e-democ / e-gov

Did Council have a meeting?

This Thursday was Council Meeting day. It’s a long day…

I spent the morning working for Netmums and then went to meet with my colleagues on the Green Group of councillors at 2pm. In this ‘pre-meet’ we discuss the items on the agenda, many of which we will have already discussed to a greater or lesser extent at previous Group meetings and committee meetings. We don’t operate a whip system in the Green Group but usually we do come to a consensus on how we are going to vote, who is going to speak and if we want to contact councillors from other parties to explore a joint approach.

In many ways much of the most meaningful debate, learning and development of ideas happens in this group meeting. We’re with trusted colleagues and so we can openly explore thoughts, share what constituents have told us or what we think of reports.

By the time the Council meets at 4.30pm positions have generally been fixed, especially as the other parties use ‘whipping’ to fix how their members should vote. There can still be quite a good deal of political theatre – gesticulating, waving of papers, fake outrage, genuine outrage and good old fashioned point scoring. But sadly the debating doesn’t tend to change minds or votes and the procedural limitations make it difficult for any truly great oratory.

Worse still is that other than councillors and officers who have to be there, very few people are actually listening. After a break for dinner only three members of the public remained in the gallery on Thursday with there having been 15 at most. Published minutes are brief summaries and the local paper barely reports on the night’s events, if at all. So by the time we finished at 9.30pm we were tired but our debates, of variable quality no doubt, had really been for nobody’s benefit but our own. That’s not all together a bad thing – I’d rather see deliberation and debate between Council members, even without observers, than none at all.

But it would be much better if people could see and challenge what was happening. I firmly believe, especially with it’s email alerts, is creating a renaissance in people’s engagement with Parliamentary debate not seen since the days of The Times publishing speeches from the floor verbatim. It’s having a far more profound impact, due to it’s searchability I think, than televising Parliament ever has had.

The Argus, Brighton & Hove’s local rag, used to print debates from council meetings, I’m told. Those days are long gone, but after years of requests by Greens we will soon have webcast meetings with archives provided online. I think that’s a start, but a mini TheyWorkForYou for each council would be even better. Residents could ask for email alerts whenever a council meeting debate touched on a personally important subject such as the Marina, communal bins or parking. That would be the kind of tool which would keep councillors on their toes and help keep interested citizens engaged with our local democracies. It’s something we should all be asking for.