Streaming council meetings – what’s the point?

What’s the point of streaming council meetings on the internet? Who on earth will be interested? As press officer Geoff Coleman explains, you’d be surprised.

About an hour into yesterday’s City Council meeting I popped into the public gallery to see how many Birmingham residents had taken the opportunity to witness local democracy in action – it was after all a public meeting. I discovered four hardy souls experiencing the ‘live show’.

At the same time 19 people were watching proceedings online via www.birminghamnewsroom.com

Not a massive figure I’ll grant you, but this was in the middle of the afternoon when many people are still at work, and the online audience was still almost five times the number of people in the public gallery.

That live viewers figure fluctuated throughout the meeting but at no stage did it fall below the attendance figure for the public gallery.

And we don’t just broadcast footage in isolation; we provide links to agenda items and reports. We also encourage people to have their say through a live blog that pulls together comments and tweets to enhance the experience.

According to Tweetreach, a sample of 50 tweets midway through the meeting, using the #bcclive hashtag, reached 19,343 people.

So from four people in the public gallery and around 20 watching the live stream, we then managed to reach almost 20,000 people.

Now that’s definitely starting to look worthwhile.

We started streaming full council meetings last year and, after a bit of a false start as we wrestled with uncooperative technology and our own inexperience, we feel we’ve started to get it right.

We’re not exactly pioneers here. A number of local authorities have been streaming their meetings for some time now – Kirklees is one council I’ve admired from afar.

There are companies out there solely dedicated to web streaming and they offer comprehensive platforms for councils looking to open up democracy. For a variety of reasons we’re ploughing our own furrow at the moment and, while our solution is not necessarily as pretty as these bespoke systems, it works and as the figures above show there is an audience.

Footage from the first three Birmingham City Council meetings of 2012 has already been viewed over 4,100 times – and that’s with little or no publicity.

UPDATE – March 26: We’ve now had more than 10,000 views.

UPDATE May 19: We’ve now had almost 25,000 views

For me, the best part of streaming council meetings online is that, because we archive the footage online, the number of people viewing all or part of yesterday’s meeting will continue to grow.

We’ve started to build an archive of footage that can be edited down into bitesize chunks if people want to focus on a single speech or agenda item.

Highlight clips can then be embedded – not just on the council newsroom – but by mainstream media and hyperlocal sites alike. Councillors can use them on their own websites or link to them via Twitter and Facebook.

So this really does have the potential to open up democracy to a much wider audience and we don’t have to stop at full council meetings. Next Tuesday we’re streaming a Leisure, Sport and Culture overview and scrutiny meeting and we’ve also spoken about the potential for broadcasting planning meetings.

The public gallery may continue to be sparsely populated but that doesn’t mean the public aren’t attending our meetings. They’re just doing so from the comfort of their own homes and workplaces or even on their phones.

Now if that isn’t a step forward, I don’t know what is.

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