January 23rd 1985 was an historic day for citizen engagement when proceedings in the House of Lords were televised for the first time. Earl Stockton (formerly Harold MacMillan) gave a show-stealing critique of Government economic policies and the live broadcast of politics was here to stay.
Traditionally there has always been a public gallery and for those interested I can highly recommend a visit to Westminster to watch democracy in action. However, for most of us it’s BBC Parliament, Prime Minister’s Questions on Radio 5 Live or a snatched soundbite on a news bulletin, if we want to know how the wheels of government turn. These broadcasts enable us, the electorate, to see what really goes on in Parliament, warts and all, and have faith that there is some transparency in the decision-making processes.
As far as local government is concerned you may be aware that Eric Pickles signed a Parliamentary Order in August 2014 allowing press and public to film and digitally report from all public meetings of local-government bodies. I wonder how many of you knew that this dates back to Margaret Thatcher’s Private Member’s Bill from 1960, which allowed for the written reporting of council meetings by the press?
Clearly, installing TV cameras in every council chamber and taking over the airwaves is unrealistic, but with relatively fast broadband available in most of the UK there is no reason why Councils can’t live video-stream their meetings. In fact, this is what a lot of them do – mostly using Public-i.
Technology now enables citizens to watch local government in action from whatever device they choose. Whether it’s a planning meeting, a full council meeting or even a committee meeting to discuss bus stop signage, anybody can watch and see how their ward councillor is representing them. There are alternatives, but most councils recognise that just providing a live-stream isn’t on its own enough. Viewers want to know the names of who is speaking and what position they hold; they want to refer to the Agenda points or look at presentation slides. The Press like to be able to watch and report live and councillors want to be sure that the meeting is recorded in full so that they are properly and fairly quoted.
More progressive councils encourage citizen engagement via social and other media, all supported and encouraged by Public-i. Ultimately there will be a time when members debate issues, the public engages and both camps listen to each other and modify their arguments accordingly.
This all might seem very modern and geeky but the reality is that this is the world we inhabit. Ask anybody under 30 (and quite a few over 30) whether they would want to listen to a meeting online they would look at you blankly. People don’t just listen, they watch. We’ve learned from our clients that time and again they choose video over audio, because of the crucial value it provides to people’s understanding and engagement in the meeting. In particular, in a world where video is ubiquitous, people expect to be able to see – not just hear – what their decision makers are doing. That includes knowing how many people are in the chamber and understanding the context of what they are saying and to whom. Mobile telephone screens reflect this. It’s now not about text messaging, it’s about video and photographs. News reports that Instagram now has more users than Twitter are no surprise to me, given its focus on images; not that audio-only is irrelevant, it’s just that the public expect more. To borrow and adapt the legal adage: democracy must not just be done, but it must be seen to be done.
Things have certainly moved on since those ground-breaking actions by Thatcher, MacMillan and Pickles but all for the benefit of democracy.