For many members of the public, the workings of local government remain something of a mystery. People know the council is responsible for schools, roads and street lighting but much of the process is not clear. Most members of the public do not have the time or inclination to turn up to their local council chamber to hear how the major decisions which will affect their lives are made. However, regardless of the criticisms levelled against councils, local government is endeavouring to open up these processes and get the public involved.
One such way is through webcasting council meetings. While still a relatively new idea, using cameras and special equipment to live stream videos of meetings over the internet is taking off, with a number of councils either actively participating or pursuing trials and pilots to see how effective it is.
For MSP John Finnie, webcasting should be a matter of course for all local authorities. Finnie has put forward a proposal for a Bill designed to promote greater accountability and transparency in local government. The proposal is currently being consulted on and reads: “A proposal for a Bill to remove the obligation on local authorities to appoint religious representatives to education committees; to remove the right of unelected members of local authority committees to vote; to require the full results of local authority voting to be published; and to require remote access to the public proceedings of local authorities.”
Speaking to Holyrood about the webcasting part of his proposal, Finnie said: “I was elected as a councillor in 2007 and it became apparent to me that the public didn’t necessarily fully understand the range of duties and responsibilities that elected representatives, whether local government, Scottish Parliament or UK Parliament, have. That became apparent from some of the issues which come up at surgeries.
“I’ve always felt it was my personal obligation to explain my decision making to constituents. [Webcasting is] an opportunity to use technology to promote greater accountability and transparency so people see decision making first hand, for themselves.
“Not everyone has the time or inclination to sit and watch local government committee meetings, so archiving and accessibility are clearly important. Within my time with Highland Council, I was part of an administration which introduced webcasting and indeed along the way it was refined. This idea is part of a wider set of proposals to have the electorate be more readily able to hold their councillors to account.”
At Moray Council, all statutory committees are webcast and viewing figures are generally in the low hundreds for normal meetings, but this increases when significant items are being discussed.
A spokesman for the council said: “Webcasts allow people who are interested in certain topics – such as planners, parents and pensioners – to see what is being discussed and hear the views of councillors without having to attend in person. Issues such as schools, controversial developments and road schemes attract significant viewing numbers, for example, when members were debating the future of a rural school, that particular school arranged for all staff and pupils to watch the live webcast.
“Elected members were initially self-conscious of being filmed in their natural habitat of the debating chamber, but this has long-since dissipated to leave a democratic business-as-usual relationship with the cameras.
“The facility has been universally appreciated by people using it, and that ranges from local residents to government officials and MSPs/MPs, and the occasional ex-pat in foreign climes. Journalists frequently use it to watch particular items on the agenda, we assist the media by providing weblinks to agendas and archive recordings of meetings, and help with identifying particular speakers.”
Back in 2009, Highland Council launched a pilot webcasting project, which was extended in 2011 so council and strategic committee meetings held at council HQ in Inverness could be viewed by the public from their computers. Sandy Park, then convener of the council said at the time: “Having all our meetings webcast will allow many more people to follow how we do business and provide an easy and convenient way of watching and listening to debates and seeing how decisions are made. Anything that opens up how we operate and makes decision making more accessible and transparent is to be welcomed.”
The service has gone from strength to strength, with meetings broadcast on a regular basis and archived footage available for members of the public to view after the event.
City of Edinburgh Council has screened meetings held in the main council chamber since 2012. Footage is then stored in an accessible online archive. In October, the council agreed to extend the coverage further giving the public a chance to view more decisions and debates.
City of Edinburgh Council Lord Provost Donald Wilson told Holyrood: “I’ve always been a great believer in webcasting and it is something I have been very passionate about for a long time. There are many different reasons it is an advantage. Minutes don’t reflect the debate, they simply reflect the decision. If you want to know what people actually said, this is the only thing which would give you that.
“The public galleries of these meetings are very small and so the numbers of the public who could attend are relatively limited. Using webcasting means it goes out to a potentially greater audience and also hard to reach groups, for example, young people. This is often their chosen method of communication and we have to reflect that. Also, people with disabilities who would find it difficult to get to the City Chambers, if there’s something they’re interested in, they can view them at home.”
Glasgow City Council has recently announced it will broadcast meetings from April. The move is designed to make the working of the council more accessible and open. City council deputy leader Archie Graham said: “The council is committed to making its decision-making process as transparent as possible. This move demonstrates our determination to make the inner workings of the council open and let everyone see how we debate and reach decisions.
“To make the decision-making process as accessible as possible, we will be streaming council meetings and they’ll be available to view on the council website.”
Renfrewshire residents could also soon get the chance to view how their councillors make decisions about the area’s spending and priorities, as councillors have agreed to go ahead with a webcasting trial. Renfrewshire Council’s provost, Anne Hall, believes the proposal will improve public understanding of how the council works and increase engagement with the democratic process.
Public-i, Europe’s leading provider of strategies and technologies that support democratic engagement, works with Moray, Edinburgh, Highland and Glasgow councils to provide webcasting. Andrew Brightwell, Public-i’s online communities’ manager, told Holyrood the company’s council clients want to ensure residents are able to see the decision-making process taking place and understand how it happens.
He said: “Webcasting transforms access to council meetings, because it gives residents the power to see those meetings on their terms, both live and on demand online. In other words, when they want to watch, how they want to watch – on a computer, iPad or mobile phone. This takes access to meetings from a handful of people to the widest audience online.
“In a time when we demand ever greater transparency – and with good reason want to be able to have more access to all the decision making that affects us – we think that makes the service we offer vital. This is perhaps made more pressing as we are seeing a decline in the traditional means by which residents have found out about what’s going on in their councils, the local press.
“Aside from the transparency benefits…local councils that have webcasting are able to use their systems in ever-more innovative ways. While some councils are using their systems for training and internal communication, perhaps of more interest to your audience would be the way in which a number are now using these systems to hold more direct conversations with residents. This is particularly the case with our Connect Social webcasting product, which integrates social media. For example, Brighton and Hove City Council has held a number of Open Door webcasts, in which the leader of the council fields questions, put to him live on social media. Bristol City Council, which has an elected mayor, also holds similar sessions, called ‘Ask George’.
“Webcasts can be hosted beyond just the player you see in your council website, too. Cornwall Council, for example, has an agreement with local newspaper sites to host the webcast – which has helped to boost the number of people watching meetings.
“The benefits of streaming therefore aren’t just about more people watching, they are about more people becoming involved. At a time when voter turnout in local elections has become a concern for all political parties – and when councils face very tough decisions about the services they can afford to provide – webcasting can become part of the way that councils and councillors involve electorates in a conversation about how local problems can be solved, engaging everyone in these very important issues.”