Unimpressed with the unconference
by Brian Keaney
Yesterday I attended the first ever Gov2.0 Camp New England at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy. This “camp” was an unconference, which was a new experience for me. I had some pretty high hopes going in and while overall I’m glad I went, I was somewhat let down.
To begin with, we started the morning with several hundred of us all introducing ourselves. I’m usually pretty good with names and faces, but there is no way I was going to get anything meaningful from 200 people announcing their name and three words about themselves. I could have done without it.
The whole idea behind an unconference is that people with similar interests gather, and then discuss what they want to discuss. There is no pre-planned agenda. The way it worked for us is that anyone who was interested in hosting a session on a topic got up and briefly proposed it. Then one guy in a tricorne took the microphone and tried to make sense of it all.
There’s no way that I could remember what 40 people all proposed, so I really didn’t even raise my hand when asked to vote on what I was interested in. Furthermore we all, including the colonial facilitator, just got a litany of discussion topics and 30 second descriptions only moments before.
Since no only could possibly be expected to remember all that, some topics with overlapping themes were put together based on one or two keywords. This sounds like a good idea, except when those keywords were so broad as to really encompass multiple topics.
For example, I attended session on “data,” which was a mashup of three separate proposals. In the room we had developers, gov-types, end users, policy wonks, etc. The conversation never really gelled, and we had three OK conversations happening at the same time, instead of three separate conversations of high quality.
My second complaint can be exemplified in a tweet I sent out during the morning session: “We are asking lots of good questions, but there are few answers in my session on citizen involvement. #gov20ne.” I think most of these panels were proposed by people who just wanted to sit around and discuss these topics. Few were led by anyone who could be called an expert. As a result, I was left with scarcely any takeaways. I have less than a half a page of notes from the entire day. The most valuable things I heard all day were the 5 minute “lighting talks” given by those who were experts.
I think the idea of an unconference is a good one, but what we had yesterday more closely remembled anarchy than pure democracy. If I was running it I would have anyone who is interested in leading a topic propose it on the wiki, as some did, ahead of time. Attendees could then vote on which they were interested in after reading the titles and descriptions.
The organizers could then intelligently combine those that are similar, and put together a schedule that makes sense. Also, a few of those who provided the very good lightening topics could expand on those themes in longer sessions with fuller presentations. Those who just wanted to sit around and discuss other issues would then be free to do so.
It was a worthwhile day on the whole, but there was certainly room for improvement. I’ll be looking forward to version 2.0 next year.