The biggest mistake councils made with online engagement

It’s frequently costly. It almost always achieves little. It lets people tick the “use the internet to engage with the public” box without actually achieving much.

I am, of course, talking about webcasting council meetings. The idea has honourable roots. But the world has moved on.

Both print and broadcast media have steadily moved away from providing lengthy, verbatim reporting of what goes on in elected bodies. That’s despite such coverage being very cheap and easy to produce. Stick a journalist in front of the Parliamentary TV channel, give them a bookmark to Hansard and you’re away. Yet the volume of such coverage has fallen hugely in the last few years – because it’s not what the public wants.

We may wish the public thought otherwise, but when the public is so clearly turning its back on being interested in such verbatim coverage, it’s rather implausible to think that they would lap it up for their local council, if only it were available.

It is therefore no surprise that the audience figures for council webcasting are almost always low. It is a telling sign that it is extremely rare to find a council boasting about the size of its webcast audiences. To be fair, there are some niches and exceptions, but overall the picture is clear: webcast council meetings don’t get much of an audience.

That has been consistently the case, as the systematic evaluation of pilots back in 2005 as part of the Local e-Democracy National Project showed. None of the pilots got a large audience.

It is true that the number of members of the public turning up in person to council meetings is often so small that a tiny online audience can seem quite large by comparison. But it is not an audience that comes for free.

Webcasting costs. It costs money that could be spent elsewhere. Council webcasting is relatively cheap compared with big council IT projects, but it’s relatively expensive when compared to the costs of exploiting social media tools. For example, Croydon’s £33,000 budget for its 2006-7 webcasting pilot could have paid for a substantial social media campaign.

It isn’t just the immediate audience that is limited, so is the follow up audience because by locking up content in audio-visual format webcasting hides it from search engines. That is starting to change, with some speech to text conversion technology starting to creep in to search tools, but for the moment the money spent on webcasting usually could more effectively be spent on putting other content online in search engine friendly ways that serve the public.

A few less minimalistic pdf files of agendas and a few more pages rich with background information and links would go much further than many a webcast.

Webcasting does, perhaps, have one plus point. Councils often cover the basics when it comes to promoting webcasting: mention in the council newsletter, mention on the council website, mention in their email list. Added up this marketing still doesn’t provide a decent audience – which is a healthy reminder of how not only does the substance have to be attractive but also how hard you have to work to build up a decent website and email audience to which you can promote activities.

But overall, whilst piloting webcasting made sense, now we know the lesson: it rarely delivers.

Mark Pack is Associate Director, Digital at Mandate Communications (www.YourMandate.com). Previously he was Head of Innovations at the Liberal Democrats, heading up the team which arranged the first use of Google Video by a major UK political party, the first UK party leader on YouTube and the first UK election campaign to use Ustream. He blogs about politics, history and technology at www.MarkPack.org.uk. He’s on Twitter at @markpack.

0 thoughts on “The biggest mistake councils made with online engagement

  1. Pingback: davebriggs (Dave Briggs)

  2. Alan Colson

    Funnily enough, I am asking the same question today on one of my blogs, after attending full Council in Solihull last night. http://wmcsms.wordpress.com/2009/12/09/should-councils-stream-stuff/

    In a time when we’re being asked to save money, trim budgets, and cut services, how can it be justified.

    It’s certainly something I would like to see happen, and I was toying with the various ways last night how it would work, but after sleeping on it, I couldn’t possibly recommend this to my Council.

    Cabinet podcasts, now that’s a different story…

  3. graham

    The pure “streaming” approach always seemed like 10% of the potential – despite the popularity of Big Brother, who actually watched the live streams? I’m suprised we haven’t seen people taking the medium sensibly – pay someone to edit the content, for example.

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  12. Ari Herzog

    Timely thoughts as I commence a 2-year term as a city councilor next month. While the local council doesn’t webcast, the community access TV station both records for live and pre-recorded versions and places it available on its website as a blip.tv file. In this way, no taxpayer funds are spent for the recordings; perhaps this a model, while not perfect, but one other councils could emulate, PDFs and links aside?

