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What will council-meeting law changes mean for transparency?

By August 24, 2012 3 Comments

Yesterday Eric Pickles announced that  members of the public who want to report on council meetings will be offered the same privileges enjoyed by accredited press.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has said that new regulations, to come into force in September, will ensure greater public scrutiny and give bloggers and users of social media much more access to council meetings. It was a good day for the transparency principle – the reform will enshrine in legislation the presumption that most council meetings should be held in public – and the news has been celebrated here by local blogger, Philip John, who is involved in running the brilliant Lichfield blog.

Come September, as explained on the CLG site, here, the regulations will do at least two things worth mentioning…

  1. Councils will be required to ensure “all meetings of the executive, its committees and subcommittees are to be held in public unless a narrowly defined legal exception applies.” This exception, it stated, is “A meeting will only be held in private if confidential information would be disclosed, or a resolution has been passed to exclude the public because exempt information is likely is be disclosed, or a lawful power is used to exclude the public in order to maintain orderly conduct at the meeting.” Confidentiality is decided upon, as I understand it, by officers of the council.
  2. The council must make available “reasonable facilities for members of the public to report the proceedings as well as accredited newspapers.” The CLG release explained: “This will make it easier for new ‘social media’ reporting of council executive meetings thereby opening proceedings up to internet bloggers, tweeting and hyperlocal news forums.”

At Public-i we’re keen on making sure meetings are seen by more people, which is what our Connect and Connect Social webcasting products aim to do. And we’ve argued before that councils should do more to welcome citizens into council meetings to record and report on them – and that this can be aided by keeping a digital record of council meetings with webcasting.

But what perhaps is worth discussing is what in practice this will mean for councils. Will it usher in greater transparency and public involvement in meetings and will see more filming and reporting? I’ve already asked what impact it will have on Twitter and it elicited this brief response from Jacqui Thompson…

In my experience the facilities (and meetings) offered to journalists in practice do not always extend greatly beyond those of the public – sometimes it’s a bench, a little bit nearer to the action and a press officer to stop you bothering councillors. And, as we noted at the user group in March, it’s not always the case that real decision making takes place in the meetings. But that said if in practice the public makes greater access to and report on more meetings this is good news. And I’d be very keen to hear your views…

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Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Tom Phillips says:

    I’ve tweeted reaction to two issues thel latest from Pickles seems to me to raise.

    The earlier Pickles announcement about welcoming citizen journalists etc was potentially very significant indeed. However, its impact was mitigated by a) those who needed no encouragement and basically had the issues in hand, and b) those who basically just said “it won’t happen here”. For most of the rest, very little positive action was actually needed.

    This new edict is of a rather lower order of impact potential, in my view. Those against transpancy and/or afraid to show true democratic process in action will simply turn their formal exectutive meetings (as defined) into sterile set-pieces, with the real decisions being taken in private, unadvertised meetings of the political elites. Much as now, of course.

    The other omission from all of this are the large number of notionally non-exective strategic and other partnerships to which a very great deal of influence and action is delegated or accrued. For example, many aspects of the delivery of community plans and strategies, and their attendant monitoring, rest with such multi-agency bodies. However, few of these are open to public attendance, and are outside the scope of the latest from Mr Pickles.

    Strikes me we still have a long way to go before people can really see their local community being shaped and governed, and reporters,mformal or informal, are able to commentate.

  • Thanks, Tom. You make excellent points, as ever.

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