Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Organizers of the five-day virtual festival want local governments to rally around the concept of “anti-fragility” and embrace big, bold changes.
You’ve heard of South By Southwest. You’ve heard of Burning Man. Now one organization wants to take the best of both of those events and offer a similar experience (albeit virtually) specifically for local government leaders. They’re calling it: Govapalooza.
The Alliance for Innovation (AFI), a non-profit organization with a mission to drive local public sector innovation, is behind the event. It’s intended to be a five-day, online celebration of local government, with more than 30 partners and 60 sessions. There are headline speakers like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and an anticipated audience of 5,000—most of whom are city managers, elected officials and local administrative staff.
AFI President and CEO Joel Carnes says the goal is to foster the festival atmosphere of South By Southwest, the annual event in Austin, Texas centered around film, music and other cultural happenings, and the spirit of Burning Man, the convening known for its wild art installations, where thousands of participants strive to create a temporary “city” in the Nevada desert.
In short, it’s a gathering for local officials who are hungry for something different.
The event, which comes as many local leaders have been unable to participate in national and local conferences over the last year because of the coronavirus, is an opportunity to spur innovation and, as Brandi Allen, learning events director at AFI puts it, bring some “light into the darkness” brought on by the pandemic.
Previously, AFI had hosted the annual Transforming Local Government conference. But once it became clear that a return to a pre-pandemic normal wasn’t happening for that gathering, they decided to completely revamp their signature event and super-size it, which led to the Govapalooza concept.
Central to the program and AFI’s overall philosophy is for local governments to become more effective by embracing a spirit of “anti-fragility.” Described by AFI board chair Michael Wilkes as “beyond the concept of resiliency,” anti-fragility refers to building local organizations that thrive long-term even in the face of challenges and stressors. Wilkes hopes Govapalooza will be the spark for anti-fragility to take off across the country.
To help differentiate this event from your run-of-the-mill Zoom session, the program was built to feature diverse ideas, perspectives and create an atmosphere of inclusivity for all local officials. That diversity of thought and broader perspective was an important value add for partners like Dawn Peters. Peters, who is the executive director of both the Illinois and Wisconsin city/county management associations, explained that after the associations had to cancel their joint gathering last year there was a strong desire to participate in a unique experience that allowed them to engage with leaders outside of their region.
What Peters and others hope will really set Govapalooza apart is restoring a key feature of in-person events that has been difficult to recreate in the virtual world: networking. Through meet-ups, chat rooms, small group discussions and a virtual pavilion for partner organizations with live stream video capabilities, people will have numerous opportunities to connect.
Ultimately, the organizers don’t want this to be just an event, rather a movement that creates an ongoing sense of community. “It’s not just an annual affair,” Carnes said. “The model that we are looking to emulate is more of a Burning Man. In Burning Man, you aspire to build creative community. In Govapalooza, you aspire to build 21st century local government based on our ever-lasting principles.”
Once the Covid-19 threat passes and large in-person gatherings can resume, AFI hopes that Govapalooza will become a live festival. Until then, Carnes wants to generate a more grassroots spirit in small local or regional gatherings. “We can start with dinner parties. We can start with meeting up at local bars. Wherever two or more gather to celebrate Govapalooza the festival is.”
Route Fifty is the exclusive American media partner for Govapalooza.
Alisha Powell Gillis is the senior editor of Route Fifty.