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How do you innovate the conference structure? How can political parties challenge their routines and ask what really works best for their members?
One journalist I spoke to at the recent UUP event said it was too well stage-managed. When I put that to a UUP guy, he simply said: ‘I take that as a compliment.’
I understand why both would say that. But party organisers should consider all types of feedback and ask – are we providing an event which is effective and easily digestible (for media & members)?
This year the UUP tried something different… the half-day conference. Great idea – go for the variation and test your assumptions about what a conference can do. Downsizing does have certain advantages – sharp, focused, impactful – but it might come at the cost of thinning out important elements like interraction / networking / atmosphere? Do you instill an esprit de corps by marshalling a single, tight agenda for four hours inside one room?
From my perspective, the UUP conference was extremely well managed and well run. In the main this was the picture of how the traditional conference should be run – but it must be said that the location wasn’t great (dislocation of stalls from main event space detracted from conference spirit). But was this journalist right? Do even the best managed traditional party conferences lack dynamism? Is the traditional conference structure is now past its sell-by date?
Aside from setpiece speeches, there were two motions for discussion at the UUP conference: one on the economy; and one on education. Again, this is not criticism of how the UUP delivered this traditional debating element (it was well-managed), but I wonder how effective this was. Does this provide genuinely challenging content? Are these ‘open goal’ debates capable of providing vibrant discussion? If not should they be reviewed?
The conference is the one opportunity where the personality and complexion of your party is known. This is where you mix with people who share your outlook and aspirations. Some questions:
- How can you force this mixing of views; how do you promote engagement?
- How are parties engaging with members after conference (when ideas are fresh and morale is high)?
- What will parties do to capture feedback; comment?
- After the main event in the hall, could smaller micro-events be held by youth wings? How do you empower young people and deliver greater participation for youth organisations etc?
- Could an ‘unconference’ run alongside the bigger conference?
- Belfast-centred events are fine (after all most of the population lives within 10 miles of the capital) – but what about hosting smaller events (Derry & Enniskillen)? Do parties already do this? If not why not?
- How integrated is digital content / online to the conference agenda and format?
- Do parties run NING member sites? Can they get all members with computer access logged in? How can elements of the conference be spun out into social media?
- How can you go beyond the two-motion format? How do you expand opportunities for input from all members?
- How do you speak to people beyond the hall? What range and variety of content is there for the media?
I know parties do not have unlimited time and unlimited resources to pour into these things – only so much can be done to innovate on format, but I feel it’s certainly time for parties to challenge the old routines. The UUP at their event did show a willingness to do this.
However, I bumped into one very bright and very committed young activist on that Saturday who had travelled some distance to attend. He was concerned that when he left he would do so having not contributed very much. He said there wasn’t much of an outlet for him. The conference had not met this individual’s needs (when he is precisely the kind of person you want engaged and participating). So I wonder:
- How can parties improve outlets for activists to drive forward an agenda?
- How can the media get good content from the conference?
The trick will be in radicalising the traditional big hall structure and transforming / segmenting it into something more suited to the media and to specific groups of members (eg. young people). The UUP have begun the process of revising the approach to conference, but there’s still some distance yet to travel.