If you’d told me a month ago a bunch of local citizens could actually change Colchester Council’s approach to transparency, I’d have laughed.
But it didn’t stop me organising this petition to urge Colchester Council to allow recordings of its public meetings and encourage its councillors to use social media during them.
People really care about this stuff. And so much so that the council performed an abrupt volte face and spent last night debating whether to allow transparency instead of – as originally slated – deciding whether to stifle the bejasus out of it.
And we won through. The campaign really has resulted in a groundshift of opinion.
Council voted to allow all recordings of public meetings, and even plans to make its own official audio. Result.
The only fly in the ointment was the fact that most Conservatives, a good many Lib Dems and all of the Highwoods Independents voted against allowing councillors to tweet in meetings – defeating that motion. I might be a Tory, but I take my hat off to Colchester’s Labour group for swinging fully behind transparency.
What would Disraeli think?
But it was a dead fly in the wrong ointment. It now transpires that the motion was so badly worded it will change nothing. Councillors voted not to allow tweeting, but they didn’t vote to ban it. So apparently it’s not banned (no, I don’t get it either. Sell your car and ask a lawyer if you really want the answer. But the fact is this vote didn’t make a smudge on the windscreen of transparency).
Now we can listen to how our elected representatives perform in the chamber. I’m only sorry if the results make you weep.
Note: for info, below is a copy of the speech I gave to council last night. I didn’t get the last paragraph in because a bloke with white gloves was poised to switch off my microphone. You only get three minutes to say your stuff if you’re a lowly resident having your say…
I am here to present a petition on behalf of 319 local residents who believe that, as a matter democratic transparency, the Council should:
- Firstly. Allow the audio and/or visual recording of all its public meetings.
- Secondly. Encourage councillors to engage with the wider public by allowing their use of social media during these public meetings.
I know that Council will be voting on proposals this evening to
- Reserve the right to ban recordings
- Prevent councillors from using social media during these meetings
Since I started this petition, I believe there has been a ground shift in opinion among many of you.
I congratulate councillors of all parties who have taken recently taken part in social media training — or are about to — and stated they are in favour of recording meetings. I believe this is the transparent, democratic direction to take.
Social media is an exceptionally good way for councillors to reach residents, and to engage them in the democratic process. I now follow the tweets of people like Councillor Manning, Councillor Bourne, Councillor Quince and others from all parties and those in the public gallery, to get insight I wouldn’t normally get into council affairs. I am not alone.
But in some respects social media is a side issue. I understand the argument that tweeting can look unprofessional and rude if done insensitively, but it’s a matter of trust. If you trust your colleagues to use social media professionally and for the benefit of residents then I urge you not to vote to censor them, but instead grant them the freedom to choose.
What concerns me far more is the idea of preventing the recording of public meetings, whether the recording is done by the council or a member of the public. Public meetings should be properly public, and with the ready availability of cheap technology — costing nothing like the figures of £33,000 plus £14,000 annually that were considered by the Task and Finish Group — creating a verbatim, recorded transcript of every meeting is a cheap way to open the doors to better public engagement and scrutiny.
Furthermore, an official recording offers you major benefits as councillors.
First. If you are ever misquoted by a mischievous journalist or blogger, you can point to a verbatim record to back up your case, rather than ambiguous written minutes.
Second. Residents can get a real sense of what you do for them in Council – where you are elected to serve – rather than just your community activism in your wards.
Third. You will kindle fresh interest in council affairs among residents. Allowing bloggers, the Gazette and other online publications to publish clips of meetings will engage people so much more than the dry, written minutes that are put on the Council website with minimum fanfare.
So please, vote to allow all meetings to be officially recorded. But also vote to allow members of the public record the meetings too. The Communities Secretary has urged councils to do this for the last two years, and his former undersecretary wrote to all councils in 2011 to say:
There are recent stories about people being ejected from council meetings for blogging, tweeting or filming. This potentially is at odds with the fundamentals of democracy and I want to encourage all councils to take a welcoming approach to those who want to bring local news stories to a wider audience.
In voting to open up our public meetings this way, you improve public scrutiny and engagement at absolutely zero cost. And by making an official recording of your own, you always have the evidence you need if you’re quoted out of context.
It’s a win for the Council and a win for residents. And I think it will be a first step to renewing an interest and faith in local politics that, for many, has been badly eroded.