I’ve also published this over at our Public-i blog but have put it here as well for a personal sense of completeness

Another week another conference… and a bit of a change of pace with a trip to the Solace Annual Conference in Cardiff this week. Conference site is here and you can watch all the content here. It was a smaller conference than usual and Solace said that though there were more CEXs, there were far fewer senior managers with many organisations just sending one person. The overall mood was fairly positive though – which was a surprise – and while the conversation focused on impending cuts the people I spoke to had been planning for a while and there was a mood of ‘bring it on’ and a sense that they were ready to do a difficult job to the best of their abilities.

As you’ll see below part of this mood was down to the perceived direction of the Localism Bill and the decentralism moves from the Coalition Government, which gives them something to build towards rather than just cut.

In my last post I mentioned the fact that I expected the event to be rather more chalk and talk than the events I usually attend – and I was right – all very traditional conference format. However, for the first time at Solace there was a back-channel conversation on Twitter (have a look at #solace2010) and there is a small, but growing list of CEX’s and others getting engaged online. Hats off to the Solace folks for supporting this.

Edited highlights
Sadly, at the first session that I sat in on the speaker was not in any way to my taste (did you know leadership is all about establishing a vision? No? Really? It was news to me, too) but things did look up after that and the rest of the programme was much more engaging – here are some of highlights from my point of view:

  • Brilliant to see Martha Lane Fox present clear and direct facts about exactly why we need to take the issue of digital inclusion seriously
  • Dominic Campbell did a star turn as ever. He might have actually blown the minds of a few people, but that is no bad thing (see below). I particularly want to track the Safeguarding 2.0 project which is a really serious look how we can use social networks to support children in the system. You can see his blog post about his presentation here – and our webcast of it here.
  • Mathew Taylor was just brilliant – and developed and communicated the idea of active citizenship as a backdrop for how we need to change the way we make decisions. Interestingly though I think he really connected with the audience when he spoke of the need to communicate and manage change – and the fact that clever people with ideas is not enough – they need to be able to work with each other as well.
  • I was frankly shocked that Nat Wei chose to send a video presentation rather than attending himself as I would have thought getting commitment from Local government on the Big Society agenda is essential and his absence is a duff note when compared to what Greg Clark was saying (see below). I must note that I didn’t attend all of the sessions so there were probably loads of excellent sessions I just didn’t see.

Localism – they really seem to mean it.
Wednesday saw a discussion session on the new Localism Bill – allegedly due to turn up on the 13th of November. This is another session you should probably view yourself, as there is a lot of good content in it, but there was huge surprise and concern about the fact that the combined Leader/CEX role was still in the frame and was not a bizarre joke from Eric Pickles, which is what we all thought at the LGA annual conference. By combining these roles we leave ourselves extremely vulnerable to the vagaries of politicians without the checks and balances that someone with an event horizon of beyond the next election can bring. Hmmm……worrying…..
Thursday morning had the interesting combination of David Behan, Director General of Social Care, Department of Health, talking about NHS reform and then Greg Clark, Minister for Localism, talking about…well…Localism. Both gave thoughtful and impressive presentations (I am particularly reassured by the idea of David Behan running something) and it is very clear that the localism agenda is evolved and is being taken seriously, centrally. The PCTs will go and ‘Health and Well Being’ boards will be in place, at the latest, by April 2013. I’m still, personally, rather sceptical about the GP consortia, as Doctors are not known for their business acumen – but on the rest of the plans there is clearly a lot of sense in combining local health and prevention issues around the people who can most affect the environment people live in, rather than making it the purview of the people who need to fix stuff afterwards.
Greg Clark, Minister for Localism, talked about Localism, Decentralisation and everyone’s favourite the Big Society and he did so with great conviction. I would recommend you view the webcast on this one as well, as you will see that this was not the usual ministerial talk and more of a cosy fireside chat with friends. The content echoes the localism bill content, but you can see the details of the presentation on the webcast so I will not try and recap in detail. In terms of the tone though – he came across as thoughtful, committed and sincere about the idea that we need to devolve power to Local Government – and this chimes with his background. He says he will be reporting directly to the PM on progress around this agenda and so the big question is whether this commitment survives the spending cuts and on whether his colleagues on other departments are as committed to this level of change. That aside there is no doubt that these two presentations spoke to the hearts as well as minds of the audience and that if even part of this agenda comes off it will be excellent news for Councils – assuming that the money follows the power, of course – and this is an excellent thing for anyone who, as I do, believes that decision making needs to be devolved to the community level with an overarching democratic process to link these communities together.

And yes – once again its all about me…

But these events are really defined by your own perspective and obviously I attend with a strong interest in the implications of technological and social change with a desire to see public services respond to these changes. However, Local Government is facing huge challenges at the moment and I, therefore, vacillate between wanting to grab people by the lapels and shake them until they see the importance of this agenda and feeling that it’s OK for this to move at the usual pace of government.

The truth will no doubt be somewhere in the middle…

At some point I tweeted the fact that I don’t believe it’s acceptable for senior local government people not to know what a hashtag is. I was robustly refuted by someone (ironically on Twitter) who felt that technological knowledge is not a pre-requisite for leadership. Of course, in one sense they are right: we want the CEX steering the ship not servicing the engines – but in another sense this is very wrong. Our traditional structures are under increasing pressure from social change epitomised by tools like twitter and, though these changes will undoubtedly manifest more slowly than network society evangelists such as me would like, they are certainly coming faster than government’s usual pace of adaptation. Do CEX’s need to know what a hashtag is? Probably not. But they do need to know it’s important that someone in the senior team knows and in the same way that I make sure I have a really excellent accountant in my management team to compensate for my weaknesses in that area I hope they are making sure that someone who understands these new technologies and the social pressures that they can bring is close by.