How Online Meeting Agendas Can Improve Public Access and Transparency

A c c e s s: noun.

  1. Permission, liberty, or ability to enter, approach, or pass to and from a place or to approach or communicate with a person or thing.
  2. Freedom or ability to obtain or make use of something.

- Merriam-Webster Dictionary

It may seem that an online meeting agenda affects internal systems only, that it has nothing to do with civic engagement, “open” meetings or dynamic public relations. So, too, did it seem that cuneiform imprints used for trade would have nothing to do with the rise of philosophy and literature. Appearances are deceiving: The marks used for trade led to a written alphabet, and with it, the ability to record abstract thoughts. So, too, does the power of an online agenda exceed internal operations. It boosts transparency in surprising ways.

Not surprising is the fact that an online agenda system makes meetings themselves easier to find. A Nielsen poll found that the average American spends a shocking 10 hours a day online.

Why not have your meeting information at the same place where they’re already spending so much time? Younger constituents, in particular, have shown up at meetings more as the internet breathes new life into their perception of local government; suddenly, it screams “cutting-edge” rather than “stodgy.” The non-ambulatory and other housebound citizens also can see the agenda now without making an impossible walk to see a bulletin board outside a public building.

This obvious use of an online agenda reflects a small fraction of its value for inviting in the public as informed participants in civic affairs. The same software that provides the public-facing website where the agenda is posted also makes it easier for constituents to prepare for the meeting by reading related materials. If an agenda makes reference to background documentation, what percentage of readers bothers to find and read those materials? Online agenda management software makes background reading a click away for every reader. The ethos shifts to greater inclusion as more people than the board members feel “in the know” walking into the meeting.

It gets better. Both the minutes and the reading materials can be part of an online archive that also stores all of the extensive records that open records laws require: legislation, rulings, maps, spreadsheets, newspaper reports and anything else documenting the history of the local government. Suddenly, the government is offering information to all who ask, even making it exceedingly easy to find.

While the online location makes public records far easier to find than binders in basements, it also can make all that material easily searchable by keyword. The best software has a meta-search function that penetrates all of the files on hand, even if they’re not all in the same format. An inquisitive citizen doesn’t even need to open each file one at a time to repeat the search command.

What’s more, online agenda software can even make it possible for constituents to watch a meeting that they can’t attend in person. Once upon a time, an interested investigator had to request permission to videotape the proceedings, which might appear on C-SPAN. People who couldn’t attend technically could see it there, but, in practice, C-SPAN remains a grossly undertapped resource.

With online agenda software, a public board can voluntarily record its own meetings and post the resulting video right on the public-facing website that stores the agenda and the minutes. Top-tier software includes the ability to add an icon for an embedded video right alongside those for the minutes and the agenda. By handing all records to the public on a silver platter, a local government becomes far friendlier, even solicitous. It gets harder and harder to claim that a shifty government must be hiding dark secrets from an innocent citizenry.

Online agenda software further invites citizen participation between meetings. Interactive surveys and polls show the public that their voice matters 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Online feedback forms can absorb much of the “complaint-and-response” interactions, so they take up less time at the meeting itself.

Such remarkable advances in access and transparency don’t jeopardize the security of documents that an online presence can create. Whereas placing materials on “the (public) cloud” creates a soft target for hungry hackers, putting them on a private, cloud-based server keeps them out of harm’s way – especially if the server has full, 256-bit encryption.

Online meeting agendas are more than a clerical convenience; they make local government fully transparent and accessible. A broad range of citizens can find what they need 24 hours a day. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. The same software places minutes, video streams and a cornucopia of records at the public’s fingertips – without jeopardizing security.

Scrutiny from the public, the state and the media is incessant. That ambitious job description is not matched by a bountiful budget. As a result, municipalities typically operate out of B-grade offices, relying heavily on volunteers to supplement staff contributions. Every opportunity to save staff hours or budget dollars is like water in the desert. Agenda management software meets the constant need for small government to do much more with much less.

The quest for efficiencies is driving cities, counties and small towns to technology that makes board meetings more productive and less taxing. Agenda management systems make meeting management stronger, faster, safer and cleaner. Even old-timers fond of binders and bulletin boards are making the switch, as the benefits make this conversion a matter of common sense.

Online agenda software breathes new life into the sign on the door: “Open for Business!”


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