Earlier this month I shared my contributions to Glasgow City Council’s draft consultation on how Community Councils will be administered within the city. My observations, which were borne out of personal experience, drew attention to the odd fact that the documents had not been updated in twenty or perhaps thirty years, and had nothing to say about the ways that communities now expect to deal with matters online.
Bruce Ryan, who helped Peter Cruickshank compile the data behind last summer’s report into CC (un)interactivity, had plenty to say about Glasgow City Council’s consultation process as well. While my concerns rested with day-to-day CC administration, Bruce’s thoughts turned to the scope and purpose of CCs themselves, and how a refusal to adapt to the online world could further devalue the institutions within local communities.
I hope our observations have conveyed the sheer size of the work which needs to be done around this issue. This digital divide is not due to a lack of infrastructure or assistance; it is a deliberate and conscious rejection of the most basic modern forms of communication. Should we really have to devote our time to explaining to a Council why an elected body really does need an email address? Why is a network which must devote substantial amounts of time to document management not seeking its own ways to lighten the load? And if CCs don’t engage in that debate now, will they ever, or will representative democracy move on without them?
Take it away, Bruce!
The first thing I noticed was that the draft scheme PDF was a graphic scan of hard copy. I am concerned that Glasgow Council staff do not comprehend why this is so unhelpful – and that it potentially breaks anti-discrimination legislation. Why this 17-year-old legislation is not applied to all government-issued documents as a matter of course is beyond my ken.
Here are my thoughts on the main text – please follow along with the .PDF.
Content: no use of online communication
Rights and responsibilities (page 5)
-to produce and distribute minutes of every meeting of the community council;
-to advertise throughout its area, in advance, all of its meetings;
-to consult with the community on issues of significant public interest, and demonstrate these processes to Glasgow City Council;
We encourage far-ranging, cost-effective dissemination of all CC activities and involvement of constituents. Therefore we strongly encourage online dissemination and conversation with constituents as part of a raft of communication methods. We point out that online can be much more cost-effective and timely than printing and mailing newsletters etc. We recognise that online is not the only necessary means and that several online methods (e.g. website, blog, microblog, ‘traditional’ email) would be necessary to utilise the online channel fully.
Glasgow City Council’s obligations (page 5)
We strongly encourage the spirit of communication, consultation and collaboration underlying this section. This is the main reason behind our espousal of online communications – they support efficient communication.
5. Vacancies (page 8)
When advertising vacancies community councils must make all reasonable efforts to ensure that public notices have been placed in available venues across the whole community council area.
Again, we encourage online as a far-reaching but not exclusive set of venues.
7. Meetings (page 10)
The Secretary should coordinate the circulation of an agenda and draft minutes for every meeting to all members at least seven days before the meeting i.e. community councillors; ex-officio members; and associate members. The agenda and draft minutes should be posted electronically where possible.
The agenda and draft minutes must similarly be presented to Glasgow City Council upon request at least seven days before the meeting. All approved minutes should be forwarded (electronically where possible) to Glasgow City Council within 14 days from the date of the meeting which approved them as an accurate record.
(c) Minutes of meetings (page 10)
(vi) an approved minute within 14 days from the date of the meeting to Glasgow City Council as a matter of course, and made available to the public for inspection via websites; libraries; and any other appropriate public space.
We strongly encourage these mentions of electronic communication. However we believe that merely posting minutes on a website is not enough. We also encourage dissemination of links to minutes via tweeting, email and other useful online means.
(f) Advertising of all Meetings
All advertisements intimating the time and place of community council meetings will be published at least seven days prior to the meeting taking place; except in instances of an emergency meeting being called under the Special Meetings clause of the Scheme.
The meetings will be widely advertised so that all the electorate has the opportunity to be informed of the meeting, and in cases Special Meetings to include the proposed motion on the agenda calling the meeting. Three or more public places in the community council’s area must be identified, at which notices will always be placed to advertise meetings.
We strongly encourage consistency of advertising spaces. However, we urge online (e.g. CC website) to be one of these three. We urge this especially for special meetings – it can be far more timely and cost-effective to post online, email and tweet than to mail out notices. Of course we do not wish to exclude physical notices or constituents who do not use online communication.
