Virtual Versus In-Person: Three Fellows Reflect on the Past Two Conferences

Local Government Management Fellows share their thoughts on attending the ICMA conference in Nashville and virtually through UNITE.

By Aaron Sather, Kirstin Hinds, and Keith Farrell | Dec 1, 2020 | ARTICLE

We are still very much in the early stage of our local government careers, but with two ICMA conferences under our belts, we thought we could offer a unique perspective on ICMA’s effort to bring its annual conference online. We’re new enough to the profession that we do not reject the concept of a virtual conference and experienced enough to have something to compare it to. 

2019 In-Person Conference

First, a few reflections on 2019’s conference in Nashville. It was there that we got to meet the other LGMFs in our cohort. We made fast friends, meeting other government nerds who had similar career goals and aspirations. We found that, even with all our differences, we had some common experiences, and even though we were all figuring out how to be professional public servants, we learned quite a bit from one another. Everyone had his and her own unique experience, and it opened our eyes to the multitudes contained within the profession. This experience helped us realize that sometimes our differences are what make us better and help us grow.

The speed coaching session was a highlight and formative experience for us. We had the opportunity to speak with a number of city managers and other high-ranking local government officials in quick succession. The advice we received at the session was invaluable, and more importantly, we got to see how very different people could still be successful as public administrators. There was no specific “type” of person for the job, and that quickly mitigated any suspicions that we were imposters, pretending to have a future in the profession. 

Finally, our time in Nashville allowed us to unplug for a few days and reflect on our experiences to-date versus dealing with the day-to-day grind. The in-person sessions gave us the space we needed to make the connections between what was being presented to us and how we could incorporate it into our work. We were worried that all the sessions would be directed toward senior managers, but what we found was that almost more of the content was being directed toward us as local government leaders preparing for the emerging technologies and challenges of our time. 

Granted, as recent MPA graduates, we were already well-prepared for what was in front of us, but all three of us look back on our first year of service and view the ICMA conference in Nashville as a major milestone in our journeys. When we returned to our respective communities to serve our neighbors, we were both more confident and prepared than ever.  

2020 Unite Digital Event

All three of us began Unite in the same way we started the 2019 conference: by attending the LGMF orientation. It wasn’t necessarily a requirement for us, but there were a number of reasons why we were interested in attending. First, the orientation ICMA puts together for its LGMFs is top-notch. Staff do an incredible job of providing a concise and comprehensive primer on what to expect from the fellowship, the conference ahead, and a future career in the profession. We learned a lot the last time around, but it was fun to have a refresher with an additional year under our belts. Additionally, we were curious as to how ICMA would bring what traditionally was a very personal and interactive experience into a virtual environment. But perhaps most of all, we wanted to show solidarity with the first-year fellows following in our footsteps during trying and difficult times. 

The content for this orientation was just as well packaged and the speakers were just as engaging and inspiring. What we did notice was some reticence from the new fellows to ask questions or actively engage in the conversation. For instance, when we got to the ethics segment of the agenda, the three of us exchanged chats joking about how our cohort had barraged ICMA Ethics Advisor Jessica Cowles at the 2019 conference in Nashville with a myriad of questions and scenarios we might find ourselves in, but the new cohort remained silent. We were tempted to jump in, but ultimately, we felt this time was for the new fellows, and we let it be. In retrospect, that’s something that’s ultimately lost when things go virtual. Last year, if we had a burning question, but had trepidation about asking it, we'd slip a note to the fellow sitting next to us and asked what they thought of the question. The fellow responded by saying that they, too, would be interested in hearing ICMA’s response. So, thanks to the personal nudge from a relative stranger, the difficult question got asked. At the end of the session, we realized that no technology could replace those informal and tacit forms of trust and relationship building. 

Beyond the initial two days of orientation, we found it difficult to fully immerse ourselves. Being at a desk in city hall or working from home not fully detached from work responsibilities while trying to attend a virtual conference is less than ideal. One minute, you're tuned into a session, and the next, you find that your office phone is ringing with a neighbor or coworker on the other end looking for some assistance. What are you going to do? Especially in the midst of a pandemic when a city’s residents are depending on its government more than ever and agencies are working with limited staff resources where every moment counts? In our three instances, at least, we answered the phone. Unless you take public servants out of their communities, it is basically impossible to do anything but put the public first. This is not a criticism of a virtual conference, rather, it’s confirmation that public servants are committed to serving their communities. We were impressed by what ICMA put together in a short period of time to accommodate the unique circumstances, although a virtual experience cannot replace the experience that an in-person conference provides.

We’d like to think that we’ve done ICMA proud as one year into the fellowship all three of us are already playing critical roles within our organizations to keep local government as an anchor and a stronghold for our communities during these chaotic and unprecedented times. Besides, if and when slower Fridays ever return, we have those well-made sessions with the same valuable knowledge available to us on-demand.

Aaron Sather is a local government management fellow with the Physical Development Division of Dakota County, Minnesota.

Keith Farrell is a senior management fellow with Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he administers numerous programs through the Division of Neighbor Support.

Kirstin Hinds is community and economic development director for Freeport, Illinois.

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