'What price democracy?': Why most county councils keep their meetings offline

Just four of 31 local authorities offer webcasting of their proceedings.

By Ken Foxe

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, Fingal County Council became the first local authority in Ireland to stream its council meetings live online.

It was the same year that YouTube was launched and Facebook was celebrating its first birthday. Twitter would not arrive for another year, while Instagram had not yet even been imagined. 

Fingal’s initiative was hailed by then junior minister Noel Ahern as a way to give “new meaning to transparency and customer service”.

Well over a decade later, you could be forgiven for assuming such webcasting would by now be routine. 

In fact, just four of the 31 local authorities around the country routinely make live – or even delayed – coverage of their meetings available online.

Three of them – Fingal, Dublin City, and Dun Laoghaire Rathdown councils – are in Dublin, while only Roscommon of the remaining local authorities offers the service. 

That leaves another 27 where members of the public can only attend in person, or are left searching for minutes or transcripts on council websites, the quality of which varies enormously.

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Considering how far technology has advanced in the time since Fingal seized the initiative, Noteworthy wanted to find out why other local authorities have been so slow to embrace something that on the face of it seems simple.

Through the use of Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation, we’ve been able to build a national picture of why progress has been so slow.

‘Grandstanding’

Every local authority in the country responded either to our direct queries or our FOI requests with the most common excuse given relating to the cost of the service. 

Others said that nobody would be interested, that no one had ever asked for it, or that it was something they had never even investigated.

Still others have said it is actively under consideration. There were occasionally other reasons though.

In documents from Wexford County Council, we discovered there were concerns that webcasting of meetings would lead to “grandstanding” by local politicians who enjoyed the camera’s gaze.

The council had been offered a demonstration of webcasting technology by Public-i (a UK-based firm who provide the service to all of the Irish councils who currently livestream).

One official asked colleagues: “Do we wish to examine the feasibility of webcasting Wexford County Council meetings … if so this probably the opportunity to do so? Or is that something the senior management team may not wish to pursue at this time?”

In response, Director of Services Eddie Taaffe wrote: “I would leave this alone – it is very expensive and can lead to grandstanding.

“South Dublin County Council looked at it when I was there and steered away from it for these two reasons,” wrote Mr Taaffe.

His colleague replied: “I thought there might not be an appetite for this facility – for these and other reasons … will drop.”

Neighbouring Carlow County Council has also ruled out webcasting of their meetings for a different reason. They said they had concerns that the webcasts were “open to hacking and being edited etc from third parties”.

Cost Grounds

Other councils said cost was the main issue. South Dublin County Council, the only local authority in the capital that does not provide webcasting, twice gave serious consideration to the proposal.

However, after a presentation was made to councillors in 2017 – it was decided not to proceed because the “level of funding required could not be justified”.

The issue came back on the agenda in 2018 when Councillor Paul Gogarty put forward a motion for €160,000 to be set aside to provide webcasting facilities over an extended period.

Green Party Think Ins Councillor Paul Gogarty
Source: /Photocall Ireland

In a vote, 11 members voted for the proposal and 21 against. “The motion fell,” said an information note provided by the council.

Mr Gogarty told Noteworthy.ie: “Twice, I put motions down and twice it was voted against. The argument ostensibly used is that it would cost too much and that it was money that could be better spent on other things.

“I think it’s a red herring. We have had some very contentious debates … which would have got quite abusive at times. There were other very heated meetings and I think certain councillors don’t want to be constrained in the manner in which they operate.

“We do have a new council and I’d hope they would be more conducive to webcasting, and I’d be slightly more hopeful when I bring it up again this year.

“For me, the question is what price democracy? These meetings are often on during work time or when people are minding kids and cannot attend the public gallery. We would not be expecting a huge amount of people to watch but it’s the fact that you can.

“At the moment, maybe six weeks later, you might get stark minutes but there’s nothing substantive in terms of why people have made decisions. People can claim to have done x, y, and z but there’s no proof. There isn’t a full transcript.

“I think there’s a deficit there and people feel a disconnect. A sub-argument was that people would use it to ‘grandstand’ but councillors going on for hours does not necessarily come across very well either.”

An Old Chestnut 

One council actively looking at webcasting is Louth County Council.

Internal emails explain how this is not the first time it has been considered with one official saying that it had already been explored in 2007, 2011, and 2014.

“This is a bit of an old chestnut,” joked the official in an email, “we look, we talk, we consider the implications e.g. GDPR, we price … we run like hell … bottom line we will need a sizable budget and as it is coming up to budget time then at least it is opportune.”

