Congress 2018 digital hub – a snapshot of union digital

Just back from the TUC’s 150th anniversary Congress in Manchester, where we had a Digital Hub stall, helping delegates make the most of tech to follow the conference.

In between charging up delegates’ devices and demoing some of our own digital projects, we tried to make the most of this annual gathering of a real cross section of our movement by asking people about their own digital ideas and challenges.

4 days and several pads of jumbo sticky notes later, here’s a sample of what we found:

It is working.

Progress always feels too slow, but it’s often easy to overlook that it is happening. Taking our own Congress documentation as an example, we found more people using it this year than last. We didn’t make any real changes to the system this year over 2017, but we sought to get it working better with our own processes, using the same tool to give earlier access to motions and comps as we had them, rather than waiting until the last weekend to turn everything on.

It seemed universally popular with everyone we asked about it, but doubly so with new delegates, who unsurprisingly fail to see why motions should not be ordered consecutively, why there are so many different types of them, and why you need to cross-reference 4 paper sources at the same time to understand them.

We’ll get proper data in our follow up surveys, but by a quick count around the hall, it seemed ⅔ of delegates had a device out in front of them, with possibly a higher count of tablets and convertibles than previous years in particular. Delegation leads were scrawling their notes on screens with styluses, as well as red-penning the booklets.

Looking at the stats for the same 4 days, the interactive documentation got used by 60% more people than 2017 – 561 unique visitors (a decent result against around 520 delegates), with significant rises in repeat visits, pages read and session durations. Learning from last year’s feedback, and putting in the work to integrate it better with our welcome journey for new delegates looks to have paid off.

And across the people I talked with I heard similar stories of union digital channels growing in use, and being more frequently relied upon.

There’s now some very good practice in digital around the movement. But it’s not common practice.

Where unions were doing new things, and meeting their users’ needs, it was genuinely well appreciated. For example I heard only fantastic things about the RCM’s innovative bitesize learning service – helping members keep up on their CPD in a way that suits them. CWU’s online engagement and Facebook live member meetings were touted as a positive, along with Unison’s Organising Space.

The down side to this is that much is happening in a completely different way everywhere, with all the problems that brings. One balloting scrutineer advocated for a common standard of data transfer in ballots. At the moment, different union officers take database member exports for external scrutineers to conduct balloting. The fields and their order aren’t always the same – bits can end up missed out or wrongly ordered, and that means more work for everyone, or in the worst case can result in lost ballots. If we’re going to make greater use of digital to increase member engagement (albeit on non-statutory questions at first), then getting this sorted and adopted could be a quick win.

Many people were particularly interested in Unison’s work in optimising online joining forms, and I think this could be a key moment for common practice. It’s a great piece of work, and one that it’s very easy to get a read-across in. Everyone understands a higher % of their existing number of signups. Plus new approaches of user-led development are baked into this in a really obvious way.

Demand for better activist tools is mainstream and not ambitious.

In previous years, it’s fallen on the geekiest reps to make use of digital in their branches. Whoever’s shown the greatest aptitude with technology can swifty find themselves lumped with running websites or social media channels.

As technology mainstreams at work, so it seems to be mainstreaming in how activists want to use it. People had some very realistic ways of viewing their own digital activist needs, based on an eyes-open understanding of the opportunities and limitations of many technologies.

One of the most common themes I heard from reps was wanting to use more video conferencing for holding meetings with colleagues who couldn’t meet physically (such as those on maternity leave), and for networking branches which can be geographically diverse. Whilst nobody believed it was a panacea, if it’s done right reps told me they believed it could save carbon footprint, time and money.

There was a demand for help to access tools that could support this. Lots of local union IT can be old or patchily supported. Similarly those with special access needs didn’t always manage to make union tech work with assistive technologies. But there wasn’t necessarily a demand for big silver-bullet systems. More an awareness that change could come iteratively, and by stretching the familiar, rather than doing it all at once.

Another theme where I found reps keen to use digital tools more was in finding ways to engage better with less active members. There was interest for example in using WhatsApp groups to bring member and activist engagement onto the channels they are already using, and into a for of communication that suited their requirements from the union, rather than trying to convince them to come to a website or app.

Reps were also keen to get real feedback on their digital efforts. It’s hard to tell if your time running a social channel is worthwhile if you don’t know how to take an objective look at the figures. More investment in dashboards and evaluation for reps could be a good win for many unions.

We need to be independent and protect ourselves

After a flurry of activity on WhatsApp and Facebook, I picked up on thoughts coming through from reps that less careful use of some of our channels may leave members open to management snooping and subsequent problems. It’s a theme that was also echoed at Unions 21’s packed digital unions fringe.

For some reps, this was the driver in doing more on digital. They’d been  made use of space on employer managed channels – employer websites or Yammer groups – but even with broadly positive employer relationships, the ownership of the channel could have a chilling effect on its use.

It’s going to mean opening up more to young activists

There were also thoughts around how our lack of young members and young activists might be related to the messaging we use, and a good realisation that this meant working with younger workers to develop new channels, write new content, and find partnerships with new influencers – none of which would come totally easily to those of us from older generations. Asking young members what they want, and involving them in producing it.

Digital and social are also areas where new paths to grassroots leadership are emerging. I detected a realisation that sometimes it can be hard for senior activists to let go totally in their succession planning. Young activists can be given work in the same vein as senior activists, but obviously of less importance and autonomy, whilst they’re gaining the experience. And they can spot make-work a mile off.

Getting them to take new digital roles in the union where the value they bring is obvious, and they can feel justly respected for that, could be a good way to build a more diverse set of activist roles, and hence a more diverse base of activists.

150 isn’t all history

This anniversary and this Congress weren’t about resting on 150 years of history. Rather it’s focused on how we keep to the value of our past, but reinvent for the future. It may be a big ask from where we are in some places, but from this limited sample, all across the movement, there’s an agreement that we need to do just that.