Online democracy webchat writeup

The first Kind of Digital webchat went really well, with twenty people online in total and at least half of those contributing during the conversation. Not bad at all for a first go.

The subject of the chat was how the web can help promote local democracy amongst citizens and communities.

You can download a rather basically formatted PDF of the entire webchat here. That’s a bit unwieldy though, so I thought I would write up some of the main points discussed. They are presented in no particular order and I’ve tweaked the odd typo but otherwise not amended anything.

Obviously this is my take on the overall issues – others present may disagree – and are welcome to write their own summaries!

1. The real opportunities for local democracy to be transformed by the web aren’t going to be achieved by tinkering around the edges.

This was a point well made by Martin Cantor, who wrote:

don’t want to sound negative but this chat is stil only touching the fringes of Democracy 2.0. We need to at least codify the issues here, starting with questions about which of our current practices needs to survive. Before we ask about webstreaming meetings, we need to ask “Why meetings”. Think the parallel of the music industry and how it is being revolutionised. What will be left of democracy as we know it in 10-20 years time.

In many ways, video streaming or live-blogging council meetings is an example of doing the wrong things righter, as Martin points out. We shouldn’t be using the web to paper over the system’s deficiencies.

2. Traditional content around democracy doesn’t tell a story

Theoretically, publishing agendas, reports and minutes for council meetings and so on is an example of open government and transparency. Only, it isn’t really, not in practice, because there’s both so much of the stuff and it’s written in local government-ese.

As Alan Ferguson put it:

we have spent a lot of time publishing big documents but can anyone ever find the information without serious knowledge of how councils operate!

Glyn Huelin offered an interesting perspective:

There’s a real case for moving away from minutes of meetings in the traditional sense and instead using archived streams, action logging (so stuff actually gets done) and then building short informative briefings of what happened. If councillors were to blog their comments on meetings as well that would help build more of an ongoing discussion as well.

Is there a case for taking the traditional papers and translating them for people who want to understand how a decision was reached? Condensing down a load of reports and minutes from various meetings and producing a coherent narrative of problem > options > discussion > decision.

I guess resourcing is an issue here in that it could be a very time consuming approach – unless it displaced other activity?

3. If people want to report council meetings, they really shouldn’t be arrested for it

Generally – perhaps predictably – those chatting agreed that having citizens blogging or recording meetings is a good thing for transparency and participation.

Paul Evans’ note of caution was useful, but most people thought that having bloggers present shouldn’t make any more of a difference than having journalists or other members of the public there.

As Claire Robson put it:

The principle of democracy and open govt is openness and fairness. If they are filming in Commons, why not local council?

Kevin Peyton told of a grimmer situation in southern Ireland where it takes several months before minutes from meetings are published online. Perhaps a role for a blogger is to get their own minutes online much sooner, which might encourage councils there to produce their own record a bit sooner.

4. Could you have open data style democratic records?

An idea of mine this, that I floated in the webchat:

One idea I had a while ago was to take a data centic approach to minutes and agendas. Every minute taken be a separate bit of data, with metadata associated for which meeting, who said it, which item on the agenda. That way everything would be searchable and could be put together in different ways.

So, if I wanted to find out everything a certain councillor had said in the last year, I could quickly run that report. If you had several councils using the same schema then you could examine what was said at meetings across councils on a similar issue.

Jason Williams liked the idea, noting:

the minutes being available openly could feed into generating a national view on issues for Government, from a local perspective the future of democracy is about making it easier to access and more importantly understand, isnt it?

I’ve no idea how to make it happen though!

5. Maybe the cuts could encourage a resurgence in interest in local democracy?

Early on, Christine Graham pointed out that:

I knew a councillor who had only got involved in local issues because she was concerned about her local park – this led to greater involvement – we need to be harnessing those who come forward for a particular issue.

So, if people get involved because of a single issue they are passionate about, they are quite likely to stick around and participate more widely.

As Claire put it:

Current crisis is apathy and cynicism. This will change as recession/cuts bites harder and people are faced with issues – therefore more engagement. Be good if we were ready!

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