So Why Don’t They?


reprinted with permission of The Londoner:

A question: Why doesn’t city council engage us more?
Phil McLeod; The Londoner; 2007/09/05

If you’re a regular viewer of city council meetings on channel 13 – and you’d be surprised how many people are – you probably didn’t even notice some technological changes Rogers Television rolled out last week.

Instead of volunteers manning those big old Betamax cameras mounted on six-foot tripods, three little remote cameras about the size of bowling balls were placed around the council chamber. An operator with a over-sized laptop computer controlled the cameras as they quietly whirred and whirled back and forth.

Now this is no big deal – unless, perhaps, you happen to be in the media business. We mention it, however, in this context: It’s one more example of how communications between the Corporation of the City of London and its 352,000 citizens is changing and how little influence or control city council or its administration has over that.

This, as Martha Stewart said when the gavel came down, is not a good thing.

As part of city council’s strategic plan now being drafted, its authors set out four values. One talks about having respect for diversity, treating people fairly and with dignity and integrity. A second speaks to fiscal responsibility, investing wisely to achieve agreed priorities while maintaining a healthy financial position.

The other two values reflect on the connection council seeks with Londoners.

Under the headline Citizen Engagement is this statement: “Fostering an environment that invites and encourages citizen participation and engagement.” And under the headline Open and Accountable Government is this statement: “Being accessible to citizens, listening to their needs and reporting regularly on progress.”

Well, as someone who regularly observes their work, I can tell you the men and women around the horsehoe – socialists, capitalists or whatever else they may be – have a long way to go to make good on those last two value statements.

At the moment, virtually all of the direct connection council has with the populace is through media over with its has no control. Worse, even as council’s work becomes more complex and expensive, media coverage of civic politics is changing in emphasis and in volume is actually declining.

Yet council seems blissfully ignorant of what’s happening, on the one hand, and unwilling to facilitate any improvement on the other, despite the relatively inexpensive technological possibilities now available.

For example.

Yes, if you’re a political junkie, it’s terrific that Rogers broadcasts council meetings, which they are required to do as part of their cable license. Telecasts are not actually ‘live’ by the way. Council meetings start at 5 p.m.; Rogers tapes the meetings and begins its telecast at 9 p.m., after bingo. This means they often continue well past midnight.

The coverage, though, is hard to follow. There’s no commentary beyond what the councillors say. And because council minutes are in a sort of numeric shorthand of their own creation, a viewer can quickly become confused about what issue is actually on the table.

Few votes are recorded. And even on the ones that are, no electronic scorecard is shown – either in the council chamber or on TV – to indicate who voted for what.

This is pretty basic stuff that councillors have resisted putting in place for two decades.

Committee meetings, held every second week, are not televised. If you want to find out what happened you have to go to the city’s website, find your way through an obscure laberinthe of webpage layers to get to the minutes, then try and deduce their meaning.

At any given council or committee meeting, dozens of decisions will be taken. The A-Channel at 11 p.m. might report on one big one. The Free Press, the following morning, will report on one or two in detail, a few more as briefs. Local radio will, mostly, read what The Free Press reported. The Londoner on Wednesday will have a short story and perhaps a column by yours truly.

Unfortunately, if the so-called ‘news of the day’ happened not to be the item in which you are most interested, well tough.

London could, as many communities now are, ‘stream’ its meetings onto the internet. Using inexpensive video cameras it could provide wall-to-wall live coverage of all its meetings which you could watch at home on your computer through an internet connection. With a little additional staff input, it could provide charts and graphics to ensure viewers actually knew what was happening and the outcome.

London could also provide instant online reportage of all its decisions, along with pointers to the location of background information. This isn’t rocket science; the London Knights provide such a service for every hockey game.

Those are just starters. There’s lots more city council could easily do that wouldn’t cost much money and would improve coverage, not hinder it.

Given their desire to encourage citizen participation, to be accessible to citizens, and to report regularly on progress, you might well ask: So, why don’t they?


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