  13. John Heneghan

    Interesting post, but are you perhaps missing the point here? The potential for webcasting is so much more than just live streaming – where I agree the audience is likely to be limited (not always actually though, for some of the bigger more contentious debates).

    The content could be reused in many imaginative ways to help bring to life on and offline debates and engagement or for councillors to promote their activity to their constituents. For example, local councillors could embed a short clip from a webcast of a council meeting in their blog, enabling constituents to see them in action – rasing an issue or concern at full council on behalf of a local residents, perhaps. Or, we could take an edited clip of a key debate and push it through different social media channels to prolong and deepen the public dialogue on key issues of public concern

    Webcasting can also be a cost effective way for officers in the council to see formal debates and discussion relevant to their work – it is often said that more and more council officers have too little exposure to councillors and the political/democratic process – if nothing else this would be a great learning tool to help build staff competence in terms of working a political environment.

    You can often only understand the nuances of a debate by seeing it as it really happened.

    And could perhaps the fact that councillors’ performance in meetings is forever captured and potentially re-usable, make us all think a bit harder about how to imporve the level and quality of political debate in our town halls??

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  15. Mark Pack

    John: many things ‘could’ happen, and it’s a good list you’ve put together in your second paragraph. But we’ve had webcasting for a fair number of years across a large number of councils, and those sorts of things in practice hardly ever happen. For me, the conclusion from that is that this (usually) isn’t the right approach to take: video content of council meetings isn’t what people are after, even when reused in the sorts of ways you mention.

    The theory sounded plausible around webcasting, which is why I don’t criticise those who tested it out. But now we’ve got evidence it makes sense to be guided by it.

    (That said, someone emailed me the example at http://www.nanaimo.ca/CouncilMeetings/VideoArchive.aspx?clip=C091123V of how to present webcasting, and with its direct links and sharing options it’s much better than most.)

  16. Donald

    Mark, you say we’ve had a large number of coucils webcasting across a fair number of years, but neither are really true.
    When you think that there are probably about 400 councils in the UK, there are less than 10% webcasting regularly. That cannot be classed as a large number. And webcasting regularly in a decent form has probably only been available for about 7-8 years. Like most of these technical solutions, especially in the public sector, they take time to be accepted by both the council members and more importantly the public. And those areas whrere wbcasting is a fixture, although numbers of ‘attendees’ of the webcasts are low (200-300), this is relatively high when compared to actual attendees to the meeting in what is a public debate. Try telling those citizens who have webcasting that we’re taking it away to spend the £20k on something else!
    What exactly? At least the citizens can see where the money is going.

    And all this talk about editing meetings – why would you do that? Because a member said something they shouldn’t have, or behaved inappropriately? This is what the public want to see and should see. Editing webcasts is like the big black marks all over MP’s expenses when published. Be transparent – we as citizens deserve it.

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  18. Adrian Short/Mash the State

    As Mark rightly points out, in an ideal world we’d probably capture and publish everything. As it is, resources are ever limited and we must prioritise.

    My hunch is that the intersection of the people that are happy to sit through an entire council meeting but only do so from home is vanishingly small. If people are that motivated, they’ll turn up (where they get quite a different experience anyway).

    I’d prioritise publicising the actual meetings better and finding ways to encourage/assist people to attend, combined with easily digestible reports/summaries of every meeting rather than just a bland minutes document.

    While councils are often resistant to dealing with third-party content, I think it’d be useful to have a (WordPress) meetings blog at each council, where the post-meeting summaries would be published, people could leave commments, and you’d also have pingbacks where people could leave external blog/YouTube/AudioBoo responses. At the moment, there’s no effective way of pulling together post-meeting conversations that happen online.

    More generally, the council mentality needs to move further from publishing to interaction/conversation.

  19. Mark Pack

    Donald: in the online world, having been doing things for eight years is a heck of a long time. In much less time, we’ve seen councils take to Facebook and Twitter and – in some cases – use them well and effectively.

    If after eights years of webcasting it’s still a case of “well, change takes time you know…” then there’s something more fundamentally wrong than simply not having let enough years go by. As I said in the post, if you look at other forms of verbatim reporting, overall the world is moving away from rather than towards it. What’s the reason to believe that after so long, and going against the grain, things are gong to change for webcasting?

