Posted by:14 February, 2012
The image of councils being disconnected from the people they serve is a problem all councils face. Oldham MBC is trying to use technology to ‘reconnect’ to its citizens, the council’s leader Jim McMahon, pictured, explains how they are using live streaming of council meetings over the internet to become more inclusive.
When I first moved into the Leader’s Office at Oldham Council last May I knew there was already a large and troublesome elephant in the room.
For too long there has been a serious ‘disconnect’ between Oldham Council and local residents.
It’s a perennial problem not unique to our Borough but - from local to national government - the dangers of not addressing it are clear to all.
On hundreds of doorsteps over several years I’ve been told that Oldham Council is too distant, its members sit in an ivory tower and they’re not listening to the concerns of ordinary folk.
It prompted me to think hard about simple and cost-effective ways we could try and reach out more - how we could start to engage again.
The problem I kept returning to was that my vision for the Borough simply couldn’t be realised as things stood.
Towards a Co-operative Council
Our aspiration is for Oldham to become a Co-operative Council: one where everyone joins together in the face of falling budgets to ‘do their bit’.
That means working differently. It means everyone - residents, partners and stakeholders - contributing and pitching in, volunteering ideas and time to realise our shared aspirations.
But if people aren’t already connecting with local democracy then they certainly won’t be willing to co-operate.
We had to look at how to remove barriers to community involvement in decision-making and service delivery.
Devolution to stronger District Partnerships was a first step, but still not one that demonstrably threw open the doors, gave people their voice and proved we were serious about listening.
I also realised that residents no longer talk to each other in just one way using the same old methods, so we needed to adapt.
I started with a weekly Leader’s Blog and it’s had almost 15,000 hits to date. But not everyone wants to read it. It’s not a silver bullet.
Different ways to communicate
We need lots of conversations done in different ways to match the way that people like to communicate if we are to truly capture - and respond effectively - to what they’re saying.
Last week we took an important step forward by bringing our primary public forum into the digital age.
For the first time ever a Full Council meeting enabled residents to join in from the comfort of their own homes.
We filmed and streamed it all live on our website allowing people to watch on laptops and other digital devices.
The meeting also kicked off with a new Public Question Time section that let people submit questions directly to Cabinet Members through Twitter, Facebook and email right up until just moments before it began.
As a result we had around 400 people logging on to watch on our website alone, and the event was also streamed on other sites.
When was the last time this many residents turned up to a Full Council meeting? Certainly not in my lifetime.
What price democracy you may ask?
Well, a local media firm stepped in to ‘do their bit’ and delivered the session for about £500.
At the same time they’re also working alongside local students from Oldham College to enable them to do it in the future. That gives these youngsters invaluable experience of delivering a webcast and also an insight into how Local Government works. Everybody wins.
In 2012 few people have the time or inclination to attend meetings like this in person, but this ‘trial run’ also proved many will join in or observe the debate if you make it accessible to them.
Being able to submit a question and watch it answered from your sofa has to be positive for transparency and local democracy.
The new meeting format also put politicians from all sides on the spot.
Questions were pitched outside their usual ‘comfort zone’ of being able to rely on pre-prepared answers.
No doubt that made some of them feel edgy and under pressure to work harder, but in my book that’s just another big plus point for democratic engagement.
The event was a positive start but we don’t kid ourselves that the work stops here. The real litmus test will be to see if greater engagement eventually translates into action.
But if this really does start to encourage residents to get more involved and contribute to what’s happening in their communities then it could be a compelling model for others to follow.
Cllr Jim McMahon (Lab), leader of Oldham MBC
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