Webcasting council meetings- do citizens get it?

Photo of people, who in my imagination are enjoying a webcast of their local full council meeting, is made available under Creative Commons by Saad Faruque on Flickr.

 

I recently met a couple of communication officers at a council who is webcasting full council meetings. They were having a discussion about how they could use web and social media to get viewing numbers up (this includes numbers of people watching the live broadcast and people watching the recorded version which is offered up for a period of time after the meeting.) They asked me what I thought and what followed was a totally fascinating conversation that touched on so many different things including citizen engagement, web based council services, local democracy, digital literacy corporate buy in to web and social media and access issues on the staff side as well as the customer side. Each of those things alone warrants a blog post (or a series)  but I’d like to pick your brains about webcasting council meetings in this post so you’ll be devastated to know you’ll have to wait for my pontification about those other things.

Webcasting council meetings is a difficult one for me to square my feelings about. It’s a modern way for councils to be more transparent, more interactive, inclusive, accountable and visible in (increasingly) their customers’ online arena. But the service isn’t demand led (if anyone has evidence to the contrary please do post it here), the meetings a council chooses to broadcast may not be understood by the average person full stop let alone how it may be relevant to them, the meetings happen during normal working hours and citizens may not even realise the council meetings that go on even exist. So how do you promote a service that few people know about, perhaps no one asked for and hardly anyone knows that they’d find interesting?

‘How do we get viewing numbers up for our webcasted full council meetings?’

For me the answer to this question is not straightforward and it really isn’t about how the meeting is shared but that it’s being shared at all. It’s about two basic and fundamental things: making sure citizens know that by watching a council meeting they are being invited to enter into a discussion, to scrutinise and to see the people representing them at work and making sure citizens even understand what the heck a full council meeting is in the first place.

I think councils providing webcasting of meetings should not offer them up in isolation, as an add on or a cool new webby thing. Reaching out to a wider audience via the web to allow a way to be a part of a democratic process must be accompanied by information to help people understand what they’re watching, the reasons it is relevant to them and that it is a call to action. As those of us digitally interested people in and around local government know all too well and need to always remind our less digitally minded colleagues: this is not Field of Dreams.

I know there is a wealth of experience out there with regard to webcasting council meetings. What has your experience been? How do you engage people? How are you finding it?

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6 Comments

FM
Former Member 8 Years Ago
Hi Leah Nice post. You raise some interesting questions. I always find it interesting how webcasting throws up so, so many questions and routes of exploration. Often, I find, the questions are not directly to do with webcasting at all. Rather, the much broader topic of how do we better inform and engage with citizens, to raise public interest and participation. If anything, I think webcasting has brought to our attention that, even though there is now a media channel capable of providing greater transparency (and hopefully therefore, greater accountability), public interest is still not at the level we want it to be - despite it being much better than pre-webcasting days. So, I agree wholeheartedly with you, that webcasting itself is not the end of the affair. It is not the panacea. If it is anything, then I believe it should be the catalyst for exploring, first and foremost your question: "So how do you promote a service that few people know about, perhaps no one asked for and hardly anyone knows that they’d find interesting?" The question should not be "How do we get viewing numbers up for our webcasted full council meetings?". That should come as a consequence of the ground work done in the engagement process, but not always. Your entire audience is not going to be interested in the whole of your council meeting. Fact. Therefore, what are they interested in? I would wager they are interested in topics relevant to them as an individual, to their immediate community, their business, their passions, their family! The question then becomes not about numbers, but the quality of the audience, who they are and who they represent. The requirement is to know where these people are in advance of meetings and inform them of upcoming agendas. Encourage and provide context for generating positive engagement, so they know what to expect and what can be expected of them and the politicians. Full Council meetings are the centrepiece of local governace. However, generating pockets of interest in topic specific scrutiny meetings may be a more productive starting point to generating public interest, where context can be more easily provided and target audience more easily reached. It is the engagement bit that is key, and as you say, offering up webcast meetings in isolation is no answer at all. Any local authority thinking that it is, is terribly mistaken. Your final (nearly) question is key: "How do you engage people?". I would add, however, "how do you involve people?" A long 'starter for ten'. Hope I haven't bored any other readers! Great topic to raise questions about. It's much more than a post about webcasting! Spencer
FM
Former Member 8 Years Ago
Nice post, Leah You might be interested in my take on this here http://www.thejournalismfoundation.com/2012/03/the-hyperlocal-jeremy-paxmans-are-out-there-we-just-need-to-find-them/ I also think that councils have to be prepared to experiment with cheaper ways of streaming meetings, as many are being prevented from taking the plunge by the perceived costs of doing so.
Phil Rumens 8 Years Ago
Recent events in Cornwall showed that there is interest in webcasting council meetings, They had 4,000+ viewers at one point and this total was largely achieved by promotion on social media by viewers themselves. Council webcasting can never compete with traditional broadcast media but as John says very often, expensive solutions aren't necessary. Council chambers are usually mic-ed up anyway and a single camera streaming through something like Bambuser will often suffice, at least to put something on the web to judge local demand and prove a case for spending more, or not. Sometimes the barriers to doing this aren't technical though, they're cultural, which is a whole different debate.
Leah Lockhart 8 Years Ago
So much good stuff! Thanks for taking the time to respond, guys. Excellent blog post you link to, John. You're right Spencer, this is about a whole lot more than webcasting. If we all ever find ourselves in a room together I'm sure we can put it all right! Interesting point about citizens in Cornwall spreading the word, Phil. Ultimately I think that is where the folk at the council I was talking to want to be by doing some of the things Spencer suggests, including targetting people according to agenda items. But that takes research time, resource to contact people, resource to engage and on and on. Cart before horse? Paid for webcast service before engagement plan?
FM
Former Member 8 Years Ago
Slightly late picking this thread up, however perhaps the blog link below may be useful: http://blog.public-i.info/2012/12/top-tips-on-reaching-new-audiences-and-boosting-viewing-figures-piug12/ We ran a webcasting user group last year with the main theme being how to reach a new audience, the blog post was formed together from discussion and debate through the day of users that currently webcast various meeting types. Hope it helps.
Leah Lockhart 8 Years Ago
Thank you, Lewis. This is really good and there are a ton of great suggestions here. It strikes me doing most of the engagement and promotion listed in the session feedback would take some kind of dedicated resource or focussed role to make a success of it. It's mostly basic digital marketing stuff really but from what I'm seeing there's a sort of Field of Dreams approach to webcasting from people higher up the chain in councils and, I'm afraid, in some of communications teams who might still struggle with multi-platform engagement due to a skills gap or lack of time. But even taking up a fraction of the suggestions here would be helpful to spread the word and, dare I say it, bring councils into the 21st century with digital engagement.