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.

 

Going hyperlocal

I had an enjoyable time on Saturday at the Talk About Local unconference, where lots of people involved in hyperlocal websites get together to share stories and experiences and to figure out answers to tricky questions.

There tends to be two angles with hyperlocal – the future of local journalism stuff which I tend to find rather dull; and then the community activist side, which is a bit more interesting.

I enjoyed the session organised by Vicky Sargent on neighbourhood planning and hyperlocals. We’re supporting a local neighbourhood plan initiative with web stuff – see A Plan for Holbeach – and of course there is our site for NALC too.

Vicky has a web tool coming out soon to support local groups in putting together neighbourhood plans – which ought to be pretty useful and I’m looking forward to seeing more on that.

Philip John – a Kind of Digital team member – ran a session proposing the Hyperlocal Alliance, which sounds like a great initiative and you can find out more about that here.

I didn’t run any sessions – I’m not really a hyperlocalist myself and was mainly in listening mode – but I have kicked off a project to openly collaborate on a hyperlocal handbook. Do join in!

Networked Neighbourhoods: effective localism or narrow insularity?

My friends at LGIU, The Hansard Society and Networked Neighbourhoods are running a free event next month in London that looks dead good:

Wednesday 19 October, 18.30 – 20.00

Thatcher Room, Portculis house, Westminster

LGiU, Networked Neighbourhoods and the Hansard Society are putting on a free event in Parliament on Weds 19th Oct.

We will be exploring the ‘relocalisation’ of the web and debating whether hyperlocal and community websites a vital democratic tool or if they lead to insularity out of step with an increasingly globalised world?

Panel:

  • Jonathan Carr-West – Local Government Information Unit
  • Natasha Innocent – Director of Community Partnerships, Race Online
  • Kerry McCarthy MP
  • Hugh Flouch – Networked Neighbourhoods

Chair:

  • Dr Andy Williamson – Independent digital strategist

Jonathan and Hugh will also discuss some of the early findings from the ‘Residents Online’ research project. If you are a Councillor or council officer and would like to take part in the survey, more information can be found here.

Tickets

To register, please email hans_admin@hansard.lse.ac.uk, or book online or phone 020 7438 1216.

Online Networked Neighbourhoods Study

Networked Neighbourhoods have published their study into local websites. Written by Hugh Flouch and Kevin Harris, it is as excellent as you would imagine it ought to be.

For lazy people, here’s a link to the four-page summary (PDF warning).

For everyone else, here’s the page of resources including the full reports, research material and video interviews. It’s a great resource and I recommend sifting through it.

Neighbourhood websites, or hyperlocal sites, are an interesting thing in terms of the way they tie into government and democracy. Catherine Howe has written in her customary thoughtful style on this subject numerous times – this post is a good one (and she also covered the launch of the Networked Neighborhoods report in detail).

Here’s a comment I left (before my recent house move!) on one of Catherine’s post which sums up my views on this:

What is local? I can see a street from my bedroom window right next to the one I live in, which couldn’t be any more local to me. But I never walk down there, drive down there, or anything – to be honest, I couldn’t really care less about it. But Stansted Airport – 40 miles down the road – *is* local as far as I am concerned.

I suspect local is defined by the individual and in the context of the issue or activity, which doesn’t sound too much like the great foundation to a community to me.

I’m not denying that location based online communities work – clearly they do – but what is the motivation? You rightly point out that pretty much every hyperlocal effort so far has a different bent to it. The link to democracy has been weak so far, I think – the greatest influence so far has been the dearth of quality local media, I would say.

The one thing I would say is that there is clearly more scope for where locally-focused websites are thriving for councils and local politicians to engage better with them.

The work by groups like Talk About Local also demonstrate that where sites do not exist, there is still an appetite to get them going, once people have been shown how to do so.

It strikes me, however, that attempts by government to act as a catalyst – and indeed a platform – for the creation of such sites itself tends to be less successful.