    As for the alternatives – again I’d point to what I said in the post. Look at what is done with information about meetings online. Often it’s minimal, locked away in files that aren’t picked up by search engines and without links to background and explanatory information. Taking a council agenda and minutes and turning that into an lively, informative, linked in document will do far more in most cases than webcasting the meeting – and at less cost.

  20. Alan Colson

    I honestly believe video is a waste of money for these sessions. Audio only podcasts would be more accessible.

    Here’s the comment I made on one of our Councillor’s blogs http://cllrkenhawkins.co.uk/2009/12/10/full-council-8-december-2009/#comments

    “Alan Colson says:
    10 December 2009 at 8:54 am
    I came along to view this session, mainly to see what goes on. I found it quite interesting, although as someone who works at the Council, and therefore aware of many of the things being discussed, it was probably easier for me.

    If we want to engage more with the citizens of the borough, perhaps we should consider making these meetings a little more accessible, and have the Mayor mention the report, and have a 1 or 2 line summary before calling the Councillors up. It would save people trying to find it in the papers, and a bit more ‘user friendly’ if I can use that term here.

    Also, it may pave the way to record these meetings as podcasts, and make them available on the website, something which would be very useful to people interested in politics/democracy/Solihull who prefer to listen to things on the go, or with visual impairments, rather than sit down to read them. (Although I don’t know who I need to talk to if I want to pursue this idea)”

  21. Donald

    Mark, you too have missed my point.
    Having worked in online media for the best part of 15 years, I also know that 8 years in an online environment is a long time but my point was mainly related to how fast local governments move. Admittedly, they are getting better at it, but 8 years ago this was state of the art for them. Embracing Twitter and Facebook has been quicker, but do you have figures on the numbers of councils who have embraced this, and properly. I would say this is still relatively low.
    I also think your arguments for webcasting not being accepted after so long are flawed. You will be aware that the BBC have only just released Democracy Live. I know is slightly different in terms of its content, but the principle is the same. People want to see how governments act, whether central or local, and why shouldn’t they be able to do that from their own homes?

    Adrian: try using your argument about going to your local planning meeting to some rural counties. Would you really like to get home from work, jump in your car (if you have one) or use public transport in the middle of January to travel to a council planning meeting which could involve a lengthy trip for the evening, or get home from work, have some food and sit and watch the debate online?
    I understand your side of the debate but for every good reason you use there is an equally good counter reason.

    I was also interested in the debate about using associated documents and agenda’s etc using webcasts. Surely this content is already available? I can see all of this and more when I watch my local council debates (Mole Valley).
    [Now I’m wondering if anyone here has actually seen a proper webcast of a local council meeting!]

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  24. Keithy

    Looking at numbers to understand the success or not of webcasting of meetings is in my ind a mistake. Follwo that path and you end up quering the vlaue of elections if less than 50% vote. At least those councils webcasting are sending a powerfull message that they are open for business and transparent in what they do. In the overall costs of democracy this seems a low cost to incur.

    Whilst it is possible to find webcasts with low viewship (and I would suggest this is possbily due to marketing plus a continuance of the non citizen friedly language that councils use – but that is another topic) you can also find successes see http://www.bcfc.co.uk/page/NewsDetail/0,,10327~1867366,00.html nearly 6000 people viewing a council debate live.
    There are lots of citizens comments such as “At last we will be able to discover what Councillors actually said rather than the potentially biased version propagated by the local media”. It would be a shame to loose anything and any form of editing could only destroy any of the trust that has been built up.

  25. Keithy

    Just saw an interesting article on webcasting by councils. East Sussex’s CC system being used by the police. Senior police officers are expected to face an audience grilling at a Question Time-style event in Lewes next month.

    Chief Superintendent Robin Smith, commander of Sussex Police’s East Sussex division, is due to be joined by Sussex Police Authority members Carole Shaves and Councillor Bob Tidy, and Detective Chief Inspector Michael Ashcroft, head of the county’s CID.

    The event is being held on Thursday January 21 between 6pm and 7.30pm at the council chamber at County Hall in Lewes.

    It is due to be broadcast live on East Sussex County Council’s website, http://www.eastsussex.gov.uk/webcasts.

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