Can a digital revolution save Croydon Council meetings?

By - Thursday 17th March, 2016

Webcasting council meetings hasn’t improved them. Could ‘likes’, live questions and instant voting make a difference?

Not for the first time whilst watching a webcast of a Croydon Council meeting, I wondered why I was bothering. A session of the usual yah-boo stuff came to an end when Croydon’s mayor, chairing the meeting as usual, seemed to take umbrage at nothing that I could hear. A Tory councillor then got similarly huffy, saying something which I again could not hear, then the Tories all walked out. The only good that came out of this was a splendid satirical piece by Gareth Davies in the Croydon Advertiser.

There’s got to be a better way. But what might that be? Continuing doing what we’re doing clearly isn’t working.

Technology might improve things, but webcasting the meeting itself isn’t. If the public gallery was packed for council meetings then it might help, but it isn’t, so it doesn’t. Yes, it exposes the whole pantomime to a wider audience, but if the audience all turns off then that hasn’t improved anything.

At a personal level, they like to see how what they are doing will develop them, both in their careers and as people

It reminds me of a quote attributed to Henry Ford (which he probably didn’t actually say): “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Webcasting council meetings is the equivalent of faster horses.

Perhaps Steve Jobs can help us? He did say at the 1997 World Wide Developers Conference that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology – not the other way around. So what does the customer want?

To take an extreme view, let’s look at the characteristics of the most recent and least engaged generation to join the voters’ register, the so-called millennials. Broadly this group expects instant gratification and likes to feel that what they are doing is important and that it is recognised as such. They like openness, collaboration and to feel engaged in the process. At a personal level, they like to see how what they are doing will develop them, both in their careers and as people.

Openness and collaboration in problem-solving are foreign to our current approach

Listening in to a council meeting doesn’t tick any of those boxes. What might?

Feeling part of the process would certainly help. The problem here is that I suspect opposition councillors, asking questions that are rarely answered, don’t themselves much feel part of the decision making process either. The public, who can only ask questions posed in writing two weeks in advance, feel even less so.

Sadly, openness and collaboration in problem-solving are foreign to our current approach. Council proposals are presented as the answer, take it or leave it. Figures are selectively quoted to support the decision. Attempts to explore alternatives are blocked. Consultations are largely a sham.

No cheap jibes, faux outrage and political point scoring. It must have felt weird and disorienting for councillors

Engaging in such a cumbersome and frustrating process which makes it clear to you that you have little influence over the outcome does the opposite of recognising your importance. Equally it does nothing to develop you in any positive way, except perhaps your anger management skills.

Some clue of a way forward was given by the Children and Young People Scrutiny Sub-Committee last November where young people were invited to a meeting on young people’s needs. Expecting some level of understanding from the audience, then giving them a role in questioning ensures engagement. They can also immediately see that they are being taken seriously and clearly learned something from the experience.

A further positive was that councillors were on their best behaviour. No cheap jibes, faux outrage and political point scoring. It must have felt weird and disorienting for them.

Taking live questions from remote viewers has to be part of reinforcing awareness of them

Care is needed not to give the impression that responsibility for decisions is being handed over, so the Scrutiny Committee is the right place to start. The opposition must retain the main role to oppose, but having an audience in the room able to ask questions face-to-face must be helpful. Selecting the right issues to discuss and avoiding an audience packed with activists so that this doesn’t become like an edition of Question Time are tough, but not insurmountable challenges.

Eventually one might hope that councillors will become more aware of the remote audience so that they behave well with fewer outsiders in the room. Taking live questions from these remote viewers has to be part of reinforcing that awareness.

What else? Likes for councillors when they are constructive? A councillor of the year award voted by viewers? Who knows? I would rule nothing out, because if we go on as we are, even I will be logging off.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Jonny Rose

    Why rely on digital interfaces when we can just show our displeasure as the Romans did?

  • Peter Staveley

    I think there should be a lot of discussions about how participation could be improved in how Croydon is run. Certainly I would like to have a discussion with you or anyone else about how we could improve participation.

    Whilst I represent a particular political party, I think that this should be a cross-party aspiration. I think that the current Councillors live too much in their own political bubble to the detriment to the people of Croydon.