Public Meetings 2.0

(This was originally posted on GovFresh back in June. Luke was kind enough to let me re-post it.)


You’re busy – and so is your local government. You have work, errands, family activities, chores … the list goes on. Your local government, on the other hand is constantly working on issues that affect you directly. It’s tough enough to stay informed of what your local government is doing, let alone making it to a public meeting.

Yet your local government is allowing you the opportunity to be informed and voice your opinion on issues that affect you. But how many people (including myself) actually attend those meetings and make it a priority to do so? Most people would rather not sit through an hour long meeting waiting for that parking regulation discussion that is most important agenda item to them.

What if there was a way to stay up to date about decisions that are being made by your local government on issues that matter to you? What if you could also voice your opinion on those issues in a more informed way, at the same time – on your time – anytime, 24/7?

Internet video – we all watch it. In fact, according to a recent report by Nielsen, “More than nine billion video streams viewed in the U.S. in March”. If you had video on-demand for local government meetings, you would be able to easily watch what really happened (the full discussion – not just a summary or someone’s interpretation of it in the minutes). Having more complete and accurate information makes you better able to effectively participate in government – whether that’s writing an email or making a phone call about the issues that matter to you.

So if there’s an easy solution, why aren’t more local governments providing this for the public? There are several possible reasons, including that they consider video a disruption to the current flow that the meetings have. They’ve always done the meetings the same way. But video isn’t there to change the
process; it’s there to record the process and make it more accessible to others.

Others might be overwhelmed and intimidated by the technology – thinking it’s too complicated and not applicable. They haven’t grown up with it and it seems like an unreasonable idea. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Video can be simple and useful.

Generally, officials may be thinking, “Why should we post videos of our meetings online?” The answer is simple: “Because that’s where most of your constituents are.” It allows the government to reach out to the people by being more accessible to them, helps citizens become more knowledgeable and involved with important issues, and can help to gain their support. Other benefits that online video offers include: The ability to research a re-occurring agenda item and the possibility of less Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests because citizens can do the research on their own, saving the clerk time and the government money.

So, what’s stopping you from championing this in your community?

Full disclosure: Justin Mosebach is a Marketing Assistant for CDS Solutions Group in Lancaster, PA. CDS offers solutions for local governments to put their
public meetings on video and online.

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Sarah Giles

I’d love to hear examples of any state or local governments already trying this out – I know they’re out there!

The Oregon Health Authority (a new state agency to deal with health and health reform issues) did a small scale project on the input end here – a combo of public forums (6 cities across the state) and an on-line tool ( around what the health insurance exchange might look like in the state. We talked about also providing online video of the 6 public forums, but since the forums were designed to include small facilitated group discussions, in the end we decided it would be costly (just to hire the videographers and sound people to capture each of the small discussions – and some cities had as many as 300 people at the meetings). We also thought it might be too invasive for the public who was attending the meetings (certainly raises a number of privacy issues for the average citizen).

Perhaps a solution would have been to capture everything but the small group discussions (for instance, capture the public officials from the Oregon Health Authority and its Board and capture the report back from the small groups to the whole group). Then use the public input website to post the videos from those 6 meetings. The public input site is meant to be an education / information sharing tool for both the govt agency (the Oregon Health Authority) and the general public, so sharing those meetings on it would be fitting. That would certainly have cut down on cost.

What was stopping us, then, was time – we had a month to design both the public forums and the site – and budget.

John Gregory

Here were I am located we broadcast live on our local Public Access channel but also live stream the meetings over the Internet with archiving for a year. There is no reason for our local populace to be ignorant of the local issues. Yet if I had a nickel for every person that walks into my office or calls me and say “I didn’t know that!” I would not need my Government job. There needs to be a paradigm shift not only in how government works but also in how the public perceives how government works. I more informed public will limit public corruption yet meetings are empty and we only get about 15 hits on our web-casting most of which are probably employees.

Justin Mosebach

@John Are there ways you can think of to publicize the fact that you put your meetings on video and online? Here’s some ideas: using a newsletter to let people know, getting the local TV news or newspaper to do a story about it, and using Twitter & Facebook to let people know when new meetings are available. You could even put an ad on a slip of paper that you send citizens a bill for something.

John Gregory

To be honest Justin, if people are not aware of the access we provide they have they’re heads some place the sun doesn’t shine. We broadcast over 2 public access channels (cable and Fios). Residents do watch them because they are aware of the flu clinics, rabies clinics, shread days, etc. However, I don’t think people want to give up watching survivor to see how the Township Committee spends their mone, they would rather bitch about it after the fact. We just doubled our dog/cat licensing fees at Mondays meeting which was broadcast and rebroadcast twice now, along with an article in the local paper and you would think our phones would be ringing off the hook. I can gauantee you there will be a lot of unhappy people come January. This is what I mean about a public paradigm shift being necessary. If the public only knew how edgy thay make elected officials when they come out in force they would do it more often instead of being reactionary when they can’t do anthing about the issue once approved.

Doug Matthews

There are currently hundreds of cities using tools like Granicus, Swagit and SIRE to provide online coverage of Council and Commission meetings that you can look to as resources. The question is: What’s next? Social media has raised the bar – and the expectation – on evolving toward real-time interaction (where streaming video may be one component, but not the only one). Here in Austin, we’ve started looking at integrated video/SMS systems that allow people to watch in real-time and submit comments and questions via live chat or text. We’ve done that for both internal and external meetings using Coveritlive. I’m pretty sure that Pinellas County, FL and some others have been experimenting with this technology as well.

Of course (as Sarah mentioned) resources and expertise are almost always the limitation. But even for those who don’t have dedivated A/V staff I would encourage you to look at models/services like Skype that only require a camera and an Internet connection. Of course, you’re not getting CNN quality, but it’s a step in the right direction…

I love your online survey format, Sarah, and would be interested to know a little more about how it was developed. We’re currently in a comprehensive planning process, and this is a great “big picture” survey model.

Justin Mosebach

@Doug Thanks for the input. We are always looking into what would improve our products, so your input is helpful. And yes, there are various companies doing this (including us), so people should look around and find out what works best for them. The more accessible that public meetings become, the more all of us benefit!

Ari Herzog

If your community has a public access studio, inquire with Comcast or whoever your cable provider is if they’re willing to negotiate creation and broadcasting rights for a PEG cable channel.

We do that here, and every city council meeting is broadcast over the local Comcast channel, and also archived online as files.

That’s the easiest; and doesn’t cost government a dime once it’s set up.

Justin Mosebach

(Full disclosure: Lancaster County is a client of the company that I work for and those results shouldn’t be considered typical at all.)