A little over a week ago a new online system for Edmonton City Council’s meeting agendas and minutes went live. The long overdue update brings a number of improvements for public access, notably an integrated view of all information on the same screen. As someone who frequently accesses the agendas and minutes, I’m really happy the old system is gone, and at least so far, I think the new one is great!
The previous system for managing agendas and minutes, built in-house about 15 years ago, was called OCCTOPUS (Official Council and Committee Tracking Output Publishing and Updating Services). If you’ve never used it, consider yourself lucky! Based on Microsoft Word documents, OCCTOPUS was clunky and awkward to use. To get at the details for an agenda item, you often had to click through four connected Word documents. It always reminded me of the ETS Trip Planner, which loves to spawn dozens of new windows.
If you want to see the old system, check out the minutes for the November 10th Council meeting. Then compare that to the new system, by looking at the minutes for the November 24th Council meeting. I think you’ll agree that the new one is much better!
Some of the improvements & features of the new system include:
- No more Word documents! Agendas and minutes now appear in HTML.
- You can access the agenda, minutes, supporting materials, and archived video for a meeting from within the same screen.
- Archived video and supporting materials (often PDF reports) appear in column on the right side and open with a single click.
- If you really want to, you can get a print view of the agenda or minutes with a single click.
Aileen Giesbrecht, Director of Governance and Legislative Services in the Office of the City Clerk, told me that the project to replace OCCTOPUS started in the summer of 2007, and in the fall of 2008 SIRE Technologies was awarded the contract. SIRE provides “legislative management technology” for county and local governments, and offers a number of off-the-shelf solutions or modules. According to Sarah Ellington of SIRE Technologies, the City of Edmonton is using three such modules: Agenda Plus, Minutes Plus, and Workflow. Each of the modules have been configured to meet the City’s requirements for formatting, business processes, etc. The City of Edmonton’s implementation is the first major SIRE project in Canada.
The biggest challenge in getting the new system in place, according to Aileen, was simply “finding the time to make it happen.” The work isn’t finished yet, either! The project currently improves access primarily for the public, and Aileen and her team are now working on improving access internally too. She said the related internal systems being implemented will help with ease of use and will support the City’s paperless strategy.
Operational funding of SIRE will allow for: Maintenance of SIRE software, including ‘Agenda and Minutes Plus’ and web integration between SIRE and our current ‘Thunderstone’ web-based search function; licences associated with SIRE software, including access for Councillors (‘Agenda To Go’), as well as access for City Clerks and other Administrators, Bi-annual updates to the SIRE software suite; and one staff position to coordinate and maintain the entire SIRE system.
The new system isn’t perfect – it still uses Windows Media for video, and it would be nice to be able to click directly from an item on the agenda to the corresponding item in the minutes – but it’s much better than what we had previously. I think it’s great that the City is working to improve access to information for citizens, and I hope this is just the beginning (think: open data).