A major part of how local governments function is through regular meetings at which the public are present. As a transparency initiative, councils are becoming more open. However, most citizens attending meetings must currently rely on paper handouts and documents to provide context for the items being discussed.
Unfortunately for local government councils and tax payers, this method is no longer efficient, as it does not take advantage of the advances made in paperless communication. By offering a digital alternative, it allows the public to have more autonomy and flexibility, participating in the meeting in a way that suits them best.
Moreover, printouts can be costly because of the large amount of paper involved at every one of these meetings. Even departments that are internally paperless seem to have been unable to avoid these external-facing costs, since printing and distributing meeting agendas have often been a requirement to properly engage the public.
By being creative and open-minded, these inefficiencies can be eliminated while still meeting the needs of the public. There are a number of options that city councils should consider to help solve this predicament.
1) Cities could recommend people to bring their own devices
By simply allowing public Wi-Fi with a guest sign-in and hosting the meeting material on a website for attendees to view, this might be the simplest and most immediate solution for the city.
Pros: This significantly reduces the reliance on the council to provide printed meeting materials, and most people own a portable device. There is also no risk of under- or over-printing materials, even with unpredictable attendance.
Cons: People are already distracted enough as it is with email and social media; by allowing them to use their own devices, the temptation for them to disconnect from the meeting to do something else can be strong. There may also be some people who do not own such portable devices, potentially leading to accessibility concerns, which brings us to the next option…
2) Cities can have a lab session
To cater to those who do not own a device that they could bring with them, an alternative is for the city to provide one for them at the meeting venue. The city would need to purchase a number of tablets, pre-load them with meeting materials, and have them placed in each seat of the meeting quarters or available at the entrance to the venue.
Pros: This ensures every member of the public is looking at the same information, and eliminates the risk of throwing away huge stacks of paper for printouts that exceed meeting turnout.
Cons: This option can obviously be costly, and would also require a measure of security to ensure the tablets aren’t being removed from the room. Users unfamiliar with such devices may also need extra assistance – even if the materials are pre-loaded, one errant click of the home button can cause attendees to get ‘lost’.
3) Cities can employ digital kiosks
Digital kiosks are becoming more and more popular everywhere you look. Whether you are finding your gate at an airport or purchasing food from a fast food restaurant, digital kiosks help provide clear information to users. Cities could install digital kiosks in meeting rooms so that the public can access information on those screens.
Pros: Kiosks can be very user-friendly to ensure that people can easily interact with them.
Cons: Each kiosk might get over-crowded, especially when high-profile matters are being discussed. The kiosk devices themselves can also carry a high price tag.
4) Cities could upgrade their council chambers with new technology
Depending on the current state of the meeting area, another option might be to renovate it by installing new equipment and upgrading the room with new technology. For example, display screens positioned at the front and throughout the room would provide visibility of all meeting materials. Electronic voting equipment might also be investigated, and there are wireless options available that do not require hardwired button devices. Cameras and microphones might also be a useful consideration, especially if the next option (live streaming) is also being considered.
Pros: Display screens allow meeting materials to be presented during the meeting without printing, and electronic vote results can be displayed immediately to improve transparency. A variety of options are available depending on scale and budget.
Cons: Renovations can be a significant financial investment if not properly managed. Technology used in the meeting room will also require a staff member to manage the content being shown (e.g. moving from item to item on the screens).
5) Cities can live stream their meetings
Many people attend meetings to find out what’s going on in their city – purely an information-gathering exercise. With video having such a foothold in modern day media consumption, many public meetings can easily be streamed for people to watch at home – or even on their phones when they’re on the go. In fact, some people consume information better in the comfort of their homes, where they don’t have to worry about the anxieties of beating traffic, bad weather, or just being uncomfortable in a room with strangers.
Pros: Making meetings and related information available as video via the web can meet the needs of the majority of people while mi