Building forward in local government
The digital transformation of local government was well underway before the pandemic, but in the past 18 months it has jumped by a decade.
Lockdown restrictions meant boards had to innovate quickly for democracy to continue, and board workers across the country productively switched to remote work overnight.
Local authorities are now thinking about how best to adopt innovations like remote council meetings to improve local democracy in the long run as we come out of the pandemic. Although the High Court recently ruled that in order for remote council meetings to continue new primary legislation is needed, the government is supposed to support it.
It would show the government recognizes and is determined to build on the huge advancements the councils have made with technology during the pandemic – a move supported by groups such as the Local Government Association, the National Association of Local Councils and the Fawcett. Society who all continue to advocate for the long term benefits of remote board meetings. These include greater flexibility for advisers and higher levels of engagement with local politics.
Failure by the government to recognize the great strides that the councils, together with central government and the Local Digital Collaboration Unit, have been able to achieve in harnessing the power of technology for good during the pandemic would be out of step with the experiences of these groups and wishes and an important missed opportunity.
Lessons from the pandemic
The pandemic has also highlighted how the widespread adoption of digital technology has boosted accessibility and engagement at all levels of UK democracy, from the Houses of Parliament to the now famous Handforth Parish Council.
Together with LocalGov Digital, a network for digital practitioners in local government, Zoom has established the LocalGov Digital Zoom user group which brings together officials and advisers to share ideas on how to improve remote services. The high level of engagement we’ve seen with the group shows that local governments want more, not less, innovation in board management and that technology continues to play a leading role beyond the pandemic. .
Control over public decision-making is the cornerstone of democracy, and the technology that facilitates it provides important civic value. Due to technology, we are now seeing significantly higher levels of public engagement in the democratic process. We all saw how Jackie Weaver held onto the fort heroically at the first Handforth Parish Council online council meeting (the recording now has three million views on YouTube), but for the most part the adoption was much more transparent. Across the country, councils have responded to households spending more time online by improving transparency in decision-making and explaining how local government works. To give just one example, York City Council hosted an online #AskTheLeaders meeting that reached over 11,500 people – several times the number of residents who would usually attend or be able to fit in the council chamber.
Digital technology has also helped make local communities more accessible. The AGL found that âaccessibility of meetingsâ was an important factor in encouraging women, parents and caregivers to become counselors. By removing the need to travel to attend meetings and events, and providing coverage for family responsibilities, technology can continue to make participation in local democracy viable for more people. It also reduces barriers for people who may have accessibility needs such as hearing loss through closed captioning features that provide live captions for virtual meetings.
Behind the scenes help
The board leaders working behind the scenes to keep our boards running have also found that remote working and technology have boosted productivity and efficiency. This echoes the conversation taking place across the country, with a recent report from Demos finding that 79% of people who had to work from home during the pandemic wanted to continue to do so in some form or another. The Greater London Assembly has already decided to definitely switch to hybrid work to give their workers the flexibility they want, and more boards are working with Zoom in on the wider opportunity for local boards across the board. countries to do the same.
As we look to capitalize on the pandemic and learn from the lessons of the past year, residents and councilors have made it clear that local democracy shouldn’t just go back to business as usual, as technology has the power. potential to improve local government. The wheels of change in local government are already rolling, and with the train already leaving the station, it is up to the central government to make sure it stays on track.
Pauline Yau is Public Sector Manager at Zoom