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“We have always had a WI-style cake table where people could contribute their home baked cakes. We encourage people to do some baking and bring it along and it’s worked really well. It gets people talking online about things beforehand – it gets all a bit ‘Bake Off’. Cake has the uncanny ability to bring people together to strike up a conversation. They walk into the room and compare notes about home baking. It’s a social lubricant.”

This is the view from the kitchen of Dan Slee, a former in-house local government communications specialist and now a consultant with comms2point0 and one of the inspirational ingredients in the great recipe that is ‘CommsCamp’. Touch Design are gold sponsors of this year’s CommsCamp, an ‘unconference’ developed on the concept of ‘open space’ which this year takes place in Birmingham on July 14. Dan has teamed up with communications colleagues Darren Caveney and Emma Rodgers along with a host of volunteers and other sponsors, to stage the day for local government and health communicators and marketers to collaborate, communicate, co-design, and compare ideal oven temperatures. To mark our sponsorship of the event we talked to Dan about the purpose of CommsCamp and how it was set up.

“It came about in part by accident,” he says. “In 2006, before my time and involvement, there were a number of civil servants in central government who were getting fed up and they were saying ‘there is a thing called the internet, why don’t we use it?’ There is a story, possibly apocryphal, where somebody wanted a small change to a Government website and it cost £15,000. This was even before austerity hit but it made people angry and they realised this couldn’t go on. A couple of bright sparks had become aware of open source events, known as unconferences, where the agenda on the day is set by attendees. This was in stark contrast to the usual conference day where there are five speakers, one is good, one is very poor and the other three you just have to sit through in order to hear the good speaker for 20 minutes. You might possibly network over coffee for a little bit and find someone interesting but that is it. That led to the first UKGovCamp where about 40 or 50 people came along in their own time on a Saturday and discussed things like using Twitter which was a bold step back then. That then led to an offshoot of LocalGovCamp.

“The beauty of an unconference is that it is not proprietorial or formulaic. You simply just hire a small space and get people in. When I went to the first LocalGovCamp in Birmingham I was simply blown away – it changed the way I thought about things and did things. In one discussion I mentioned an idea and it was well received, quite unlike raising a question to a traditional conference panel of similar looking people on a stage who proceed to shoot you down. I thought in this new setting I have a voice, I’m able to contribute. It’s always interesting sitting in an open space session knowing nothing about the topic and then six months later it crops up at work and you think ‘I still might not know a great deal about this but I know someone who does.’ This then all led to a conversation with Ann Kempster who was working in the Cabinet Office at the time and we said let’s book a room, find some sponsors to help pay for food, and from this we set up CommsCamp. The first one was held in Birmingham in January 2012 and about 120 people came and they seemed to enjoy it and get lots out of it.

“We couldn’t do CommsCamp without the contributions of all involved including the volunteers and the sponsors. I always work with really nice people who I want to work with and Touch Design fall into that category because they ‘get it’ – they get the event and of course help fund it. Things aren’t all free in this world and we do need sponsors to help us meet the costs. We like to have sponsors who get the idea of this particular event where there is no set agenda, where good things happen. Touch understand this and see the value in this. That’s good because these events can be a leap of faith.

“As organisers some people think we should take the credit for the success of CommsCamp but really all we’ve done is find a room. It’s the people who come along who have the conversations that make the event. The beauty of it is that you can come along and shape your own day, no two people will have the same experience. At CommsCamp we’ll have about half-a-dozen rooms with four or five time slots so there are many sessions taking place, some with 60 people in the room and some with six but those sessions with only six people can be just as interesting and useful. To sum up CommsCamp, I really like the phrase that someone used to describe unconferences: ‘that they are about taking people out of their comfort zone - and putting them somewhere even more comfortable’.”

Touch Design are the proud sponsors of the comms2point0 ‘CommsCamp’ – an open space ‘unconference’ for public sector communications, PR, marketing and digital professionals – see www.commscamp.com

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