Posted by: VPSN | February 17, 2014

Motion: keeping tabs on Council voting records

P1011979

There’s an interesting motion on notice that will be discussed at tomorrow’s City Council meeting. Aimed at “Improving Transparency and Public Access to Council Voting Records,” it’s being put forward by Councillor Adriane Carr.

If passed, the motion would direct City staff to provide a better recording of the various votes that take place in Regular Council meetings, Standing Committee meetings and Public Hearings – in particular “specifying which members voted in favour, voted in opposition, or were recused, on leave, or absent/out of chamber.” Carr’s motion further asks that this information be made available, not only in the minutes of each of the meetings, but also through the City’s Open Data portal.

This would mark a small improvement for the minutes of the various Council meetings. Currently, the City’s Procedure Bylaw only require the City Clerk to record the names of Council members who vote in opposition to a motion. Given that there are only 11 people sitting around the table (1 Mayor and 10 Councillors), the math isn’t particularly onerous. Absences are also recorded elsewhere in each set of meeting notes. But that being said, the additional clarity around the ‘yeas and nays’ can’t hurt things. And for that reason, we can definitely support the first part of the motion.

Perhaps the bigger question that arises from this proposal surrounds the potential format of summary records that may be made available on the Open Data Portal. We note a small concern around the idea that aggregate data – what we assume will be tables of vote numbers – could be available for download without the sort of broader context you get in the full meeting notes.

We like the ability to crunch numbers, so we get the appeal of data sets like this. We are also big supporters of anything that makes the democratic process more transparent.

At the same time, we feel that it’s important to flag a potential downside to this – that simplified tables of voting data could, inadvertently, provide fodder for overly simple analyses of voting decisions. Voting records alone, only tell part of the story in any Council debate.

Should the motion pass, we hope, at the very least, that there will be enough contextual information in the data tables (including links back to the individual sets of minutes and meeting notes, the wording of the various items being voted on), to enable the data to be used in the richest fashion possible.

None of the concerns we raise are intended to detract from an otherwise useful motion. We do, however, feel they’re important to raise. They’re offered in the spirit of constructive feedback.

POSTSCRIPT. Another data-related consideration: if you’ve ever read Council minutes, or attended a Council meeting, you’ll know that lots motions contain amendments, slight modifications, larger amendments to amendments, and so on. Each of these gets voted on… which can create a challenging voting ‘narrative’ to follow – even with the complete minutes in front of you! An Open Data initiative that potentially modifies the voting record for the Open Data portal will needs to account for this. Will all votes be disseminated, or only the final ‘core’ vote on a given issue?

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Responses

  1. For the enthusiasts out there, here’s the actual text of the letter that was sent to Council:

    Dear Mayor Robertson and Members of Council,

    Re: Motion on Notice – Improving Transparency and Public Access to Council Voting Records

    I am writing on behalf of the Vancouver Public Space Network (VPSN) to offer our support for the aforementioned motion.

    If passed, the motion would direct City staff to provide a better recording of the various votes that take place in Regular Council meetings, Standing Committee meetings and Public Hearings – in particular “specifying which members voted in favour, voted in opposition, or were recused, on leave, or absent/out of chamber.”

    We feel that this would mark a modest but useful improvement in how minutes of the various Council meetings are recorded. The additional clarity around the ‘yeas and nays’ will assist in supporting the readability and transparency of Council decisions.

    We also support, in principle, the idea of this data being made available through the City’s Open Data portal, as proposed in the second part the Motion. However, we do note a concern around the potential format of records that may be made available for download.

    Simplified tables of voting data could, inadvertently, provide fodder for overly simple analyses of voting decisions. Voting records alone, only tell part of the story in any Council debate.

    Should the motion pass, we hope, at the very least, that there will be enough contextual information in the data tables (including links back to the individual sets of minutes and meeting notes, the wording of the various items being voted on), to enable the data to be used in the richest fashion possible.

    None of the concerns we raise are intended to detract from an otherwise useful motion. We do, however, feel they’re important to raise. We offer them in the spirit of constructive feedback.

    Thank you for this opportunity to provide input on this motion. If I can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me at your convenience.

    Yours truly,

    Adam Vasilevich
    Chair,
    Vancouver Public Space Network


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