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Transparency, open government and equal rights for citizen journalists

February 23, 2011

This post was originally published on the Guardian Local Government Network

Communities and local government minister Eric Pickles and his department are encouraging town halls to open their doors to bloggers and allow online filming of public discussions.

Local government minister, Bob Neil, wrote to councils: “Opening the door to new media costs nothing and will help improve public scrutiny. The greater powers and freedoms that we are giving local councils must be accompanied by stronger local accountability.

“We are in the digital age and this analogue interpretation of the press access rules is holding back a new wave of local scrutiny, accountability and armchair auditors.”

This is positive and timely, and has definitely pleased the open data and hyperlocal communities. Online records and recordings of council meetings are important as they can help enshrine the core principles of the open data movement set out by Barack Obama to his government.Primarily, they ensure “the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration“.

The opening up of council meetings goes towards bringing local government up to the same level as central government – which was introduced to the video-recording of parliamentary proceedings in 1989.

Some councils have already experimented with webcasting and/or live blogging council meetings – and data on audience levels is certainly encouraging. Kirklees Council recently reported viewing figures of nearly 600 for a broadcasted meeting – a significant figure when compared to how many people participate in most formal council activity.

Pickles hopes that the audiences generated in places like Kirklees will foster capacity and desire for greater conversation of community politics, energising local government in the process. However, while we believe this may be true, it is still too early to tell for sure. Can we make a solid argument for a re-energising of national politics post 1989?

There are also some worries that the broadcast will see rogue councillors hijack meetings to publicise their own causes, or people playing up because they know they’re being watched. The concerns though are pretty invalid. These meetings are already public and recorded in text. It is very unlikely that online filming will have negative impact on elected members’ behaviour.

More valid are the worries councils may have about technology, cost and audience numbers. The answer however lies with the local people. It will be residents that would provide the technology, put in the time and money to record meetings and ecourage conversation.

Open council meetings are not alone in enabling a “new wave of local scrutiny, accountability and armchair auditors”. They are clubbed together with interesting practices fuelled by web 2.0 technologies and driven by a widely-supported localist philosophy.

Examples such as London Borough of Sutton, where they are experimenting with a Sutton Council Consultation Finder and Speak Out Sutton, highlights steps beyond the broadcast of council information – aiming more towards deliberative policy making through online spaces. Both initiatives create the conditions for an invaluable exchange of information – and Sutton is pleased with what engagement has been achieved so far. However, it’s not clear that in themselves these spaces are creating sustainable online civil society networks and involving the public in policy making. We are still some way from realising the full potential of the new opportunities that technology is opening for us..

This then raises three important questions about deliberative democracy that are worth considering:

1. Who is engaging with them? – How many and are they representative of that community?

2. What are they talking about? – Will matters that are strategic priorities for the council be dismissed in favour of topics which appeal more to the public?

3. Where is the transition to action? – What do you actually do with this information? How can issues discussed online fit or be achieved within the broader context of budgetary requirements?

To all of the above there is no one size fits all solution – which is what makes the debate about open government so exciting. Has your council found a way around them? What approach is it taking? Tell us in the comments.

Relevant posts on the open data / hyperlocal relationship:

Saddleworth News – on reporting elections and working with the council

Mark Pack – using council websites to help residents generate social capital

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