The (Unofficial, Unsolicited) How-To Guide for the OGP Summit Session of Your Dreams

Editor’s Note: This post was co-written by Panthea Lee & Nathaniel Heller, and first appeared on Open Government Partnership Stories


This May, the Government of Canada (GoC) and Open Government Partnership (OGP) will convene the 6th OGP Summit in Ottawa, bringing nearly 100 national and local member governments of OGP and their civil society counterparts together to discuss the opportunities and challenges to make governments more responsive and accountable to citizen needs.

The call for proposals for Summit sessions is open for another week (through February 6, 2019), and we know our community is hard at work identifying topics and preparing proposals for Ottawa. But we’re eager to make this Summit the best one yet. We’ve both been to too many events where the best conversations happen by the coffee station, where we end up only catching up with those we know, and where formal programming is seen merely as a set of color-coded barriers between breaks and before happy hour. Magical things can happen when smart, ambitious people get together, but we need to be strategic about facilitating that magic; as we have too often seen, it doesn’t happen on its own.

In that spirit, here are five tips on how we can collectively make this year’s Summit greater than the sum of its parts:

Tip 1: Harness the unique value of gathering in person.

It’s 2019. Technology is wonderful(-ish). Strangers and colleagues alike can video-meet and share ideas, tips, and resources to help each other along from anywhere in the world. So why meet in person? Simply put: gatherings allow us to dig in to the thorny stuff. There’s no substitute for face-to-face gatherings to discuss complex issues; wrestle with difficult questions; come up with collective solutions; and rally, organize, and support each other to make them happen. It’s also a great way to build meaningful social capital between potential allies and partners.

Let us think bigger and more creatively about the value of a global gathering to do things that we otherwise can’t through digital, remote, asynchronous channels. Let us realize the promise of face-to-face human connection, dialogue, and action.

Tip 2: Do talk about ideas. Don’t put on a dog and pony show

As you’re thinking about topics, remember why you started working in this movement to begin with—start conversations from that place. Meaning: Ask the big questions, debate the answers.

People are human. They like arguments and contested ideas, not four people saying the same thing using different words. They want to be entertained, not lectured at or sold to. No one wants to come to a session that is marketed as “Useful Thoughts on a Big Think Topic” that is then delivered as “How My Organization Is (or Did Something) Awesome.” You can easily identify the latter by the ratio of heads-staring-at-phones to heads-looking-at-the-lectern.

Be biased towards a discussion format that pits presenters and participants with different ideas against each other. (And if you’re organizing a panel, design a cohesive and critical conversation that speaks to the above, rather than a lineup of tangentially linked show-and-tells.) Sharing how you or another organization did something is fine (concrete examples are helpful!) but then talk about what worked and what didn’t. Tell us how you achieved those wins and be honest about where we’re falling short.

Tip 3: Tie your session to what is happening in the world.

There’s a lot going on in the world right now. Nationalist political agendas are gaining traction. Corruption scandals erupt and confound weekly. Threats to civic space are growing the world over. Despite working on these issues day in and day out, these issues become abstract topics to chew on, rather than concrete challenges to address when we enter the conference force field.

But change doesn’t happen in the abstract. Change happens when groups of committed people develop targeted, sophisticated responses to specific challenges in specific contexts, and launch them within specific windows of opportunity. Put simply, it happens when they solve real-life problems using common sense, smarts, and often a dose of luck.

So as you develop your sessions, ask yourself: How can my session contribute, in a very concrete way, to the changes I’d like to see in the world? What are immediate needs or opportunities I see, and how can we address those? Name those challenges, people, and opportunities specifically rather than falling back on archetypes, personas, and frameworks.

Tip 4: Propose solutions. Be action-oriented.

The Summit is not just about high-level deliverables like policy reform commitments or pledges of new partnerships. All sessions should have a bias towards solutions and action. At the beginning of your session, be clear about what your objectives are, then revisit those at the end. Attendees should walk out having achieved that objective; otherwise, you’ve missed an opportunity to learn, influence, and organize.

The best solutions or ideas in the room might come from lay participants rather than presenters. Do your best to structure the discussions as a two-way conversation between them. At the end, summarize the ideas surfaced, invite attendees to name concrete actions they can take to move them forward, and volunteer to coordinate follow-up.

(Bonus) Tip 5: Make our new friends feel welcome.

While this principle may not apply to all sessions, it’s important to keep in mind. Given that inclusion is a priority for Ottawa, the organizers are investing in bringing people and communities that don’t usually participate in these conversations. This means that in May—in addition to existing commitments to support more women attending—we’ll see more young people, more representatives from indigenous communities, and more colleagues from the Global South. This is fantastic.

To make sure everyone can get the most out of the Summit—which, in turn, will help the open government community expand and deepen its impact—and welcome our new friends, we can:

Of course, we’re not the only ones that have been thinking about how to maximize the value of gatherings. The OpenGov Hub community, for one, published this really helpful guide last year to provide practical tips and tricks for a successful session—read it!

Finally, a disclaimer: neither of us sit on the Summit selection committee for sessions, and our recommendations are in no way endorsed by either the GoC or OGP. So if you follow our suggestions, we’re grateful, but there’s no guarantee your proposals will get accepted. But if many of you follow these suggestions *and* your proposals get accepted, we can expect a pretty darn exciting Summit this year. (You can also buy us a drink at the after party to thank us!)

See you in Ottawa, where we’ll be excited to debate ideas, rally around promising solutions, and roll up our sleeves and get to work.


Photo courtesy of the Open Government Partnership’s Flickr page.

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