The only way is Hybrid!

A few years ago I stood (unsuccessfully!) for election to the FCC on the basis that we needed to look at allowing people to take part in Conference remotely. I was given all sorts of reasons why it would not work – but it only took a few minutes on Friday afternoon to be abundantly clear that this was very much an idea whose time had come.

As the Conference went on that feeling only strengthened -fantastic speeches from first time speakers (my impression was more than usual), a vibrant chat box, far more people watching the debate and voting than are usually in the hall. Most important of all people who could simply not go to a physical conference – because they could not afford to, because they have caring responsibilities and a host of other reasons, were able to attend.

Fringes have been well attended, and able to have people from around the world participating – I organised a meeting with a speaker in Mumbai. Not everything was perfect – exhibitors say that they have not had many visitors and not being able to see those being trained made training more challenging. But these are things which can be fixed in future.

There is no doubt in my mind that we need to have virtual participation in all our conferences from now on. That will not be easy – Autumn conference is a significant fundraiser for the Party from attendees and exhibitors and the cost of Hopin is not inconsiderable. But a smaller physical conference offers the opportunity to go a broader range of conference venues and we should not be afraid to think boldly. The Spring Conference always has a smaller attendance – partly of course because many people are working on local elections – is there a need to have a physical Spring Conference at all?

I suspect that unless there is a very quick rollout of a vaccine, the Spring Conference next year will be virtual only. But the Federal Board (which has to agree the budget) and the Federal Conference Committee (which makes the arrangements) have some big decisions to make about conferences from September 2021 onward. I hope that they will do so on the basis of encouraging the increased inclusivity and participation which the last few days have demonstrated.

* Simon McGrath is a Councillor in Wimbledon and on the Board of Liberal Reform.

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23 Comments

  • This was the first time I have ever been able to attend conference, and I know that’s true of many others in similar positions. A hybrid solution in the future, and the increase to accessibility this would give, seems like a right-minded goal.

    I would also suggest that some people may be able to attend in person for one day, but would still like to be able to attend debates and vote on issues on other days. Personally, it would be easier for me to do this, as I wouldn’t have to worry about accommodation or time.

  • Laurence Cox 28th Sep '20 - 8:19pm

    Once we stop thinking in terms of physical conferences, this opens up new options for how we organise conferences. For example, a physical conference needs to squeeze everything into the minimum number of days and needs to take account of travel to and from the conference. A virtual conference could easily be spread over, for example, a week of evenings and perhaps a day at a weekend.

    Perhaps we could start by agreeing that we make all our regional and the Scottish and Welsh State conferences virtual and go from there. Autumn Federal Conference is the only one where there is a real benefit from a physical conference, and that is primarily because of the media attention.

  • James Belchamber 28th Sep '20 - 9:58pm

    Absolutely Laurence – the question now becomes, why are we squeezing debates into tiny little windows of time? Why does it all have to happen at once over a long weekend?

    Maybe we should be thinking about widening the debate – both to as many members as possible, and with as much time as it takes to really digest arguments, do your own research, discuss with others, then agree the best way forward.

    Then we can focus an in-person weekend on social events, maybe announcing results etc. And Glee Club, I presume.

  • Agree with what Simon McGrath has posted, and I thank him for this.
    I thank all those who made the arrangements for the conference this year. I realise that to change the format to take account of the remote arrangements would probably have been bridge too far. Now though is the time to start work on designing a conference format to take account of the opportunities presented by modern technology.
    My own opinion is that we need to start with having as a starting point what we are trying to do. I suggest that it should be to involve members in decision making in the organisation that we are all members of.
    We need to think about how motions get to conference. To me the idea that we can craft motions on serious and complex issues in such a way that we have a vote for or against, and then ask to look for a balance in the debate is not really acceptable. At least to me it does not seem acceptable, but unless we adopt a planning process which which includes deciding what we are trying to do then we are unlikely to make progress.
    As far as the exhibition is concerned, I tried to find a way a number of times to look at some of the stalls, but couldn’t find how to do it. The instability of the system didn’t help of course. I think there is a need to offer exhibitors the free opportunity to communicate with our members via a video for which a link might be sent to members at an agreed date so that they could offer information, and we could experiment with different methods of financing our activities.

