Can you guarantee learning at an unconference? How we’re approaching #GovCampNorth

Imran Hussain
Aug 25, 2020 · 5 min read


  • It’s hard to guarantee learning at an unconference, without ruining the ad-hoc nature of the event
  • We’re going to add learning “around” the event at #GovCampNorth
  • We’ll be releasing the dates for these sessions soon, but in the first instance register your interest for the event

We’re so excited that #GovCampNorth is happening this year! It hasn’t been without its difficulties. We started planning an in-person event in January and had to swiftly change track once Covid-19 hit. One of the other difficulties we’ve been grappling with is ‘how can we guarantee learning takes place at our event?’. The nature of unconferences mean that you don’t know what will be discussed. Open space events are all about bringing your whole self to the event and building a connection with other attendees. Living in the moment.

Trying to shoehorn learning into the day would seem clumsy and ruin the serendipity of the event. We didn’t want to do that, so we decided to leave the day of the event untouched.

Unconference session board at Govcamp Cymru
GovCamp Cymru session board

We did want to add some learning somewhere though. Especially because we decided to run on a weekday (to attract people who can’t normally make it to UK GovCamp). As an organising group, we felt that it would help us guarantee value for attendees and help them square it with their managers. So, what to do?

Our plan is to build some learning ‘around’ the event. Operating online means that we need to allow the audience to get familiar with the technology and support them in the new way of pitching topics for example. We hope to run some online sessions in the build up to the event and some afterwards. They will complement the day, rather than detract from it. Here are some of our ideas so far:

Pitch writing workshop

There are many ways to pitch a session at an unconference. We didn’t want to particularly go with one that involves someone standing up in front of 200 people and pitching an idea. Something like 25/10 CrowdSourcing from Liberating Structures is fun and much less nerve-wracking.

One of the problems with a short written pitch is the extent to which you can communicate the idea. Quite often you will see an idea and you will want to ask several questions around the context. Because the context is missing, you can’t assess whether you want to join the session or not.

We had two thoughts on this. One, let’s release the unconference invitation early and allow people to think about how they want to pitch their idea. Two, let’s get some content professionals together and help attendees craft and refine their pitch. It will allow people to feel more comfortable with their pitch whilst also learning from some experts. Having extra sessions to get to know other GovCampers never hurts either.

Example pitch card from One Team Gov Global event
Pitch card from One Team Gov Global event

Online facilitation workshop

One of the factors that would be magnified in an online unconference would be the facilitation. Communicating in large groups is difficult enough in person, but can be made even more complex with technology.

To ease GovCampers in to the online environment, we thought of offering an online facilitation workshop. We could introduce four potential facilitation techniques that attendees can choose from when they pitch their session. That way everyone is already used to the techniques and they know what to expect when they go into a session.

On the organising side, it allows us to road test techniques that will work with our platform. It will also allow any volunteer facilitators to manage sessions in a much simpler way.

We are looking at different techniques from Liberating Structures, Gamestorming and Authentic Relating roster of techniques. We also have some brilliant facilitators on the organising team *cough* Sharon Dale *cough*, so we are really looking forward to putting this together.

Shift & Share by Joao Reis
Shift & Share from Liberating Structures, illustration by Joao Reis

Post-event reflection sessions

I always get serious FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) when I see all the output from GovCamp sessions on Twitter. I imagine it’s pretty difficult to decide which session you want to attend when you are there on the day too.

We are thinking about running some post-event workshops where people can share their learning from the #GovCampNorth sessions they attended. A few of us did this after the Co-Matter Community Leadership Summit last year (more here) and I found it extremely useful.

It provides a useful mental debrief from events, but also lets you learn vicariously from others that attended different sessions.

I thought we could introduce some models of reflection into the process, so that GovCampers can learn skills that they can apply to their day-to-day work. I’ve alway felt that there isn’t enough emphasis on reflection and learning from your mistakes in the public sector. It would be good to road test a session that will address some of this.

An image showing the seven stages of Gibbs’ reflective cycle
Gibbs reflective cycle

There are a lot of models we could use, but I find that Gibbs (1988) Reflective Cycle and Rolfe, Freshwater and Jasper’s (2001) model are really useful when you are starting out.

What else?

We have based our current workshop ideas on what we think would add nicely to the event. However we’d love to hear from you.

What would you like to see in pre or post-event sessions?

Let us know in the comments, on our Twitter handle @govcampnorth or on the GovCampNorth channel of the UK GovCamp Slack.

If you would like to run a learning session, please get in touch via the same mediums.

Register your interest

Before you attend the learning sessions, you need to register your interest for the event. Read our ticketing blog and register your interest for the event here. Much like UK GovCamp, we will be doing a ticket lottery if interest is high.

We plan to have facilitators in each session to help take notes and deal with any code of conduct issues. If you would like to help on the day or would like to help facilitate some of the sessions, please fill in the form.

GovCamp | North

An inclusive event that helps attendees to develop & grow into better public servants

Imran Hussain

Written by

Proud dad. Communities Lead. Volunteer @UKGovCamp @oneteamgov @leedsgovjam. Passionate about connecting people, public service and learning. Views are my own.

GovCamp | North

Connecting all people who want to make public service and the public sector better with a day of sharing ideas, thoughts and experiences. Providing the opportunity to learn new things and build better stuff.

Imran Hussain

Written by

Proud dad. Communities Lead. Volunteer @UKGovCamp @oneteamgov @leedsgovjam. Passionate about connecting people, public service and learning. Views are my own.

GovCamp | North

Connecting all people who want to make public service and the public sector better with a day of sharing ideas, thoughts and experiences. Providing the opportunity to learn new things and build better stuff.

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