Live streaming of council meetings is not new, it has been tried by many local authorities over the years with varying degrees of success. The debates of transparency versus cost and cost versus viewing figures were prominent, but now the landscape has changed.
Although Eric Pickles has made access to council meetings one of his personal crusades, for most authorities this hasn’t been the driving force behind more of them live streaming these events. There is a wish to make local government more transparent, much of it driven by the phenomenal growth in social media technology, we don’t need telling we have to do it.
So now that more councils are allowing residents to tune in to council meetings, what difference has it made? If viewing figures alone are the yardstick, it could be argued that we still have a long way to go.
In Wakefield we have live streamed our last two council meetings. The first attracted more than a thousand views (both live and afterwards), some of these may be owing to curiosity, and the second has so far seen over 300 viewers. These figures are not huge, but we only get a handful of people in the public gallery so it’s a big improvement.
The tricky question of whether or not viewers find these meetings interesting and/or informative is one we haven’t yet answered. I suspect that will depend on what is on the agenda. The next two meetings include a debate on HS2 and then the budget, both of which will have a direct impact on the district’s residents.
If councils are to succeed in persuading their residents to tune in to the live stream then the agenda topics will play a major role. Political knockabout is unlikely to do the trick if opinion polls are anything to go by.
The major change for me has been the technology that is now available, and the unwillingness of some councils to embrace it. In Wakefield we are using Bambuser, one of the live streaming apps that is readily available, something we chose as a result of working initially with @johnpopham who was incredibly helpful.
Having bought a camera (one is enough) and accompanying equipment (microphone, tripod etc) for around £600, we pay just over £30 a month for a certain number of viewing hours, so it is very cost-effective. A colleague in the Communications Team is now running the show, with support from IT who have strengthened the WiFi capability in the Council Chamber.
What has surprised me is that there still seems to be a lot of councils paying through the nose for external companies to webcast multi-camera council meetings on their behalf. It’s as if the advances in cheaper easy-to-use social media technology haven’t happened.
You can see that the option we have chosen http://www.wakefield.gov.uk/livestream allows viewers to both see and hear what is happening perfectly well. We also intend to live stream other meetings and some events too.
If public engagement is as important as we say it is, and budget challenges are as tough as we know they are, this is one area where technology is definitely the answer. So why aren’t more people doing it?