  • I had the choice between working abroad or being unemployed in England. Of course I went abroad and I am still living abroad. It was very good to be able to participate in the virtual Conference. My thanks are to those whose hard work may this possible. It was a great conference.

  • made this possible*

  • richard underhill 29th Sep '20 - 7:12am

    Agreed. More democratic.

  • David Rogers 29th Sep '20 - 8:15am

    Thanks for this article Simon. Like you, I am a veteran of many Spring and Autumn Federal Conferences – and indeed Liberal Assemblies before that. I agree entirely with your analysis of what worked well and not so well this year. I also agree that in the future there needs to be a way of involving members remotely, even if physical events were to resume. This also opens the way for smaller venues around the country to be considered if the likely numbers attending in person will be smaller. However I do not agree with those above who suggest that regional conferences should immediately move to ‘virtual only’!

  • While I missed wandering around the Exhibition (and scrounging free pens & sweets) and, of course, Glee Club, I have really enjoyed our first Online Conference.
    I hope the FCC & FB need to look at how we can make next Autumn Hybrid (like Simon, I think Spring will be online) so we can get the best of both worlds.
    Also, using a platform like Hopin means we are not limited to just a 1 1/2 day Spring Conference. We could extend it to run all week in the evenings to give more room for Policy debates.
    I realise this would mean more work for FCC (and more expense) but there are always more Motions submitted than we have time to debate and this night be a way to give space for them.

  • The broad thrust of Simon’s article is very welcome. The challenges of a virtual exhibition for AO’s were very evident. There used to be an FB instigated Associated Organisations Review Group – ably led by Toby Keynes and Gordon Lishman – that called a valuable discussion meeting with AO’s at every autumn conference. It would be good if this group was reconvened sooner rather than later to have a broad discussion about how AO’s interract with Party members in this “hybrid” world that Simon urges.

  • Toby Keynes 29th Sep '20 - 9:25am

    @John Kelly: It would be good if this group was reconvened sooner rather than later…

    John, Although Gordon and I resigned a while back, the group continues – under a new name and with a newly-appointed team.
    You can find it at https://www.libdems.org.uk/pbrg
    I would hope that LibDem Friends of Palestine, of which you are secretary, has been involved in the group’s recent consultations on the future of AOs and SAOs.

  • Toby Keynes 29th Sep '20 - 9:25am

    Oops: the group’s new name is the Party Bodies Review Group.

  • While the inclusivity of a digital conference is very welcome, there were some snags that need addressing for next time. As Chair of an AO I want to say that we didn’t get anything like the exposure we normally attract at a physical conference, due partly to difficulties that some (like me) experienced with accessing the booths and fringe events on the HOPIN platform. Much better liaison between FCC and the AOs before – as recommended by John Kelly above – would have helped. Opportunities for UAT and a rehearsal were missed and there was no promotion from the auditorium sessions. I trust the AO review group will take this forward with all the AOs (not just the ones that had booths and fringe events).
    PS, @Leon, I must buy some pens this weekend!

  • @Toby, thank you. I very recently requested and had an interview with the PBRG; it turned out they had been working from an incomplete list of AOs.
    This did not include anything about preparing for or making the most of conference.
    During conference I recall that someone suggested putting links from the party’s website to all AOs; I hope this will be picked up and taken forward.

  • Maureen Rigg 29th Sep '20 - 10:34am

    Well said Simon. There were many, many positives to the online conference and it was a great success when we consider the size of the team working on it and the short timeframe in which they had to work. The biggest problems seemed to arise for people trying to access Hopin on mobile devices. As this is the preferred or only way that many people access the internet these days we do need a solution to that problem in order to be properly democratic. The main auditorium worked well enough, though getting to the poll button was a challenge for some, the fringe less well and the booths were a major challenge to mobile users. If that can’t be resolved with Hopin then it needs to be made clear before people pay to register that mobile devices will give a restricted access to the conference.

