Thursday, 18 November 2010

How do you achieve optimum participant mix at an event?

I am writing having just arrived home from an event in Dudley which I helped to organise. Big Society: The Dudley Approach aimed to bring together leaders from the public sector, representatives from voluntary, community and faith sector networks, social media experts and local business people to begin discussing a local response to the Big Society agenda.

The 150 or so participants heard from thought-provoking speakers and then participated in their choices of 9 discussions around a range of themes. Twitter was in overdrive with over 400 tweets going out or coming in, from 50 contributors, both at the event and remote from it.

Rob Weaver from C3 Consulting, an event participant, noted in a tweet that “Two thirds of delegates from council and/or statutory/vol agencies.” He asked where are people and businesses? Dave Conroy from Capacity Builders tweeted in saying that it “would be interesting to know how and who invited”.

Here’s the response (it’s too long for a tweet).

The invitations were circulated a month prior to the event. A few weeks before that I attempted to find local business people. I started with the 300 plus followers of Hub Stourbridge. A trawl through the followers indicated to me that this was a good starting place. I asked Hub Stourbridge to send a tweet out to see if anyone was interested in being part of a discussion with others at an event in Dudley about Big Society. I had one response – from Rob Weaver. Rob was therefore added to the invitation list. I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t heard from others, and put this down to the often quoted myth that business folk don’t want to waste time in meetings talking about these sorts of things. I apologise! It seems a few of you are happy to spend time talking about things. (I’ve worked in the voluntary sector all my life, and don’t know many business people – hopefully that will change through this work!)

We did have more formal channels which we went through, such as invitations to the Chamber of Commerce and Federation of Small Businesses. I’m not sure whether the invitation recipients actually did or thought they should pass on these invitations.

The response from the voluntary, community and faith sector was disappointing to me. My organisation (Dosti) is a network of networks, and we communicate through key contacts in networks. We invited each network to put forward a few people, to try to manage the numbers. However many, especially the more community-based networks didn’t show any interest. I’m not sure whether these folk would constitute some of Rob’s ‘people’. I don’t see it being a huge problem at this stage. Some of it is about us going to them, so next week I will be talking with 40 or 50 tenants and residents association members from across the borough about the Big Society. This invitation came from the chair of their federation, and will enable the involvement of more people than would be likely to attend an event like the one tonight.

A few of our networks hosted a Big Society event back in September, attended by over 40 people, so perhaps some people have got what they need for now in terms of information and discussion. I’m happy to give presentations about the Big Society to any of our networks, and/or run facilitated discussions on the topic. The goal is that the many different discussions going on over the next few weeks and months can be co-ordinated in some way and people bought together in different ways.

Also during the summer I ran a couple of ‘Big Society down the pub’ informal chats, which attracted a small number of people, including some volunteers. It would be fantastic if we could have more of these run by lots of people in a variety of places, perhaps feeding in to one place online. (I intend to blog about the couple we did – just struggling for time!)

We were quite clear from the outset that this event wasn’t going to have an open invitation to the public, which is not to say that we wouldn’t consider other sorts of events which we’d publicise in the press etc. and invite anyone to. We would like to encourage online discussion from anyone interested, and will develop ways to do this too. We can start through a group I’ve set up on the Big Society in the North site (the North being north of London)! Do join me there, it’s been lonely! I’m in ‘The Dudley Approach’
My learning points:

• People outside the public and voluntary sector are more interested in this than I thought.
• One tweet via Hub Stourbridge wasn’t enough to get attention.
• The discussion needs to be taken wider, by as many people as possible, as soon as possible.

My questions to you (please respond below):

• What should we have done to attract the attention of more businesses? And how?
• What can we all do to engage ‘people’ in the discussion?
• Should I develop a ‘Big Society Conversation Pack’ to help people start discussions?

Thanks to Rob and Dave for asking the questions.