Belfast City Council Minutes

I think I have found a new entrant for the Worst Software Everâ„¢ awards: the Belfast City Council on-line minutes system.

There are at least three versions of this on-line. After talking with a consultant for the Corporate Applications Team I now know that two of these versions are obsolete. However, if you were to search in Google for, say, “Belfast City Council minutes”, those are the ones you will find. The “true” system is one you get if you click on the “Minutes” link from the main City Council website.

This new system doesn’t suffer from all the same faults as the old system (e.g. file name paths being returned from the search as \ rather than /, making the documents inaccessible), but still suffers from most of them. The worst is that you can’t actually browse the minutes in any sensible manner – you can only search them. This requires knowing what you’re actually looking for, which is no use to me, as I’m just wanting to see what the Council is up to generally, rather than on anything specific. To make any serious use of the system you also need to know that Council meetings happen in a three level hierarchy:

The main monthly council meeting mostly just accepts (or rejects) minutes from the Committees (Client Services, Contract Services, Development, Health & Environmental Services, Policy & Resources, and Town Planning). Most of those, in turn, do likewise for their Sub-Committees (for example Policy and Resources has committees for Drug Misuse, Finance/Admin/IS, Members, Personnel, and Policy & Performance Review). So if you want to read about what the council is actually doing, you need to find the relevant sub-committee minutes.

Of course these committees and subcommittees have changed over time as well, so searching in “Finance, Administration and Information Systems” will only take you back to 1997. In 1996/97 it was Finance & Admin (with a separate Information Systems sub-committee), and until 1995 it was just Admin.

The new system seems to have tried to make this process easier by making you specify whether the Committee Status is CURRENT or HISTORIC, but really that doesn’t help. (Particularly as you can only find out that those are the options by reading the 5 page User Guide PDF, or by clicking a button which eventually pops up a window asking you to select from those in a very clumsy way).

Of course, wrestling with the search is only the first problem. When you find an interesting set of minutes then you have to find a way to read them. There are little check-boxes beside all the results, but it’s not exactly obvious what they’re for. Clicking on the little “view” icon has an annoying habit of crashing Firefox, so the download link is probably what you want – assuming you can actually read Microsoft Word documents. If you can’t read Word, you’ll need to perservere with the “view”, which does a reasonable job of converting the Word document, although it doesn’t really like any councillor’s name containing a fada.

When you finally have a set of minutes to read, you’ll probably then discover that they’re not that useful unless you can also find all the referenced committee and sub-committee minutes, and probably several sets of historic minutes as well. Which, of course, means wrestling with the search system some more. And then there are lots of references to various Standing Orders and the like which probably won’t make a lot of sense to you. And of course if you want to know the party affiliations of all the people voting against certain proposals and the like you’ll need to go look those up somewhere else too. The information is all available of course – we are now living in a post-FOI country. But it’s not easy to find or make sense of.

So, I did what any self-respecting new-technology-aware Freedom-of-Information-loving geek would do, and created a wiki for it.

Please welcome I’ve populated it with some basic information on Belfast City Council, its members, departments, committees etc., and added all the 2005 minutes I can find. The system seems to only have minutes up to the May election, but that’s still over 100 sets of minutes.

They’re all just cut’n’paste from Word for now, and need a lot of tidying and cross-linking, but it’s a useful start.

Anyone who wants to help out please join in.

Maybe in a few years time, when it comes time to vote, people will actually be able to look at what the candidates have actually done during their time in office. And for those few people in Northern Ireland who don’t just vote along politico-religious lines, this might actually be useful!

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