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The Inaugural DfT Group DDaT Conference: why we did it, what happened and how to run your own

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Digital, Transformation

Earlier this month, we ran the first ever DfT Group Digital, Data & Technology (DDaT) Profession Conference. Not only that, but it was an ‘unconference’. I’ve written this blog to explain why we did it, what happened on the day and how you can run your own unconference.

The why

The Department for Transport has—or works closely with—22 agencies and public bodies. The DDaT profession is a young one across the DfT group. With all the professions in DfT, we look at 6 areas for development:

  • talent management & career pathways
  • curriculum & qualifications
  • standards and competence
  • governance
  • leadership
  • networks

When it comes to networks, we already have a regular meeting between the most senior leaders in digital from some of those organisations, but there’s no formal contact at other levels.

We decided to change that by organising an unconference. So a group of us from the Department for Transport, the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, Government Digital Service, High Speed 2, Highways England, the Maritime & Coastguard Agency and the Vehicle Certification Agency got together in Bristol.

An unconference is a great way to get people to network, without it feeling like networking. Participants pitch topics at the start of the day, vote on their favourites and run their own sessions. When done right, everyone should find everything they attend relevant. If they don’t, they simply walk out and go to another topic. This video of the day gives you a flavour of what it is like.

The what

We had up to 6 topics running at any one time, with topics closing and opening throughout the day, so we covered a lot. Each topic got its own hashtag so we could live blog about them (more on that later). Here’s a selection of what we covered.

#betterdata – How can we better organise and use data efficiently across the business?
#disruptive – What impact will disruptive technology have on various modes of transport? Are we gearing ourselves up as an organisation to meet the upcoming challenges?
#diversity - How can we increase diversity in DDaT roles?
#excelisubiquitous – How do we overcome siloed data stuck in excel spreadsheets?
#innovation - How do you encourage innovation when governance can make it challenging?
#networking - How can I contact people in similar roles in other DfT family organisations? How do we share our knowledge?
#nextchapter – What can we do to transform transport with digital?
#O365 - How are people using Office 365 in their organisation?
#sharingiscaring - How can we make sure that DDaT roles outside central digital functions are well supported?
#training - Would cross-organisation training be a good idea and, if yes, what can be done to achieve it?

The how

I’d never even been to an unconference before. If I can organise one, so can you. We started with some basic principles as set out by others here, here and here.

How to get good topics

Although we didn't do so on this occasion, you could set a theme for the day, or pose a question. For instance, I would like to run another unconference with DDaT and policy professionals posing the question “How can we use digital in transport policy?”

The beauty of an unconference is that one person might interpret that as “How do we use digital to transform how we make policy?” and suggest as a topic “How do we use machine learning to get better insights about how people use the transport system?” Another person could think it means “How do we bring about a transport system that makes the most of digital?” and propose “How will the economics of data impact the transport sector?”

Get people thinking about what they want to discuss as early as possible. We did registration through Eventbrite and asked participants what they wanted to get out of the conference. Once we had a list of topics, we sent the full list back out to everyone before the event.

We also asked people to answer three questions before they arrived:

1. What’s a success (or failure) you have had that others could learn from?
2. What are you finding hardest to solve right now?
3. Who else are you hoping will be at the unconference (could be someone with a particular role, skill set or experience)?

If you have a collaboration platform like Microsoft Teams, Workplace by Facebook or Slack you could open up the conversation there too.

How to get good conversations

Assume your participants don’t know how an unconference works and explain the principles several times before, at the start and during the event. At first, it might feel awkward, so you need to encourage people, but also give them feedback on how they can get more out of the unconference. Firstly, we had to keep pushing people to follow the law of two feet.

"If, during the course of the gathering, any person finds themselves in a situation where they are neither learning nor contributing, they must use their feet and go to some more productive place." from Transition Culture.

As well as ensuring that everyone is only staying in topics relevant to them, this principle also prevents zombie topics that refuse to die. Once no one is at the topic anymore, you can kick off a new one.

Secondly, keep an eye on group dynamics. At the start, it was clear that the people who pitched the topics felt they needed to lead the conversations. After the first break, we asked participants to set their chairs in circles and have everyone either sit or stand so that no one person had more control of the conversation.

How technology can help

Technology made everything a lot easier, although always have a supply of sticky notes to hand in case it fails. We used Slido to enable everyone to pitch topics simultaneously. This is a great way to ensure you hear introverts’ ideas too. We asked people for a question, a hashtag (for live blogging) and their name (so we could ask them to kick off the conversation). Everyone could then upvote what they were interested in. We also used different rooms on Slido to host our live blog, an up-to-date feed of what topics were happening in each room, and to document the commitments we all made at the end of the day.

We also used WhatsApp to stay in contact with volunteers in each room. When anything changed throughout the day (and given the dynamic nature of an unconference, that happens a lot) we could let them know immediately. It also gave us a way of letting everyone know when a new topic started, as the volunteers would announce them to the room they were in.

How to ensure that it’s not all talk

It's important to finish the day with a focus on actions. For our last session, we had everyone together in our largest room. All the topics from the day were spread out on the walls. We got people to write down what actions they wanted to take forward and put them up next to the relevant topic title. Finally, we got people to congregate around the action they care most about and discuss how they could work together on it. The law of two feet still applied, so people could still move around. We finished the day by all putting our shared actions on Slido.

What next?

My commitment was to run another DfT Group DDaT Unconference. In the meantime, a few people have already committed to setting up a social media network so we can broaden the conversation and convert our discussions into actions, which I'll share in a future blog. Watch this space!

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  1. Comment by Jan Ford posted on

    Thanks for organising Gavin - a very valuable day and looking forward to next time