Webcasting the net that bit further

Webcasting, once a thing of mystery and in the eyes of many a questionable investment, has become far more widespread over the last few years. This has been down to progressive private sector thinking, by organisations such as Public-i, who grasp the concept of community and political environment and how the two relate to each other.

As a consequence, those local authorities who have taken on webcasting, could in some respects also be classed as progressive councils; they have grasped what this technology means, understanding it’s value. That is, the ability to reach a much wider audience than they could have previously only dreamed about, opening up democracy and providing transparent decision making, to the public they represent and serve.

Eric Pickles at Conservative Party Conference
Image by conservativeparty via Flickr

I’m a big believer in transparency, and webcasting is a tool that allows for displaying such. It was therefore refreshing when Eric Pickles, openly supported this and called for more of it from councils across the country.  What does surprise me is that there are some councils who have pushed against this openness (pre and post Pickles comment).

The technology for webcasting is now long established. I expect if those councils who have webcast for a number of months (if not years) all of a sudden stopped, there would be be some kind of public and local media outcry. Such activity as webcasting gets into peoples psyche, and in this case it manifests into a ‘citizen’s right’ to observe what goes on in the meetings of the electorate; a powerful thing, that kind of mindset! Of course, this is only my opinion.

However, webcasting of council meetings is only a part of the story. In most cases it is no longer innovative; certainly not on it’s own. In some places then, such as Kirklees Council, webcasting is becoming normal practice. So, just what is it that continues to make webcasting a useful tool? Well, I’ve been lucky enough to play a part in it’s implementation, so here’s what I think.

Who does it reach?: Openness and transparency, as stated, is very important. We vote to elect our representatives, and as citizens have a right to see what is going on in those corridors of power. But more than this, it also allows for officers to watch and educate themselves, about the wider debates and reasoning relating to decisions. This can be especially pertinent when their service is one of the hot topics of the night. The idea of a better informed staff, should be embraced by any local authority. Specific encouragement of officers to watch these meetings should therefore undertaken; innovative ways to help staff educate themselves, rather than send them on a political awareness training course (at least use some of the footage from a webcast).

Other media: The introduction of other social media tools is something else that, in places, has been cause of some consternation for some councils. Tweeting during a meeting has been frowned upon, but I find the frowning flawed. I won’t go into a rant about it, but…a mixture of tweets from citizens, officers and councillors, further opens up the transparency and engagement that the ideology of local authorities should be striving to do. A combination of media, in this case “Watching and Tweeting Democracy”, has worked well so far. There is no real reason it should stop, as the dialogue has been respectful and everybody has been very adult about the whole thing! The innovation then is how we can start to use a combination of social media tools, not simply one here and one there; get them in the same place.

Internal communication: This is an important addition to the webcasting of council meetings, a small step in more innovative uses of the tools at our disposal. At no other time has a local authority needed to open up the communication channels with it’s employees, as it does now. A number of Meetings with Directors have taken place, allowing staff to listen to and ask questions of directors. On a couple of occasions, webcasts have been recorded. What this has achieved is the ability to reach a greater number of employees, in effect creating a greater transparency and humanity in communication (rather than the obligatory long email; which actually still has it’s place, of course). The potential savings on conducting some communications in this way, is significant, and necessary and certainly as a taxpayer myself, something I welcome in terms of the council making best use of it’s resources.

In terms of uses for webcasting as a tool, I believe we have barely scratched the surface. The uses outlined above, themselves, all need to be driven and built upon in order for them to generate greater value, and that is possible through a bit of hard work and creative thinking. Where an authority empowers it’s employees to think and make decisions that best serve it’s citizens, engaging citizens in that more and more along the way, there is much that can be achieved.

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One thought on “Webcasting the net that bit further

  1. Nice post Spencer!
    I might take up issue with you on whether there would be a backlash from citizens if webcasting was say dropped from the technical portfolio of a council, especially if the council can show that the decision was taken as a cost-cutting exercise, and especially if the money is shown to be of much greater use in another area of council services.

    The real impact would be on producing figures for viewership, I feel.
    If say an average of only 100 people within the councils population watched webcasting out of say a population size of 250,000, would you consider that to be a success? And I would argue that who would be bothered within the population if a portion of that 1oo started protesting at the withdrawal of that service? There may well be more than 100 people who applaud the council for putting the money to better use?

    But having been part of the success of Public-i I would say that webcasting does have its benefits in all of the areas you have stated. I am also aware of the number of regular viewers these webcasts attract and it sad to say the numbers are relatively low (there have been some exceptions!).

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