We don’t insist on online for its own sake but because it reaches people. Face-to-face is great: body language adds important clues that just don’t exist in online or written messages. But face-to-face has its limits: you need to be close enough to observe body language. Printed notices reach people – companies wouldn’t put junk mail through your letter-boxes if this didn’t net some returns. Printed mailings cost, but online delivery is free, once you have bought the IT hardware and paid for your internet connection. Even something as physical as building a mountain-bike trail needs co-ordination – and online makes this easy and almost instant.
Of course it helps to be skilled in crafting the words and images to communicate your message, but these aren’t too far removed from the skills for traditional mailings and advertisements. Once this crafting is done, online allows your message to be seen by anyone who is online. It can be disseminated via networks you’d never dreamed of. (I’m not based anywhere near Glasgow but the message reached me!)
Further, online allows discussion, and bringing in people from outside narrow circles, and such greater involvement may lead to evolution of ideas. It may not – nothing is perfect – but it’s always worth trying.
Nor do we insist on online only – but on a rational, well-though communication strategies that reach as many people as possible. Just as CCs would think about where to put their physical noticeboards, we believe they need to think about the range of communications methods they use: what will reach the community? What will generate the most responses? In short, what will work? I don’t have answers to this, but I do know that, in Edinburgh at least, there are council staff right now giving up their evenings to help CCs learn these skills.
Content: other concerns
6. Qualifications (page 9)
All persons who are resident in the community council area; are 16 years of age or over, and whose name appears on Glasgow City Council’s Electoral Register or a community council supplementary roll as approved by Glasgow City Council, shall be entitled to vote in, or nominate candidates for, community council elections.
How are these supplementary rolls to be generated and maintained? We foresee several potentially large data protection issues here.
(d) Members’ Interests
(i) Register of Interests
The Secretary of each community council shall maintain a ‘Register of Interests’ which will contain declarations by all members in which they should disclose any interest which the public might reasonably think could influence their view on relevant matters coming before the community council.
We strongly encourage this. However, as with supplementary rolls, we foresee data protection issues in hosting and maintaining Registers of Interest. (We believe that registers should be publicly accessible to be worthwhile.) For example, how often should Registers of Interest be updated?
12. Suspension of a Community Council (page 15)
Where for any reason it is deemed by Glasgow City Council that a community council is not conforming to the Scheme, then Glasgow City Council may formally suspend the community council by giving written notice which will have immediate effect.
This seems very heavy-handed. We also recognise that a CC might claim that it has not received this notice. Therefore we recommend that copies should be posted and emailed to all CCllrs. We also suggest that GCC should make public the suspension and the reasons for it.
On satisfying Glasgow City Council that the community council will in the future be able to conform to the Scheme, then re-instatement to full status will be granted by giving written notice which will take immediate effect.
If the preceding suspension was made public, we recommend that reinstatement should also be made public, along with reasons for both.
Many of my thoughts stem from my experience as a community councilor (St Andrews, 2004-5). I would have stayed longer but I moved when my employment changed.
I believe that community councils have valuable roles, both in gathering local opinions and in providing some services. This is taken a step further in Orkney, where CCs provide services around the islands on behalf of Orkney Island Council. I also believe in open-ness and transparency. Without these, scandal is certain to arise – witness the MPs’ expenses furore. However, open-ness brings legal and technical questions – and these need to be resolved. If it becomes public knowledge that a CC has been suspended – and this seems inevitable – it should also be routine for reinstatement to be publicised so that communities can learn what’s happening, from authoritative sources.
So I was happy to see the draft being put out for consultation, and I know that at least one Glasgow CC put in a well-reasoned response. I sincerely hope that the consultation will lead to a worthwhile outcome.
I realise that these blog posts may have given the impression that we found nothing good in the draft. However this is not true – there was much we found to be good. We have simply commented on where we disagree, particularly the huge omission of online communication.
Thank you Bruce. Keep fighting the good fight.