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Public meetings should be…well….public

By February 23, 20114 Comments

So I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with Eric Pickles.  This is an unusual sensation to say the least:

“Councils should open up their public meetings to local news ‘bloggers’ and routinely allow online filming of public discussions as part of increasing their transparency.” Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles

We’ve spent the last 10 years trying to get people to webcast their council meetings and it is with a certain amount of relief that we see this idea hitting the mainstream. There is no better way to build a public, transparent and open record of the democratic debate than to capture it on video so that you can see the full context of a decision rather than just the decision itself. This may seem like a statement of the obvious but for a long time the struggle has been to establish the fundamental ‘publicity’ of these public events. It’s one thing to say they are open to the public – it’s another thing to have 6,000 people logging on to view a meeting as Bristol did recently.

Openness is about more than just the video, however, and we also take Chris Taggart’s point that this content should be freely available to the public to use. We are talking to clients at the moment about how we can create an open data switch in our system that will enable clients to do this (more on this here).

But the meat of this story is really around the idea that citizen journalists should be the people capturing (and helping to disseminate) local democratic content. There is clearly some self-interest here (!) but if we really believe that a video record of a meeting is a valuable ongoing democratic resource then we need to be capturing all of the content.  It is not a difficult or expensive thing to set up the facilities to record meetings – and then make it easy to share and embed this content on an agenda item level so that it can be taken and used by the community.

The public should have every right –  and be encouraged wherever possible – to video, tweet, blog and comment on democratic debates.  But, at the same time, we also know that while some meetings generate a great deal of attention, others will not. We think that local authorities need to ensure that it isn’t just the bits that generate the greatest fuss that are kept digitally for prosperity.

My worry would be that you only realise afterwards that this was the content that you needed and it’s too late to capture it. A systematic record of the content means that its there as a community resource that citizen journalists can add to and enrich as part of their work.

We’d also argue that it is absolutely essential for local government to work harder to ensure citizens can play a fuller, richer part in their democratic processes – and the best way to do this is to give them all the content, rather than asking them, simply, to record it for themselves.

Formal meetings are at the heart of the democratic process and we need to use every way possible to engage people in this as commentators and as viewers. But if the goal is openness and transparency then we need to make sure that we capture all of the debate – not just the stuff that catches people’s attention.

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