Council Zooming into accessible politics?

Are we on the cusp of a new beginning? Are these the first days of a brave new world?

A significant moment may well have been heralded at a council meeting on Thursday, April 30. Not the contents of the meeting itself– although that too was significant – but the medium through which the meeting was delivered.

A video-conference streamed live on YouTube, which could well be the first step in a shift towards more accessible and relatable local democracy. Yes, Royal Borough council meetings are regularly streamed on Periscope, but have you ever watched them? Have you ever heard them?

I have attended many council meetings during my time at the Advertiser. Sometimes enthusiastically, many times dutifully. I have watched a few on Periscope too, normally to double check my notes, or to repeat a sentence that I didn’t quite catch the first time. Once even to rewatch the exact moment that a now former councillor fell asleep in the chamber.

Watching on Periscope is not an enjoyable experience. It is recorded on an iPad, sat on a shaky-looking tripod, in the corner of the room where the meeting takes place. Sometimes the room will have more than 50 people in, all shouting, talking over and insulting each other. It is impossible to fit this many people on an iPad.

The video conference, conducted on Zoom, is fantastic because there are now 50 iPads. Or phones, or laptops. Every participant has both a camera and a microphone mere inches from their faces. You can see every expression, hear every word.

I know hearing in particular can be an issue for some – even councillors themselves. The acoustics in the council chamber are all over the place, and it can be hard to hear every word that’s spoken even when the mics are on (although it's never hard to hear the feedback when they aren’t turned off properly).

Think of the people this opens local democracy up to. A 17-year-old student living in White Waltham with an interest in local politics would never be able to make it regularly to council meetings, but can easily tune into Youtube at 5.30pm.

On the other end of the spectrum, an 80-year-old with a sharp mind but hearing and mobility issues would get far more out of a council meeting they can listen to in their armchair with their speakers or headphones plugged in.

Sure, there are drawbacks too. YouTube’s chat box feature means trolls can spout nonsense without evidence and without reply (yes, this did indeed happen on the very first meeting), but this box can be switched off. Over time, members will become hyper-aware of when they are and aren’t on mute, and behave accordingly, and as it becomes more routine, children will remember not to burst in on mum or dad mid-meeting.

I’m not saying we should abandon physical meetings full stop, but why can’t we have both?

Surely councillors could dial in while they’re at the meetings in person. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be a whole lot better.

The cabinet meeting had 28 viewers at one point. That may not sound like much, but it probably puts this in the top three most attended cabinet meetings in the last 12 months.

I’m sure I’d still attend most of the meetings in person once the world goes back to normal, but it would be much easier to go back and find that missed killer quote if we ditch Periscope and embrace Zoom.

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