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03 June 2013

D-Day for Democracy in Leeds

Today Leeds City Council has the opportunity to drag accountability and open decision making kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.

They'll be discussing an experiment which saw May's full council meeting webcast live over the internet. That trial broadcast attracted some 588 live views on the day, and as this report up for discussion states, the recording has been accessed a further 454 times since then.

I've already commented on the trial webcast in the post below this. What follows is a piece which was commissioned for the Leeds Culture Vulture website building on those comments - and I make a plea for Leeds City Council to be bold in their approach to future webcasting.

Full council meetings are somewhat theatrical occasions; very rarely will the result of a vote surprise anyone, as all the hard work of decision making has been done in the deals and compromises worked out before the set piece meeting takes place.

I take my Postgraduate news trainees from Leeds Trinity down to watch the budget set each year, as it's probably the nearest a local government meeting comes to Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons.

Party leaders and other extrovert Members use the opportunity to show off, make political points and build their profile ahead of the next round of elections. It may well be the am dram version of the Westminster stage, but it's still an eye opener for my lot who, almost without exception, have never seen anything like it before.

If webcasting decision making is to be of real value the all-seeing eye of the webcam needs to move from the splendour of the debating chamber to the less glamorous rooms where the nitty-gritty of council business is done, the Planning Panels that determine the physical shape of our city and (especially) the Scrutiny Committees where officers and office-holders are held to account for their actions.

I'm not such an idealist as to believe everything can be webcast. There will always be a place for off-the-record meetings where participants can speak frankly without fear of the public relations consequences. Denying such opportunities would deny our representatives the chance to be fully and accurately briefed on issues of huge importance. But any meeting that would admit the public at the Civic Hall should, as a matter of course, admit the camera.

Now this is where it gets really interesting. Readers of the Leeds Citizen website will already be aware, but other Leeds Twitterati and social media enthusiasts may be amazed to find that their comments are already being monitored and taken seriously in the corridors of power.

Point 3.6 of the report states:
The webcast did lead to significant interest and discussion on Twitter and Facebook, where contributors generally welcomed the initiative and suggested that it should be a regular feature with some requests that it should cover more of the decision making meetings.  
An important issue still to be resolved is that of rebroadcasting content from the Council webcasts in other media. The copyright in the material resides with Leeds City Council. But it's a real waste of resource and potential if the recordings just sit in a corner of the leeds,gov.uk website.

If  Members are to unlock the full potential of their initiative in opening up democracy they should licence the content to the public service, commercial and community radio stations in the city. They should make it available to the new Made in Leeds local TV channel launching in November. And they should make it available to online commentators such as the Leeds Citizen, Culture Vulture, The City Talking and the multitude of hyperlocal sites (Leeds Northern, South Leeds Life) that can carry the discussion to a new level.

Councillors (and their officers) are a bit queasy about this. The report's authors express caution under the heading 'Risk Management' at point 4.6.3:
There could be risks associated with the public perception and media response to the webcasts but this is likely to be outweighed by improved public access and awareness, and greater transparency of decision making.
Indeed so, and any qualms could be eased by users signing a 'fair use' protocol, simpler than but similar to that that which applies to the broadcast use of audio and video from Parliament.

In essence this would prohibit 'time shifting' events into the wrong order, or editing speeches in a way that would distort the meaning of what is said, or which is designed to make a Member look foolish (If a Member does actually say something foolish there would be nothing in the rules to prevent a fair and accurate clip of such statements being broadcast).

So, maybe not today bur soon, our elected members have an important decision to make.

From the tone of the report it appears likely approval will be given for future webcasts. That's fine as far as it goes.

But are our representatives ready to go further than that, to submit to greater scrutiny, greater engagement and a more open form of democracy in which their words and decisions are broadcast and discussed in both old and new media, or are they content to stick with televising the set piece performance?

For now the only way to find out is to go along at 2 o'clock and sit in the Committee Room. If you can find it.

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