Why unconference? #Reimagine2017
"The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of the expertise of the people on stage"
The unique challenges of this age – including Brexit, financial pressures, and a constantly evolving political landscape – also provide us with unique opportunities to do things better. In this spirit, last Friday the amazing volunteers at OneTeamGov organised a tremendous gathering consisting of the Civil Service Leadership Group (over one hundred permanent secretaries and directors general), other civil servants from across grades and departments, and the wider public sector including a team from Oxford Insights. The goal was to create a space to reimagine how the public sector might work over the next five years. The method was an unconference. Unconferences are not a new idea, but their use in public service and organisational structures is a growing trend. The results of Reimagine2017 help to make the case that governments across the world would greatly benefit from holding a similar event.
For those unfamiliar with unconferences, the basic idea is that the agenda is set by the attendees. In other words, people participating in an unconference can have the conversations they want to have about the challenges they are facing with other people who are facing the same challenges. Thus, when done in a public service setting, an unconference brings together leaders at different levels and from different sectors of government to share practices and values, experiences and ideas, with an emphasis on innovative thinking and microaction for improvement and change. You can read more about the methodology here, here, and here. Many proponents of the methodology argue that its greatest benefit is that it uncovers tacit knowledge which is rooted in context and experience, and this certainly took place at Reimagine2017. In my opinion however, the greatest contribution of an unconference in a government setting is the parity that it creates amongst its participants.
A traditional conference or workshop structure inherently subjugates itself to hierarchies of every sort. As a consequence, genuine collaboration and innovative thinking across departments and levels of seniority is difficult to foster. At an unconference, everyone is brought to the same level, and everyone’s contributions are valued. There is a rule of “two feet” at an unconference: if you are not contributing or asking questions, you are in the wrong room. As such, the success of the format is that it forces those with interests, stakes, and opinions into the same place: with no space for spectators. Throughout the day at every session, I loved watching permanent secretaries having open discussions with junior staff members about topics ranging from data sharing to fostering better relationships with the private sector. The energy was infectious and rose throughout the day (usually at a conference, energy dissipates as the effects of morning caffeine wear off!) The collaborative discussions led to genuinely innovative ideas. It would be an understatement to say that Reimagine2017 was a success.
At the event, Richard and I led a session to map out future models for responding to technological disruption. Attendees were interested in how government can look after people when AI “takes their jobs”. The total economic impact of AI on the U.K. economy is difficult to measure, but we can be sure that artificial intelligence will lead to a massive restructuring of labour markets. Some ideas, such as a basic income were discussed, but the big take away point was that it is government’s responsibility to promote the reskilling of the labour market. The issue however, is that governments are not keeping up with the private sector in terms of their adoption and integration of AI. As a consequence, how can governments lead the reskilling of the labour market?
There is a lot to be done to increase the public sector’s capacity to integrate AI into its thinking and its delivery mechanisms - and these are areas we specialise in at Oxford Insights. We’ll be publishing more in the coming months about our ideas for how governments can prepare for AI, both inside and outside government.
In regard to government’s capacity to respond to upcoming technological challenges the unconference revealed that there is much work to be done, particularly in terms of capacity building, to respond to technological changes and advances. This unprecedented gathering of leaders from across the public sector was a brilliant first step toward a promising future. Oxford Insights is currently laying the groundwork to using this same open format to widen the discussion to a broader audience in Oxford and around the world.
There is a reason why Ipsos MORI found that trust in public servants is higher than that of business owners, journalists, or politicians in general. In my experience, civil servants are honest, creative, and some of the most talented people in our country. This event showed that above all, civil servants care that what they do improves the lives of those they serve. My only wish is that the general public could have seen these incredible people doing what they do so well.