How open are council meetings?

DCLG have today announced that residents, bloggers, tweeters, community activists and hyperlocal sites should have the same access and facilities to council meetings as traditional newspaper journalists. This is important because it means Government recognises the valuable contribute the wider community makes to accountability in local government.

It’s a very timely announcement. For a while now I’ve been interested in the openness of council meetings. Namely, whether citizens, media or councillors are permitted to live tweet/blog, record audio of or film public meetings.

I have secured permission to film the meetings of my local council meetings in Lichfield and heard stories of others being forced to leave or even arrested for attempting to do the same.

These are just a few examples of the current state of play so an effort to document which councils allow their meetings to be opened up I created Open Council Meetings, a simple project to track which councils allow tweeting, recording and filming of meetings.

My hope is that the project can help bring together localgov enthusiasts, hyperlocal bloggers and active citizens to monitor the situation and put pressure on councils to open up.

 

Parliamentary online petitions

So, online petitions for Parliament?

In an attempt to reduce what is seen as a disconnection between the public and parliament, ministers will ensure that the most popular petition on the government website Direct.gov.uk will be drafted as a bill. It is also planning to guarantee that petitions which reach a fixed level of support – most likely 100,000 signatures – will be guaranteed a Commons debate.

I haven’t read much online that is particularly in favour of this idea. I suspect it’s one that can be filed in the ‘doing the wrong things righter’ cupboard.

Glen Newey on the LRB blog is particularly scathing:

Now the coalition plans to outsource law-making as well. On Tuesday it signalled that it meant to bring in ‘X Factor-style’ online petitioning for new laws. This latest wheeze hails from the same stable of Mutt and Jeff populism as John Major’s cones hotline and Tony Blair’s ‘Big Conversation’. The Gould-era Blair government was hexed by the popularity of Big Brother and saw political dividends in pretending to smile on government by mouse-click. So, after the focus-pocus of the early years, in 2006 Blair launched interactive petitioning on the Number Ten website. Not much happened, apart from a little ministerial consternation when petitioners gave Douglas Alexander’s road-toll scheme a mass thumbs-down. But in general the demos itself seems to doubt whether it needs more chances to vote. John Prescott’s proposal for a North East regional assembly in 2004 drew an impressive 78 per cent ‘No’ vote.

This time, 100,000 online signatures will win a debate on the floor of the House. A new era of democracy beckons: you name it, we’ll go through the motions of considering it. Safeguards will be installed to stop the virtual parthenogenesis that, for example, allowed Christian zealots to inflate their numbers when browbeating the BBC over its screening of Jerry Springer: The Opera. Petitioners won’t be able to clone themselves, impersonate the dead, or give the dog a vote. But this won’t be enough to insulate the process from fruitcakes and jokers in the population at large, let alone in the blogosphere. Adherents of the Jewish religion registered by the 2001 UK census were easily outnumbered by some 390,000 self-confessed Jedis, a figure bloated by online gerrymandering. Hartlepudlians repeatedly elected H’Angus the monkey as mayor after he had committed an act of indecency with a blow-up doll in Blackpool.

Paul Clarke covers some of the issues around identity with his customary élan.

I’ve noticed that a few councils are now starting to go live with their own online petitioning systems, including my local council, South Holland District, with what looks like the MySociety system.

Not sure if any readers have experience of either using or administering such a system, and are keen to share them?

I spent many an unhappy hour moderating petitions on the Number 10 system, which was a generally very depressing experience, with the petitions submitted bearing a very direct correlation with the headline in the dailies Mail or Express that morning.

YouChoose

youchoose

In what looks like a pretty interesting collaboration between what was the LGA Group and YouGov, YouChoose is an online budget simulator that:

encourages members of the public to consider where council budget cuts should fall, where efficiencies might be made, and where income might be generated.

You can see  a working version up and running for the London Borough of Redbridge, and a PDF document describes the detail in more detail (the tool is free, but decent analysis of the data is going to cost you).

I’ve not really got a view on participatory budgeting, or whether YouChoose does it well or not. Anyone with a clue want to share their thoughts?

Democracy, decisions and politicians

I’m thrashing around with a post about consultation, engagement and crowdsourcing and why efforts in this direction haven’t been massively successful for governments – whether in the UK or elsewhere. I’ll get it into a fit state to publish one day, maybe.

Catherine Howe (CEO of Public-I) is carrying out some research into how all this might work at a local level as part of her Phd, and is blogging her learning as she goes along. Her posts are long and meaty – and not nearly as disgusting as that description makes them sound.

Her latest post covers some of this territory very nicely, and links in the role of elected politicians into this. In the rush to get The People involved, our elected representatives are sometimes overlooked.

We can use and will use technology to improve the consultation process and to build in more transparency and openness but unless we also find ways to let the public set the agenda and the context, and unless we embrace the fact that decision making in a democratic process is political then we are really talking about sticking plasters and triage rather than the more radical surgery that will be needed in order to really change the relationship between the citizen and state and to create new ways of making decisions.

New governance models do not have to mean a plebiscite democracy – there is no evidence that the public want to be involved in every decision and no process that could make this an informed process. But if we are going to reinvent our representative process to take into account social change, characterised by the network society, then we need find a way to be more honest about the role of representatives and let politicians be politicians.

Read the rest here.