Other records explain how defamation issues could arise with a portion of one webcast from an unnamed local authority taken down due to a “threat of legal action” from a councillor against a colleague.

“[It’s] important that members and staff are generally aware that recording is taking place,” said an information note.

“The recordings also provide a useful reference for minutes, follow-up etc. as they are easily searchable. There can be a tendency for speakers to exceed their allotted time to maximise exposure, particularly with regard to contentious issues.”

The risk of defamation was also cited by Kerry County Council in their response.

“Discussions at council previously have cited possible obstacles including defamation and exposing the council to possible litigation,” they said.

Kerry County Council said the introduction of webcasting would require a change to their standing orders and would need to be agreed by the full council. 

The Kildare Experience 

One of the most in-depth examinations of the benefits of webcasting council meetings took place in Co Kildare where local councillor Fiona McLoughlin Healy had looked for live streaming.

She was told there would be a one-off installation fee of around €8,000 – €10,000 and running costs for sixty hours of proceedings of circa €14,000 per year.

“This would be the price for a standard streaming package with most of the required functionality around capture, storage, search and display functionality etc. as seen for example on the [Fingal] website,” she was informed.

An add-on option – which would have allowed for integration of social media – encouraging direct and immediate feedback from members of the public would add around €6,000-a-year to the cost.

At a protocol meeting in December 2017, the possibility of webcasting was discussed with several present in favour of it.

One councillor asked how other local authorities managed it and suggested it could cause difficulties in chairing meetings.

Others questioned whether a “slice and dice” approach of edited contents would be provided saying that could lead to things being taken out of context.

The meeting was told: “The camera follows the microphone and there would be no editing as whoever presses the microphone activates the camera.”

Kildare went as far as contacting every local authority in the country about their own experiences – with 16 of 25 councils responding.

Cavan, Cork City and County, Monaghan, Offaly, and Tipperary all said they’d had no proposals for live streaming and no plans to introduce it.

In Clare, webcasting was twice proposed but shot down both times. In Donegal and Meath, a plan was put forward but never progressed.

Leitrim had decided not to use it because of cost issues while Wicklow had abandoned their webcast experiment four years after its introduction in 2007 because viewing numbers were just 30 to 40 a month.

There were positive responses from the four local authorities that livestreamed their meetings however.

A summary of the experience in Roscommon County Council explained: “The live viewing figures are low but increase in the days after the meeting.

“In their [Roscommon’s] opinion, it has made the meetings more professional and they are quite pleased with its introduction and satisfied with its impact allowing all council business and meetings to be conducted in an open and transparent manner.”

In April 2018, the plan to webcast meetings from Kildare was put to the council floor.

One of the issues raised was the fact that councillors did not enjoy the same “privilege” on the floor as TDs would in Leinster House, effectively exempting them from defamation actions.

An account of the meeting said this “has to be considered” even though meetings are public in any event and covered by local media.

Ultimately, with 11 councillors in Kildare voting in favour of the plan, 22 voting against, and another 7 absent – the motion failed.

90206553_90206553 Kildare County Council Offices
Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Cllr McLoughlin-Healy said however that webcasting was now back on the agenda.

She said: “My first motion for the new council term in June was that the council resolve to introduce webcasting of public meetings of the full council, in order to meet the principles of participation, trust, accountability, and transparency.

“With the amendment of webcasting to broadcasting, the motion passed finally.”

She said the plan has now moved to the protocol committee to figure out how to introduce it.

“This time the council sent it to protocol with its approval and for protocol to address the ‘how’ not ‘if’. This is the first time in five years of motions and debate of webcasting of council meetings for it to have gained the full support of the council before being [referred on],” she said.

“After five years as a councillor, I believe, more than any other individual change, the recording and webcasting of council meetings would significantly improve the accountability, behaviour and performance of local councillors and council officials.”

A similar scoping exercise to Kildare has also taken place in Tipperary, where two council chambers in Nenagh and Clonmel would have to be set up for webcasting.

One briefing note gave eight reasons why recording of meetings could help, including allowing for immediate viewing, or playback facility.

The note also said it would be available to all, create a valuable archive, and would give a local authority control if proceedings were subject to “media censorship, spin, [or] misinterpretation”.

The Councils that do webcast

Of the councils that do livestream their meetings, details of how often they were viewed have been sought by Noteworthy.

Dublin City Council said the service had cost them €19,295 last year and that total views for the eleven meetings they held were 2,295.

Anywhere between 30 and 80 people watched the proceedings live and an average of 150 people used the playback facility to watch a meeting later.

