On Friday 11th November iNetwork hosted its flagship annual conference. The conference marked the first time iNetwork had hosted a hybrid conference with delegates joining in person at Kings House Conference Centre, Manchester and online as virtual attendees. In addition, it was the first time in three years the conference had attendees in person, which made the event extra special.

The focus of this year’s conference was on people, place and partnerships, with presentations and conversations covering a broad range of topics and challenges in the public sector. The packed agenda consisted of opening and closing panel discussions as well as more than 10 smaller seminar sessions delivered by members and sponsors over the course of the day. The conference consisted of three concurrent tracks which focussed on people and partnerships, data and digital and the final track was for sessions delivered online, providing a range of options for the hybrid audience to engage with.

The in-person conference utilised all three floors of the Kings House Conference Centre, with sessions taking place on the ground floor and the second floor in the main auditorium of the venue throughout the day. In addition, the first floor of the venue was used as an exhibition hall, which showcased 11 exhibitors and sponsors as well as acting as a networking space during the breaks in between sessions.

The conference was chaired by iNetwork’s interim Executive Chair, Phil Swan, who is the director for digital at Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA). As the chair of the conference, Phil delivered the opening address where he reflected on previous annual conferences and the delivery of the iNetwork team in the year to date. Following the welcome address, Phil stayed on stage in the auditorium to chair the opening panel on leading places. The panel sessions marked the return of the popular conversational sofa session format.

The panel discussion brought together senior practitioners; Bob Brown, Chief Executive at Sedgemoor Council, Kath O’Dwyer, Chief Executive at St Helens Council and James Winterbottom, Director of Digital, Leisure and Wellbeing Services at Wigan Council. Their wide ranging conversation centred around the challenge of leading places in the post-pandemic era in the midst of a cost of living crisis.

Kath kicked off the discussion by reflecting on the complexities of leading places, stating ‘one size does not fit all’ with every place having its unique challenges. Kath has a unique experience of leading a council through the pandemic as she moved into her role at St Helens 8 days before the initial lockdown. She commented on the transition from traditional office working within a place to new hybrid models of working, stating this change is still an ongoing challenge for the public sector as a whole. As a result, the council has undergone a transformation to equip staff with the correct tools to work effectively and in an agile manner.

Kath stated the cost of living is a larger challenge for the public sector than covid, especially under current budgetary pressures for councils. Although a huge challenge, Kath argued that many of the aspects the public sector has learnt for the pandemic are applicable to combat the cost of living. In particular, Kath highlighted the importance of maintaining close relationships with the voluntary sector, businesses and residents in tackling new challenges. Kath concluded stated that councils need to adapt and evolve becoming more commercially minded and driving forward change in a timely manner.

Bob Brown followed by discussing his experience of leading through change. Bob’s organisation is going through Local Government Reorganisation (LGR) which means Sedgemoor Council along with four other district level councils will be dissolved into one unitary authority. Bob noted when there were first discussions of the change, he was worried that services may lose a place-based focus as the unitary authority is over large area encompassing a diverse range of communities. However, Bob highlighted that the major change has the customer at heart and discussions and consultations have centred on how to meet the community’s needs.

Similar to Kath, Bob reflected on Covid, noting the pandemic had broken down barriers between different layers of local government in the Somerset area. The strengthened relationships between the different councils in the area have made the reorganisation process easier and realigned all the organisation’s priorities.

James Winterbottom concluded by discussing innovation at Wigan Council and the Wigan Deal, which has been in place for more than 10 years. James stated that Wigan has always had a culture of innovation and creativity which has been born out of the council doing things differently and reimagining what effective public service delivery looks like. James reflected on the Wigan Deal and how it unpins the innovative nature of what the council does, stating it is at the forefront of every member of staff’s thinking. James highlighted that the Wigan Deal puts the council in a good place to be adaptive and react effectively to the current challenges of the cost of living.

In between the opening and closing panels, there were 11 seminar sessions delivered, with discussions and presentations on the cost of living crisis, community engagement, 15-minute neighbourhoods, disclosure management, digital inclusion and many more. Members from East Riding of Yorkshire Council, Cheshire East Council, Leeds City Council, Oldham Council, Sedgemoor Council and GMCA shared best practice for other members to learn from. In addition, there were sessions delivered from relevant suppliers GeoPlace, Informa, Policy in Practice and TPX impact providing members with the opportunity to hear about new products and opportunities.

Over the course of the day, there were several breaks from the sessions allowing members to network and continue conversations over refreshments. For those that joined in Manchester, it was many members’ first in-person event in over 2 years. The feedback was wholly positive about engaging with fellow colleagues face to face, discussing work projects and reconnecting on a personal level.

The conference was brought to a close by another panel discussion, titled empowering people and partnerships which brought together Delphine Fitouri, Head of Digital Services at Bradford District Care Foundation Trust; Fay Selvan, Chief Executive of the Big Life Group and Adam Lent Chief Executive of New Local. The conversation chaired by Phil Swan focused on the importance of engaging communities in ongoing projects and work in places. Additionally, the importance of sharing best practice amongst colleagues within the public sector was also a strong theme running through the engaged discussion.

Fay began the debate by discussing the importance of empowerment in the communities. Fay simply stated to be empowered is to feel in control of things going on around you, and that control is essential for people’s physical and mental wellbeing. Fay mentioned that delivering public services can inadvertently disempower and make people’s situations worse, which needs to change. Fay stated the importance of engaging with communities that are disengaged and groups that are often underrepresented to ensure their voices are heard and opinions are taken seriously.

Adam followed on the topic of empowered communities, discussing the work of New Local. Adam mentioned the approach of New Local is to work collectively with communities, whether that be neighbourhoods or individuals with a collective interest. Adam described an empowered community as one that has the confidence and capabilities to act on an agenda of change that they have decided. Adam also stated that it is important that public sector organisations accept and respect a community’s vision for change rather than making decisions on the behalf of communities.

Delphine then spoke from an NHS perspective noting it is important to engage with citizens and patients to get feedback on where services can be improved. Delphine provided an example of where Bradford District Care Trust has engaged with staff to form the organisation’s digital strategy. Using an interactive online platform and virtual workshops, BDCT engaged with service users and staff to inform their strategy. Delphine explained the main themes to come out of the engagement were getting to basics right and ensuring service users could safely and securely communicate with the organisation.

Delphine followed by discussing the work of the Yorkshire and Humber Public Services Network (YHPSN) a group of more than 60 members in the region, which Delphine chairs. The partnership is a key iNetwork partner and provides a range of technical services to members including GovRoam allowing key services to be connected to fast reliable internet wherever they are in the region. Delphine mentioned the collaboration with iNetwork highlighting the key crossovers in priorities and synergies in events and work.

Following the panel, Phil Swan brought the conference to a close, he thanked the speakers, sponsors, exhibitors and iNetwork team. Most importantly Phil announced the winner of the interactive photo competition, whereby conference delegates voted for their favourite photo throughout the day via the Whova app. The winner was EISS Network Leadership member Alan Boardman, who took home a Hotel Chocolate hamper worth £100!

If you missed the conference or would like to catch on to any of the sessions, they are now available online via our Whova platform. We encourage you to log into the platform engage with the content and visit exhibitor and sponsor booths.