Organising a fully virtual and democratic trade union conference. By NASUWT’s Sammy Connell and Chris Weavers.
The NASUWT held its centenary Annual Conference at the ICC Belfast Convention Centre over the Easter weekend in 2019. A celebration of the success of the union over the previous 100 years, often in the face of adversity. Little could we have anticipated the challenges of the next two years.
Our 2020 Conference was due to take place less than three weeks after the first total lockdown. In the event it was fully virtual, attended only by the National Executive and four representatives of each region/nation. It lasted an afternoon and did only what was legally and constitutionally required.
It wasn’t ideal but we were forced to be reactive and, given we had very little time to plan and organise anything, it was no surprise that it didn’t really resemble the Conference experience.
On 24 June 2020 the NASUWT Annual Conference 2021 Steering Group met for the first time. For the first time the union’s annual conference was due to be held at the Sage, Gateshead. None of us knew at that point that another year of restrictions lay ahead.
As the pandemic dragged on we started to contingency plan for a hybrid or virtual conference until finally, the decision was made that a physical conference would no longer be viable in any form.
We sought to learn from the experiences of others including the TUC, the Labour Party, Education International and other trade unions and membership organisations.
Over the past year, membership organisations across the country and internationally concluded that full democratic conferences were not possible virtually. The advice to anyone organising such an event was to reduce uncertainty, constrain democracy and do only what needed to be done.
Despite this advice the NASUWT determined to organise a full democratic conference, with all the spontaneity, unpredictability and risk that implied. We knew we wanted our conference to be an experience, something completely different from anything else we’ve offered. We wanted it to be more than a zoom meeting and just one dimensional.
It was clear from the start the union would need to identify partner organisations to provide a bespoke virtual conference platform and a secure voting application. We spent much of our time ironing out exactly what our requirements were including the functional, nonfunctional requirements and specification:
We also used the MoSCow method, which is a helpful prioritisation tool to help you and the providers understand which are the significant requirements. It also enabled us to be realistic, ensure we were clear from the outset and offer some flexibility.
We sought tenders from a range of providers and after much consideration and going through a rigorous procurement process, we eventually decided to partner with Cue Media. Cue Media specialise in virtual, hybrid and live events who have provided production services for a wide range of clients for over 20 years and particularly over the pandemic had been hosting virtual experiences using bespoke platforms.
Our platform needed to offer a range of functionality, it needed to host resources (similar to what attendees would normally receive on arrival in their delegate bag). It needed to be able to showcase the 4 day programme, the union’s work, speaker hubs, key messages, videos, social media streams, wellbeing hubs, charitable causes, evaluation forms, noticeboards and of course the main focus – the live broadcast of Conference.
But we also sought to prioritise. Our focus would be on the core purpose of our conference – accountability, democratic debate and policy setting. This meant we decided not to organise a fringe programme, to scale back the exhibition and sacrifice or shorten some non-essential elements of the agenda.
Rather than attendees arriving at a physical venue, we created a secure online platform that attendees could log into and this would provide the foundation for our virtual event.
The below image showcases a snapshot how the platform was laid out –
So, with the focus firmly on the formal conference business, we set to work developing the features and processes that would make our vision possible.
One of the greatest challenges was maintaining the spontaneity and flow of debate whereby elected representatives could indicate during the course of debate that they wanted to speak, could be AV checked and called without delay. The main issue was making sure everyone involved in the process had access to the necessary information as quickly as possible. This was achieved via a shared spreadsheet, developed in advance of the Conference but adapted over the course of the event as additional functions were identified.
Access was shared by the Standing Orders Committee (SOC), President, the union’s production team and Cue Media’s technical staff.
Any participant wanting to speak, move an amendment or procedural motion or make a point of order informed the SOC via web forms accessed via buttons on the platform. After all the required information was completed the details would be received by the SOC and entered into the spreadsheet. The participant was contacted by Cue Media, AV checked and the President could see when they were ready to speak and could choose to call them. With a couple of minor exceptions this system worked flawlessly.
Recognising the demands this would create technologically during the conference, we sought to mitigate this by pre-recording as many mover and seconder speeches in advance of the event itself. This reduced the pressure on the day, but it was impossible to tell which interventions were pre-records and which were live. This was true also of the keynote addresses, including the General Secretary, three senior politicians and three international speakers.
We partnered with Civica to manage the voting process – working with them to create systems to allow both regular and card voting (no card votes were required as it turned out). The union’s scrutineers were able to observe the voting process and assure the results. At the conclusion of each vote the results were displayed numerically and graphically to NASUWT who relayed these to the President to announce.
By the end of the event, all business, including 25 policy motions had been debated and voted upon and hundreds of speeches made.
Although the focus was very clearly on the debate and discussions in the virtual conference itself, we also invested in top quality resources and support for participants.
On the platform, participants could find all the conference documents, including the Annual Report, as well as a variety of newly published reports by the union.
We also used a mix of music, animations, videos and slides between formal conference business and during breaks to both vary the format and to promote the union’s campaigns and partnerships.
Recognising the strain of a four-day virtual conference, we scheduled regular breaks, but we also commissioned a range of well-being videos with activities ranging from yoga to drumming.
NASUWT staff were available throughout the Conference to provide IT assistance, policy advice and media support.
The combination of these solutions gave us what we sought – a virtual conference that preserved every element of the union’s democratic processes and saw 100s of members debate and vote on dozens of motions.
The feedback we received from attendees has been incredible, we were blown away with the sheer volume of positive comments.
I think it was fair to say, our attendees thought they would be experiencing yet another zoom event but they experienced so much more!
Accessibility and support being available in a variety of methods were key to the success, we had BSL interpreters throughout and closed captions available. In addition we had a wide range of support available to those experiencing any technical difficulties but also just wishing to be signposted.
But we know we can improve further and we actively sought feedback from members and staff. The planning process for the next few years is already well underway and whether future events are virtual physical or hybrid, much of what we learnt this year will inform our thinking and practice.
We’d be very happy to discuss our experiences further with colleagues in sister unions grappling with the same issues as we all have much to learn from one another as we explore this world of virtual events. Feel free to get in touch!
Further write ups, images and to view our short highlights video can be found here.