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Confusion over webcasting contract – ‘profoundly unsatisfactory’ situation triggers deeper scrutiny

NOTE: This content is old - Published: Thursday, Jul 5th, 2018.

Councillors today rejected deciding on options to continue webcasting meetings – instead opting to defer any decisions due to ‘huge’ unanswered questions over the contract and policies in place.

The Democratic Services committee meeting was due to decide to recommend from just four options, with the key changing elements being the amount of hours of streaming purchased and varying costs for them, in what appears to be a straightforward decision.

But councillors were deeply unhappy when it was revealed that Wrexham Council did not actually own the webcasting equipment used. Nor could they get a definitive answer on if the council owned copies of the footage after it was removed from public view, or even answer a basic fundamental question on who owns the copyright to the footage. The latter being of particular importance as the rule has been in place blocking third party use of clips, and even being used as the basis to threaten a councillor with enforcement action.

A very basic read through by Wrexham.com of the webcasting providers website, a company called Public-i, shows many more options were not put before councillors for consideration that would have answered some of their requests for functionality.

These include:
– Minute taking with automated meeting transcriptions that are searchable.
– Automatic transcripts available as live subtitles to aid accessibility.
– Permanent digital records.
– The ability to share videos on social media as stand alone clips.
Facility to embed the players on third party websites.

Backward looking Wrexham Council do not allow video from meetings to be shared, in contrast to Cornwall Council, who are quoted on the Public-i website as saying: “Our webcasts have proved so popular that local media outlets now host them on their own websites too.”

Cllr Carrie Harper kicked off the debate, being the councillor who had been threatened with ‘enforcement action’ for placing some meeting footage on Facebook.

Cllr Harper asked a range of questions, including who owned the copyright to the footage, and how councillors themselves can view footage outside of the current 6 month cut off period, why 6 or 12 month cut offs were being selected, and a query regarding the new briefer minuting of meetings.

Cllr Harper told the meeting that she had been told Wrexham Council did not infact own the copyright to the footage and wanted to factcheck that point.

The council officer presenting the report, the head of democratic services, told the meeting that staff had looked back at minutes and that they had not got briefer. An explanation was provided that minutes were to be a record of the meeting and decisions made.

The recent GDPR legislation was cited as the reason for 6 or 12 month cut off points for retaining footage, the first time we can recall that being given as a reason in the almost five year discussion on webcasting.

The officer explained issues could arise with keeping images of members of the public asking questions, or when there is a change over of councillors, keeping the footage of older members.

Chairman of the meeting, Cllr Malcolm King disagreed with that explanation, pointing out that: “The key argument for webcasting was they would give a more detailed understanding of what took place.

“Yes we have written reports and minutes that record decisions but quite often at a meeting an important issue is clarified and that clarification is verbal from officer or lead member.

“They say ‘we will not do that’ or ‘we will certainly do that’ that would not be recorded in the minutes but those assurances or explanations are a vital part of the decision making process. We all will have experienced decision being swung on assurances or explanations given.

“We lose that if we dont have a webcasting record.

“Lots of organisations are justifying keeping video longer than 12 months for a variety of reasons, it seems to me, having full record of why and how decisions came about is a vital part of democracy.”

Cllr Alan Edwards recounted how there had been a recent argument ‘over a few words’ on the minutes of one meeting, pointing out if the webcast was available it would have been easy to settle.

Cllr Harper re-asked her question over copyright and ownership of the footage, but was told that Wrexham Council has ‘control’, with no definitive answer given on who owns the footage.

Cllr Harper was unimpressed, adding: “As a member threatened with enforcement action it is quite relevant to know if we have copyright. What legal basis is there telling people they cant share the video?” noting the council’s notice should be removed if it is incorrect (below).

Pointing to Cardiff and Westminster, both that have policies and facilities for clipping some meetings, Cllr Harper called it an ‘odd situation’ that Wrexham Council were not in line branding the local policies ‘digital barriers we could remove and encourage engagement’.

Cllr Mike Davies took a different tack, saying: “All filming is a historical archive, it is a shame if we can’t keep it. Imagine if over the years all the filming was destroyed, we would have lost all sorts of things.”

Recalling his professional work he spoke on the topic of GDPR saying “It is there to protect, but it can be used too often” noting if he went to watch a rugby match and his face appeared on television he would not expect the footage to be wiped.

The officer pointed out that in the current contract every hour of footage that is stored incurs an ongoing fee, and therefore the retention policy needed to be balanced by a cost effective approach.

Cllr Dana Davies disagreed that the retention policy was about money, stating: “It is a question of accountability. After six months the public cant hold us to account as they cant view anything.

“Archiving implies a log and file of a record, we find out now there is no recording. Archiving means deleting.

