Comment: Is the future of community forums online?

29 February 2016

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It was chilly but dry winter’s evening when the most recent Kirkstall Forum meeting was held, writes John Baron.

The Dispatch went along expecting a decent turn out. The forum would be talking about, among other things, how Kirkstall was coping with the aftermath of the Boxing Day floods which had happened just a few weeks earlier. A major issue, you’d think (and one we covered here).

In case you’re not familiar, forum meetings like these are run by the council and are a way of elected councillors meeting with the public to hear concerns and tackle local issues, as well as highlight the work of the council in the area. They’re old-style public meetings, held in community centres, sports clubs and the like.

We’ve reported on similar forum meetings in Bramley and Armley and I know Pudsey holds them too.

This meeting, at Burley St Matthias Centre, was attended by just five residents and myself from The Dispatch.

Also in attendance were five council officers, three police officers and three local councillors.

It struck me that there was more than double the number of paid workers attending the meeting than there were attendees.

It prompted me to think: Surely there’s a better way to involve more people in their community? Is it a good use of tax payers’ money to utilise public servants in this manner when so few people attend? Critically, what are the implications for democracy if the council uses these forums as sounding points to gauge public opinion on local issues when, in reality, they sometimes have so few people attending?

And to make a generalisation, the majority of people attending these meetings are usually aged over 60 (particularly in Armley and Bramley). That’s fine, but how do we involve younger – and more – people in this democratic process?

periscope

Periscope app allows you to live stream on the web – for free

The Leeds Citizen blog recently reported that meetings of Leeds City Council’s top decision-making body – the executive board – are to be broadcast live over the internet, starting at the latest in April this year. Welcome moves indeed in terms of opening up the democratic process.

Why couldn’t we do this for community meetings? It doesn’t need to cost the Earth.

An iphone with internet connection and downloading the free Periscope video live streaming app would be a start. Or Bambuser. A cheap plug-in microphone to boost sound would be a bonus. It’s essentially a basic mobile journalism kit that organisations like the BBC are increasingly taking up.

It might not be as polished as the webcasts the cash-strapped council currently employs a company to stream full council and executive board meetings but arguably it doesn’t need to be. What really matters is opening up the council and its mechanisms to different people and engaging in different ways to reach new people.

It’s also worth noting council rules introduced a few years ago also allow media, bloggers and members of the public to record council meetings.

Even live tweeting from meetings would be a start.

Here at The Dispatch we cover what meetings we can because we think they’re important in terms of council accounatbility, but it’s enormously time consuming to cover and frankly there aren’t enough hours in the day for us to maintain it (we also work full time and then some on top of running this site).

Mainstream media like the YEP have neither the resources nor interest in what is often parochial (but still important) community issues. The result is the meetings are often attended by a relatively small group of diehards.

It’s worth noting that the council bizarrely decided that it couldn’t screen planning meetings because it needs to ask permission of the public to film them. The decision came despite numerous other councils feeling they could do it.

I guess the question of engagement could be extended to public consultations as well. I already had my say on the depressing Whingate public meeting in Armley where the council made a decision based on a public meeting attended by a handful of residents. The second part of the consultation was criticised as being pointless.

Genuine wider online engagement, coupled with offline activities, would open up consultations like these.

I’ll leave you with a couple of questions and then hand over to you for your thoughts in the comments section:

How can the council better engage with local residents on local issues? Surely there’s no better time for the council to grasp the nettle of how it engages in this digital age?


What do you think? Have your say in the comments below.




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Anonymous says:

Great idea – get it streamed online. Problem is a lot of these meetings are just so dull which is why people don’t turn up to them. These meetings need dragging out of the 1970s and need a completely new approach. Perhaps then you might get people more inclined to engage with h them …

Dan says:

I am not convinced that live streaming would be that much help: you still have the dullness factor.
You could watch it later and wind through the boring bits, but you can never tell which bits they are without looking and you lose the opportunity to contribute.

I think that a written discussion; much like we are having now has huge advantages: we can all read and think about it at our own pace and everyone has the chance to speak.

Leonard mccoy says:

I would probably watch some of them if they were streamed. Sadly I suspect some local members are so stuck in there ways we won’t see this being adopted for years yet.

Dan says:

To me, a forum means an internet discussion platform: I don’t think I’d come across the word before I came upon a web-forum some years ago.

Since then, I have become firmly convinced that they offer the best means of discussing and resolving issues for a large number of people.
They are not without problems, but they all seem to me to be resolvable with a bit of thoughtful development, and or administration, but they eliminate what seem to me to be irresolvable problems in a physical meeting.
Most fundamental of these is that in any conversation, many people are not really listening, but are instead thinking of what they want to say. I could go on, but perhaps I should write a proper article on it?

That is not to say that physical meetings don’t have their place, but they are hugely overrated in my opinion.

leeds citizen says:

I love that bit in the meetings of the council’s revamped “community” committees where they have an “Open Forum” for members of the pubic to have their say about what they want (as long as they say it in under 3 minutes).

Despite such … erm … generosity, not a single member of the public has come forward to have her/his say since the new Inner West committee was formed in … July 2014!