  • Julian Ingram 29th Sep '20 - 10:37am

    A good well thought through piece and I agree with Simon that we can’t, in a modern age, go back to an exclusive conference based on those who are free and can pay. However, this does also lead to a rethink about any future physical element. It can be more about a rally and networking rather than a focus on an underused hall in a seaside resort. The two things I think we need to work on is the exhibitors, that just didn’t work and the lack of a linkage between the screen and chat and the motion. The one thing I disagree with Simon on [sorry simon] is the regional conferences going virtual. We need to connect with each other and paradoxically they may need to remain non virtual to rebalance the virtual element of conference.

  • I was totally with you, Simon, till you dropped that bomb about cancelling spring. Given the cost implications perhaps one way forward might be to have Spring be virtual and Autumn be the traditional glad-handing-journos-at-the-seaside. That way everyone gets what they want?

    Those saying the AOs etc could have done with more training on hopin? So could we all, and that is definitely a learning point FCC we’ll take into its debrief

  • On the subject of AO’s booths, and with the caveat that I’m speaking from an outside perspective, the discoverability of live sessions seemed poor in the Hopin software itself. I was visiting several stalls that were marked as being “Live”, but were only playing looping video with nobody active in chat, and this would have put me off visiting other stalls were it not for me being very lucky the very first time I tried and seeing a live session at ALDC.

    I feel that with improvements to the Hopin software to properly differentiate and advertise live sessions, the experience at the Exhibition booths would be greatly improved.

  • There were loads of positives for me. The main one being that I could actually join in!

    Overall it worked well, but clearly there are things to be learned for the future. In some fringe sessions the comments were coming thick and fast and you could see the chair trying to find questions, or even comments they’d spotted earlier. Is there a function for allowing chairs to ‘save’ comments they wish to come back to? Or to have questions separate from comments?

    One thing I noticed was that my live feed of the debates lagged, but clicking on the ‘live’ button brought me back up to speed. That helped when time for voting was limited. I did notice that if you checked the polls section, the vote would appear apparently before it was announced, presumably due to the video lagging behind that part of the website. I don’t know if more time is required for voting, or if more members need to be aware to look out for that.

    Some chairs would summarise, or spell out what each amendment was for, while in some debates I’d be scrabbling around trying to work it out – possibly because I’d missed the very beginning. Is there space to include a summary of each amendment on the voting page? Or to display it some other easy to access way – ideally during the debate. I found it easy enough to find the overall motion in the app, but details of amendments are more elusive.

    The format worked well for the fringes – allowing you to nip into one even if it’s popular and you are late. Some of these could easily be spread out to other times, possibly in the week ahead of conference, or generally through the year, allowing a bit more room to breathe, time to scrutinise motions and amendments, or the option to attend more sessions!

  • Sue Sutherland 29th Sep '20 - 3:27pm

    It is impossible for me to go to conference because I have a chronic illness which depletes my energy levels. It was wonderful to be able to see others debating and to put faces and personalities to names. I didn’t attempt to speak myself but if a Virtual Conference happens again I might be able to.
    I very much hope that the Autumn conference continues to have a virtual element to enable people who can’t attend conference to experience a gathering of like minded people discussing all aspects of the party. Please don’t fob us off with Spring Conference which we all know just isn’t the same experience.

  • James Belchamber 29th Sep '20 - 3:58pm

    Considering how inclusive this Conference was in practice (despite the still considerable ticket price, for many), I struggle to see how we could accept deciding our policy in a less inclusive way. For example, if we go for a virtual Spring Conference/physical Autumn Conference then Autumn Conference motions would obviously be then seen as less legitimate.

    We need to open up our policy-making more – not turn back. Ideally there should be no barrier, cost or otherwise, for any member to – at the very least – get a vote on what policy we pass at Conference.

  • I attended conference for the first time because it was online, and so have actually participated in the policy making process for the first time. We cannot ever go back to physical attendance only. That would be a massive backwards step.

  • Lloyd Harris 2nd Oct '20 - 7:49pm

    Jennie Rigg above has basically said what I wanted to say – Spring online and Autumn face to face.

    There are reasons for this – the cost of doing both methods at the same time would be prohibitive, the software isn’t cheap and add onto that the cost of a normal conference and you might find your costs double.

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