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.

LocalGovCamp Lincoln

Last Friday saw LocalGovCamp moving to Lincoln for the first of the follow up days. Learning Pool were happy to help out with some sponsorship of the event, which was marvelously organised and convened by Andrew Beeken of Lincoln City Council.

do councils need websites? #localgovcamp

The day was an enjoyable one, with plenty of interesting sessions, including one facilitated by Fraser Henderson on ePetitions – an issue I have a professional interest in – and commentable consultations by Joss Winn.

@josswinn talks commentable docs at #localgovcamp

Some great write ups of the event have already been posted up by Sarah and Andrew – and I’m sure there will be others.

The day was more obviously web focused than the Birmingham event, with many of the attendees coming from web teams. Nothing wrong with that – although the focus at times was more on making local government websites better, rather than making government better. Perhaps the fact that I have never worked on a web team means I’m a little distant from some of these conversations.

That the web will play an increasingly important role in the way councils and people interact with one another is a no-brainer. But more interesting to me than how that will work technologically is how it will fit within the culture and processes of local government – or how local government must change to fit with the new ways of working.

Another example was the session on hyperlocal blogging and local councils’ relationship with bloggers, which spent quite a bit of time discussing issues of judgements of quality and the need for editing and the relevance of the journalist in a networked society. Again, the real issue for me is the fact that outside the main urban areas, local newspapers are dying out and will continue to do so – and how will this affect the attitude local authorities have towards reputational risk, so much of which is focused not on the needs of the organisation or the people it serves but on what might appear in the local rag the next morning?

ePetitions are a good example. How hard is it to build an ePetitions system? Not very. What’s harder, and more interesting, is how you fit those ePetitions into the democratic and governance arrangements of the local authority.

This kind of ties in with the discussion on OpenSocitm about the future of the council, where I wrote the following:

I attended one of the Council of the Future sessions at the conference and found it a little unambitious. Indeed most of the things discussed were those that councils should be doing now – that many aren’t needs to be fixed, but it was hardly visionary stuff. I’m really thinking here of things like selling buildings, paperless office, EDRMS, business continuity, remote working, etc etc.

In fact, local government will be facing a crisis far worse than the current funding situation, which will be focused on staff and people. Look at the demographics of councillors – where are the next generation of people to take on the role once the current incumbents just get too old? Who will there be left vote for?

The problem is the same with officers, if not quite as bleak. There will be a massive churn in the next two years as expensive managers are pensioned off and younger, cheaper people will replace them – assuming those younger and cheaper people exist!

Perhaps this is a chance to rethink the roles played by councils and councillors – perhaps the reason why nobody is interested is because the roles are just wrong for this day and age – ties into Will Perrin’s point that government faced 21st century problems, has 21st century technology available to tackle them, but is lumbered with 19th century governance processes – and so no progress is ever made.

The things that should be discussed when the future of the council is considered should include:

  • Who delivers services – should the council be the retailer or the wholesaler of services?
  • How can councils work more closely with the private and third sectors, and community groups, in terms of carrying out its functions?
  • How can the council manage its information assets in a more open way, to encourage reuse by the community and the adding of innovative value that local gov isn’t able to provide itself?
  • How can councils become more entrepreneurial themselves to help bridge the funding gap?
  • How can customer service, communications and service design be blended into an iterative process to help make sure services deliver what users want?
  • What will the role of councillors be when nobody has the time to attend meetings in dusty town halls? Do we need to rethink the way our local democracy works?

Perhaps one framework to answer these and other questions might be to consider – if you were to start a council from scratch, right now, how would it work? What would it look like? What would you build first – an office or a website?

Am looking forward to these sorts of conversations at future events – and online, of course!

Local e-petitions

Headstar reported the other day about the progress of the piece of legislation that will mandate local authorities to set up systems allowing residents to create e-petitions, and to respond to such petitions.

Under the ‘Local democracy, economic development and construction Bill’ (http://bit.ly/1nEC4Z), councils will be obliged to provide an e-petition facility and publish schemes for both electronic and traditional petitions, to acknowledge any petition to its organiser, and to offer a response, all of which should be published online.

I’ve got quite a bit of interest in e-petitions, not least as a result of spending time helping moderate them for Number 10 during my time there. I’ve seen how these things can work, and how they can be frustrating.

Learning Pool have been keeping an eye on the development of the need for e-petitioning by councils, and already have an e-petitions platform in development which we will soon be looking to engage local authorities in testing. As always with Learning Pool’s stuff, it will be based on open source technology and will be easy to use and very cost effective. If you’re interested, please do get in touch.

In a related development, Andy Gibson is going to be working with Dominic and Fraser to develop a data standard for e-petitions.

From next year, it’s probable that all local councils will be required to provide electronic petitioning tools to their citizens, and we want to make sure they all do it the right way, and in a form that means they can all talk to each other.

I’ve put my name down to get involved, and will ensure that Learning Pool’s e-petitions system fits in with any agreed open standards.

Obama’s democracy

Interesting paper from Delib on the approach to government taken by the Obama administration in the States:

The reality has certainly been a lot more muted than most geeks would have liked. Nothing overly glam and technologically ground-breaking, but instead a steady stream of pilot e-democracy projects and iterative improvements using an array of different web 2.0 tools.

Obama’s democracy 2.0