Real democracy, the kind where constituents can look their representatives in the eye and tell them what they really think, holds local government accountable for what goes on in neighborhoods and suburbs.
And it starts at the city council level, by simply letting people be seen and heard by their representatives.
One Texas council has recently broken with tradition and removed the need for people to appear in person before their elected officials if they wish to raise an issue, make a complaint, or suggest a remedy.
Instead, these lucky people can now address council remotely through video conferencing.
It’s a simple change that opens up the local government process, and lets people contribute to their community when they want to, not only when they have the spare time to get themselves down to the town chambers and wait in line to speak.
Speaking Out by Video Conference
The enlightened council in question is that of Austin, Texas. Earlier this month the council voted to support a pilot program that would allow people to appear by video conferencing during the weekly public comment session.
The path to such a potentially dramatic change in the way the council and its constituents communicate was not without bumps.
The process will have to be snuck in through a state law that was designed to let council members themselves join meetings via video link. The use of video conferencing by the public was also deemed by some members of council to be a hassle to implement, and too impersonal to be effective.
But, the pilot won enough support to be greenlighted, and now Austinites who have something to say about their city can save themselves the half an hour or longer trip into the city, along with the nightmare of inner city parking, and instead travel by video conference.
Video Conferencing at City Council Meetings
While any technology that makes it easier for people to share their opinions will inevitably lead to more people sharing their opinions, there is one obvious limitation to the Austin scheme.
That is, people still have to travel to a specific location in order to use the video conferencing service. The pilot program is using the office of one district councilman as a place for the public to comment via video conference.
And as the weekly public comment session is held at noon on a Thursday that means people still have to negotiate time out of their working day to travel off site and stand before council (even if they can now remain within their district).
Why not go one logical step further and allow people to join the public debate through personal video conferencing connections?
Video conferencing is possible anywhere there’s a camera attached to a PC, or built-in to a laptop. In fact, the rising number of smartphone video calling platforms means any of the 207 million units currently in operation in the U.S. is a potential video phone.
If the fear is that the demand for public comment from public places will become unwieldy, all that need be implemented is an online reservation system no more technically advanced than the one your favorite restaurant is no doubt already using.
Citizens already have to register with the council in advance if they wish to address the council, so the proceedings wouldn’t change.
Two-Way Video Conversation
Perhaps the real delay in letting people address council from their own platform is the potential technological snags.
But here too there’s a simple answer. Austin just needs to use a browser-based video conferencing platform that can be used instantly without downloads and without having to create a unique account. Such agnostic systems demand only that the user operate within a compatible browser, and when those browsers include Google and Internet Explorer it shouldn’t prove a major hurdle.
Each week the council could supply that week’s video link to the resident when their allotted time is confirmed, and everyone gets brought together in the click of a mouse. It doesn’t matter who prefers which service, or who’s signed up with whom, as everybody shares a common, disposable link.
There’s even agnostic hardware available, should the council wish to upgrade the images and audio on its end of the conversation.
With such a system in place within a council-sponsored framework of letting the people speak their minds, there’s no end to who can participate. It removes a major logistical hurdle to the empowerment of local residents, and hints at a future where direct, two-way lines of communication are opened up between governments and citizens.