“Why can’t we transcribe it, and attach it to the minutes?”

Cllr Davies recalled the initial decision over webcasting being brought in: “When we agreed webcasting, we asked who owned the data, and we were told we owned the data. It is our data. Technically the copyright issue is separate, we are talking about storage of our data.”

Cllr Davies went on to read out several prepared questions from her notes, pointing out Public-i are the supplier to six North Wales local authorities yet each have separate contracts rather than a regional procurement.

Monmouthshire was given as an example of where they own their own cameras paid for by the initial Welsh Government grant, and stream to Youtube rather than use a third party supplier – with no GDPR issues and indefinite public archives.

Cllr Davies queried: “On the equipment do Wrexham Council own the hardware? We were told previously we use the Welsh Government money that to buy equipment.”

Cllr Davies explained she had spoken with Wrexham Council’s chief executive, and indicated that the ‘deleted’ webcastings are still there in some format, however there was not a platform to view it on.

Further questions revolved around the situation with data if the provider was to change from Public-i and who owned the historical footage, with Cllr Davies pointing out if Wrexham Council didnt own it what rules were in place to restrict what Public-i did with it in future.

Cllr King, who was the relevant lead member overseeing the webcasting decision several years ago, interjected to say: “I clearly remember we were assured we owned the equipment and the information and data.

“The decision would not have been taken up if we were to relinquish control of data to third body.”

He added that such a situation would be ‘ridiculous’, and if the council did not have full ownership of the footage he thought it should ‘withdraw from immediately’ from the setup.

The officer told the meeting that the current contract is ‘a lease of hardware, and software’.

Cllr Davies said “That is not what were told”, adding that Wrexham Council had ‘blown’ the pump prime funding from the Welsh Government.

After hearing that information Cllr King said that situation was therefore ‘profoundly unsatisfactory’.

Cllr Bill Baldwin pointed out Cllr King was the lead member in-charge at the time, asking: “Was this what you signed up for?”

Cllr King replied: “My clear memory is we were buying equipment, and had no problems getting hold of the data” adding the decision was over several meetings with Public-i, workshops and ‘lots happening before we went into it’.

Cllr Davies backed that viewpoint, recalling a meeting and presentation ‘in this very room’ on the topic.

Cllr John McCusker called the debate a ‘can of worms’ saying he could not make a recommendation: “We have to start again. I don’t know half the facts. It is unravelling before me.

“We don’t know who owns what, or what we can or cant do.”

Cllr Baldwin called for a copy of the contract to be made available: “Who signed and agreed this?

“This has been from day one, and we are what, four years down the line? The blame is with whoever signed it. It has not been read from top to bottom, someone has made a mistake.”

A debate was held over the contract itself, with it pointed out an initial pilot scheme was set up for 12 months and then at some point renewed for a further three years, with it suggested that perhaps the pilot contract differed from the three year deal.

Cllr Beverley Parry-Jones said the committee should ‘look in-depth at the changes between the initial and second contract’.

Cllr Rondo Roberts pointed out for newly elected councillors the webcasting decisions had been made before their time, inviting former committee members to feed into future debates: “You can’t put the onus on us.

“There are massive difficult problems, it needs a restructure from bottom up or top down. This contract should not be taken lightly.”

Questions were also raised about remote working, and what other suppliers exist, and what would be required to provide an in-house solution to webcasting.

With the committee deeply unhappy with the lack of information, options and apparent difference in what the outcome of what has been procured compared to what they thought was the situation they decided to ignore the recommendations before them that would have seen a contract extension agreed.

Instead a Task and Finish Group will be setup to discover answers to the outstanding questions with a view to the committee reconvening on the topic in early September.

The timescales are important as the decision on what to do on webcasting needs to be decided by the Council before January – otherwise a situation could emerge where there is no webcasting facility in place from early 2019, although councillors were keen to stress they did not want to see that happen.

After the meeting we looked back and has found the documents that explain an initial 18 month pilot was setup, with the £40k Welsh Government grant spend being explained as: “This council used part of the grant to fund a contract with Public i to provide webcasting facilities for a period of 18 months up to 5 September 2015, with the remainder being used to purchase a committee administration software package”.

The earlier decision under Cllr King’s watch is documented in the minutes, that capture debate points, noting a ‘lease’ “That part of the funding be utilised to lease a webcasting system for a pilot period, with the remainder to fund the purchase of a more modern, bespoke committee administration computer package” with the report presented here.

Here is the link to the 2014 meeting discussion, however if you click the webcasting link to view the relevant debate it states “Sorry, this webcast content has expired”.

 

Below are our tweets from the meeting with some further information and observations – and are in reverse chronological order… 

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