Yesterday I had the great pleasure of attending the Scottish Parliament’s second Communities Conference – ‘Understanding and Influencing Your Parliament‘. The conference is targeted at community-based voluntary and charity sector organisations, civic groups and campaign organisations and aims to help them develop the skills and knowledge they need to get their voice heard at Holyrood.
I went along as a panel member on a social media workshop, but Paul Anderson, Communities Partnership Manager, who organised the conference, very kindly said I could come along to the whole day.
[NB. my invite to be on the panel was all down to social media in action. I’d noticed Peter Cruickshank (@spartakan) tweeting and blogging about the conference. Peter had been asked to participate and was looking for social media advocates to help out. I asked Peter (via his blog) if he’d found anyone. And offered my services if he hadn’t. And he hadn’t!]
Anyway, I thought ScotGovCampers might be interested in my summary of the event and possibly help me with some follow up activities…
The autumn sunshine made it a little less painful to be up and on a train by eight o clock on a Saturday morning and I mooched around taking some piccies before heading in for registration. We kicked off in the fabulous debating chamber (if you’ve not had a tour of the Scottish Parliament building, you really really should). After the usual introductions (made slightly unusual by having to stand for the entrance of the Presiding Officer, Alex Ferguson MSP – never had to stand for the chair of a conference before!) we took part in the obligatory interactive voting session. I’ll not relay all the questions here, just mention two that were of particular relevance. Firstly, delegates were asked if they found technology a barrier to their engagement with the Parliament. Surprisingly, to me anyway, only 16% agreed with this statement. The next question got a rather less surprising result. Delegates were asked ‘what is the most useful thing the Scottish Parliament could do that would make it easier for you or your organisation to engage more’:
- 24% said ‘hold meetings and events around Scotland’;
- 9% ‘make more use of technology (web-casting, tele-conferencing, Facebook, etc)’;
- 20% said ‘hold more events like this one’;
- and the option ‘make more effort to explain its debates and decisions in language that ordinary people can understand’ polled 47% of the vote.
Michelle Hegarty, Head of Public Affairs and David McGill, Clerk Team Leader, then gave the parliamentary official perpective of engaging with the Parliament. A key tip from David was that it pays to do a little research and find out about the individual interests of MSPs.
Michelle and David were unexpectedly interjected by Keith Brown, Minister for Skills and Lifelong Learning. Mr Brown had been due to speak after David but, as is often the way with Ministers, he had a last minute change to his schedule and had to rush off to catch a train to the Ryder Cup (it’s a hard life!). Before departing, Mr Brown emphasised that engagement with the Scottish Parliament is much easier than it is with Westminster. He advised delegates that building up a relationship with your MSP over the long term can be more effective than just firing off emails to them.
David McLetchie MSP then gave his perspective on engaging with members. He pointed out that MSP’s don’t really have time to take up issues that are not relevant to their constituency – he made it very clear that a group email sent to all MSPs was not a good idea! A
ny submission to an MSP should be well prepared and focused on the matter in hand. David also suggested that it’s useful to be aware of the arguements opposing your case.
Susan Deacon, former MSP and Scottish Government Minister, a huge hit at last year’s conference, was back by popular demand. She kicked off by emphasising that folk working in their communities have a vital role in the parliamentary process. They can:
- identify issues, problems and opportunities
- offer local knowledge, insight and experience
- inject the human dimension
- provide facts
- offer support and solutions
She then offered some advice on what not to do when trying to engage with Parliament:
- bombard or overplay your hand
- use the begging bowl approach (there’s no money!)
- lobby the wrong people (Susan expressed some surprise that there’s still a lot of confusion about which tier of representation to approach for a particular issue, but I think it’s entirely understandable. Even those who work in government in Scotland aren’t always sure!)
- view the politician as an enemy
- paint the politician into a corner
Susan also warned that when pursuing an issue you need to be realistic and recognise that your particular issue is not the only issue (which I’m sure can be difficult if you’re really passionate about something!). She talked about change often taking place ‘under the waterline’. We are all agents of change and Susan feels that as a nation we may have become too dependent on the political process. Policy, legislation and regulation are not the only vehicles for change and public spending in and of itself does not necessarily drive improvement. She finished by emphasising that the need for people and organisations to work together is greater than ever and by telling us that we should ask ourselves ‘what can we do?’.
Social media workshop
The workshop itself kicked off after lunch in one of the committee rooms. Patrick Harvie MSP chaired the session and was very articulate in explaining the difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 and why community groups should seriously consider getting themselves a social media presence. On the panel with Peter and myself was current petitioner Bob Thomson, who’s been using social media to increase awareness of the potential of Low Dose Naltrexone to help with a range of medical conditions. Bob created a Posterous blog specifically for the workshop – full of useful resources for community groups looking to venture into social media.
Thanks to Bob, I don’t need to write about the session itself, he’s already done a grand job of that. I don’t think we won over everyone, but it was good to hear some participants say that they were going to have a go!
The hour and a half workshop flew by though and we could have covered lots more. The format of the workshop wasn’t ideal really for a session on social media. We did demo some sites, but the screen was so small that most folk couldn’t see very much. Something a bit more hands on would have been more effective I think.
Well…my last advice to the workshop delegates was that there are people out there who’d be glad to help them with the social media/web stuff. I mentioned the social media surgeries being organised by Greener Leith and Peter encouraged folk to go along to EdCM. On the way home, I had a bit of a Twitter chat with Bob about ways in which we could help connect geeks with social organisations. Bob suggested a barcamp type event and christened it ScotSOCamp.
With my ScotGovCamp organiser hat on, I can see some issues with that approach:
- the sheer organisational effort involved!
- I think it might be trickier to get sponsorship than it was for ScotGovCamp
- the intended audience for barcamps/govcamps generally already have a presence on social media spaces which makes promotion pretty easy – it would be rather more difficult getting the right people along to an event for community groups
- some folk can find the unconference format a bit intimidating
None of these are insurmountable though and it’s worth considering. I’d be very interested in your thoughts – and offers of help obviously!
I also had a thought about whether some kind of website would be helpful as a way of connecting willing techie helpers with organisations that need the help. Organisations could post a bit of info about themselves and what their need is (a new website, how to get started on Twitter, that sort of thing) and a volunteer with the relevant skills and interest could get in touch. A bit like www.do-it.org.uk or www.volunteerscotland.org.uk but more specific (and a bit less formal?). Again, thoughts appreciated.
The conference ended back in the chamber with Deputy Presiding Officer, Trish Godman MSP, leading a summing up of the workshop sessions. Points raised included the importance of developing a good relationship with your local media when trying to get support for your issue and the importance of having a web presence.
Before heading home I had a chat with some of the delegates at the drinks reception. All in all a very interesting and inspiring way to spend a Saturday!