wrote a little bit about this in weeknotes X) so was curious to see what techniques could be employed in a silent conversation
  • The question posed was ‘How can we improve the use of evidence in public services?’ which has relevance to both my current role in data, and my previous study (my dissertation was on use of evidence in drug policy)
  • The scientist in me was drawn to the idea of an experiment, and regardless of the outcome I knew we would all come away having learnt something from the experience

What happened?

This was the discussion question:

How can we improve the use of evidence in public services?

Ben gave us some top tips before we started:

Write with big pens (no scribbly biros here)

Write in CAPS

Draw too

We had 10 minutes alone to reflect on the question at hand, and what we would like to ‘discuss’. This is what I came up with:

There were so many conversations going on simultaneously that I didn’t get chance to discuss these in much detail… If you have any thoughts on these you would like to share, please comment below!

Next we stuck our thoughts on the wall (there were many), and spent some time grouping them together.

Following that there was about an hour and a half (maybe more? I was so engrossed that I lost track of the time) of conversation time, where we were free to move around the room and add to any of the topics via the medium of post-it notes.

We took a pause every 20 minutes to gauge how the room was feeling, and at one of these checkpoints it was decided we were running out of steam, and it was time to move on.

Finally, there was a silent plus / delta (what went well / what could we do better next time), and a number of people volunteered to photograph the walls and turn our post-its into something usable. There’s a huge amount of content to gather together, which I’ll share once it’s in the public domain.

What did I learn?

  • A post-it pitch is considerably less intimidating than the unconference ‘line up’
  • You don’t need a workshop to have a conversation — some of the topics proposed would have been too small/too big/not developed enough to work at a typical unconference workshop, and this format gave them an appreciative and participative audience
  • There was so much good feeling in the room, and multiple notes were stuck up to encourage or agree with the previous poster
  • My ideas came more freely when I was on my feet, which got me wondering why I constrain myself to a desk everyday?
  • There is a maximum number of conversations you can sustain at any one time, and the sheer volume of topics was somewhat tricky to navigate
‘Kid in a candy store’ mentality — so many topics, so little time!

Who did I connect with outside of my organisation?

  • I got to catch up with Ben Proctor and Esko from Satori Lab— their energy and enthusiasm is totally infectious — and I met Jo for the first time
  • It was a delight to meet the queen of comms cartoons, Helen Reynolds — we had some great conversations about work culture, and starting conversations online through sharing ‘unpolished’ writings/sketches
  • I met Ann (who works at the best university in the world*) who had some fascinating insights about working abroad, the UK ‘public servant’ identity, and the balance between flexibility and stability in freelance work
  • I learnt about some of the work going on in other organisations thanks to Jess (ONS) and Toby (Companies House)
  • Anne made some very astute points in the event round-up about the need for time to process all of what we had learned before we can turn it into action, and how different events can inadvertently exclude particular groups of people
  • Katherine and Joel from Delib were there too (we met recently at the #weeknotes get together), and I’m sorry we didn’t get to say much more than ‘hello’!

*That’s Bristol Uni btw — not that I’m biased…

What surprised me?

  • How much I didn’t miss talking, as I had another mechanism through which to bounce ideas off other people — I realised extroversion isn’t just about noise, it’s about active participation
  • There were very few people there who I knew already or with whom I shared mutual connections. Perhaps this was because it was further from London, which is the epicentre of many of the communities I interact with. I also didn’t meet any other Local Gov representatives
  • Anonymity builds confidence — being able to write my thoughts instead of vocalise them, I felt able to communicate with more authority and cut out some of the ‘I think…’ and ‘I would just like to say…’ phrases

What would I change for next time?

  • We needed more space to spread out — some of the most successful conversations were those which branched out onto separate walls, which allowed more people to congregate around them
  • The entrance to the venue took you straight into the ‘it’s cool to talk in here’ room, and the wall of noise I encountered on arrival was a bit overwhelming
  • We needed a little more time and structure for sorting the topics — by the end of the afternoon those on the main purple wall were all merging together, and it was difficult to know where one conversation began and another ended
  • I need to have a more focussed approach and follow-up on the topics I started, rather than try and take part in *every* conversation which is going on
  • I should use more sketching, and fewer words

Was it a successful experiment?

There was some debate after we’d concluded our conversations about how to define success in this experiment.

Did we resolve our problem of better use of evidence in government? Not really.

Would we ever be able to resolve such a big issue in under 3 hours? Probably not.

Did we learn a whole load of stuff which we can take forward in our journey to becoming better public service providers? You betcha we did.

In both the worlds of government and academia there is a certain pressure to produce something tangible to show for our efforts; a credible action plan or a <0.05 p-value which can concretely demonstrate the value of what we’ve been up to.

We don’t really have that today — there were so many conversations to assimilate, that we can’t present you with a coherent list of how to fix evidence in government.

What we do have is some great intangible stuff that moves us a little bit further forward. We’ve made connections, shared ideas, and laid the foundations for future cross-sector conversations.

I for one think it was really successful, and you don’t just have to take my word for it…

The exciting news is that there will probably be a next one…

So, that’s all folks. I hope you enjoyed this account of #silentcamp — it’s the first time I’ve done a dedicated post on an event I’ve attended, and I’m glad I’ve captured this all now before it all gets forgotten in the mists of time. If you like this format please let me know, so I can bring it back another time.



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Coco Chan

Coco Chan

Digital professional, musician, textile artist. Tweets @_crmzchan_