The city council said they had been webcasting meetings since 2007 and had not undertaken any audits or value for money reports on it.

In promotional material for Public-i, the company who provide the service, Dublin City Council said the cost was justified because meetings were now “more efficient”.

“Decisions can now be easily tracked and recorded for follow-up. There is also greater public awareness and engagement with decision making and a reduction in queries from press and the public,” said their IT Department.

“We could not consider stopping the service now as it is deeply embedded in our operations.”

It was a similar story in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, where the cost of the service was a little lower and came in at €12,834 last year.

Viewing figures for their meetings ranged between 158 for a county council meeting in September to 321 for the one held in December. They have been webcasting since 2008.

In Roscommon, streaming of meetings was only introduced in 2017 and last year the cost of the service came to €15,448.

Viewing figures for meetings varied widely from just 45 for a meeting of the Western Development Commission to 517 for a presidential nominations meeting in September.

For normal monthly meetings, the number of people watching averaged around 140.

The Innovators

Fingal, the council which started it all, said they had incurred no costs from provision of webcasting in 2018.

They said that across all of the various meetings they had streamed during last year – council meetings and local area meetings – there had been almost 7,700 views.

County council meetings tended to prompt the most interest although Fingal Development Plan meetings proved a poor draw – attracting an audience of just three.

Fingal County Hall.jpg Fingal County Hall
Source: Wikimedia

Fingal said webcasting had now become “part of the furniture” and was appreciated by both members of the public who contacted them and councillors.

Brian Buckley, senior executive officer at Fingal, told Noteworthy: “It’s been working very well – we find that anybody from the public who contacts us finds it useful. They can see in real time councillors speaking on motions and reports.

“They can see who is opposing an item and they can see the reason why. The public know exactly what the reasoning is behind decisions. The record is there at the moment for a year and if somebody wants to go back further, we can get it for a fee.

“We use it ourselves as well to verify the minutes to keep them accurate and nobody can argue with them then. Our councillors appreciate it being there because they know their point is being made publicly for constituents to see. They got used to it very quickly; it becomes just part of the furniture.”

Campaign group Transparency Ireland said webcasting of meetings should be encouraged among local authorities.

Dr Elliott Jordan-Doak, who researches transparency in local government in Ireland, said: “Streaming council meetings won’t just improve transparency and accountability, it will also help promote public understanding of how decisions are made in practice and over time should improve public trust in local government.

“Participation in politics begins with an understanding of how things work, and streaming meetings is one way that this can be improved. It won’t radically transform how people interact with their council, but it’s a step in the right direction,”

Dublin City Council: Webcasting since 2007

Dun Laoghaire Rathdown: Webcasting since 2008

South Dublin: Motion to introduce opposed by councillors twice

Fingal: Webcasting since 2005

Carlow: No Webcasting – concerns that footage could be hacked and edited

Kildare: Motion to introduce opposed by councillors but now back on agenda

Kilkenny: No webcasting and no plans to do so

Laois: No webcasting and no plans to do so

Longford: No webcasting because of prohibitive costs and lack of demand.

Louth: Currently examining options in relation to service providers and cost.

Meath: No webcasting and not possible in current council chamber.

Offaly: No webcasting

Westmeath: No webcasting

Wexford: No webcasting and proposal rejected by senior management

Wicklow: Provides real time captioning and live text streaming, which they believe is more comprehensive and better value for money. Abandoned live streaming because of low viewing figures and cost.

Clare: No webcasting but the matter is being considered.

Cork City Council: No regular webcasting but has been done on special occasions.

Cork County: No webcasting, not permitted under standing orders.

Kerry: No webcasting and would require changes to their standing orders.

Limerick City & County: No webcasting. “Embryonic” discussions of offering podcasting service.

Tipperary: No webcasting but matter being considered by a committee and significant research has been undertaken.

Waterford City & County: No webcasting as cost prohibitive. Will continue to monitor as believe it could have “huge benefits”.

Galway City Council: No webcasting. Has been considered but has not proceeded due to set-up and ongoing costs.

Galway County: No webcasting because of cost of installation.

Leitrim: No webcasting because no demand for the service.

Mayo: No webcasting but meetings audio-recorded. Would be expensive to retrofit video equipment in current council chamber.

Roscommon: Webcasting since 2017

Sligo: No webcasting due to budgetary issues. Streaming to Facebook Live and other options being considered.

Cavan: No webcasting but is “exploring options”.

Donegal: No webcasting due to cost implications.

Monaghan: No webcasting.

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