Digital transformation in local government was well underway before the pandemic, but in the last 18 months it has jumped forward by a decade.
Lockdown restrictions meant councils had to innovate at speed in order for democracy to be able to continue, and council employees across the country shifted productively to remote working overnight.
Local authorities are now considering how best to embrace innovations like remote council meetings to improve local democracy in the long term as we build forward from the pandemic. Although the High Court recently ruled that for remote council meetings to continue new primary legislation is required, the Government is thought to support it.
This would show that the Government recognises and is serious about building on the huge steps forward 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 council meetings. These include greater flexibility for councillors and higher levels of engagement with local politics.
Failure by the Government to recognise the great strides that councils, working in collaboration with central government and the Local Digital Collaboration Unit, have been able to make harnessing the power of technology for good during the pandemic would be out of sync with these groups experiences and wishes, and a significant opportunity missed.
Lessons from the pandemic
The pandemic also highlighted how the widespread adoption of digital technology has boosted accessibility and engagement at all levels of British democracy, from the Houses of Parliament to the now world famous Handforth Parish Council.
Working with LocalGov Digital, a network for digital practitioners in local government, Zoom has set up the LocalGov Digital Zoom User Group which convenes officials and councillors to share ideas on how to improve remote services. The high level of engagement we have seen with the group shows there is appetite in local government for more, not less, innovation in how councils are run, and for technology to continue playing a leading role beyond the pandemic.
Scrutiny of public decision-making is the cornerstone of democracy, and technology that facilitates it provides an important civic value. Because of technology, we are now seeing significantly higher levels of public engagement with the democratic process. We all saw how Jackie Weaver held the fort heroically during Handforth Parish Council’s first online council meeting (the recording now has three million views on YouTube) but for the most part adoption has been far more seamless. Across the country, councils have responded to households spending more time online by improving the transparency of decision-making and explaining how local government works. To give just one example, The City of York Council ran an #AskTheLeaders online meeting which reached over 11,500 people - many times the number of residents who would usually participate or could fit in the council chamber.
Digital technology has also helped to make local government more accessible. The LGA found that ‘meeting accessibility’ was an important factor in encouraging women, parents and carers to become councillors. By removing the need to travel to meetings and events, and arrange cover for caring responsibilities, technology can continue to make participating in local democracy viable for a greater number of people. It also reduces barriers for people who may have accessibility needs such as hearing loss through closed captioning features which provide live subtitles for virtual meetings.
Help behind the scenes
Council officials working behind the scenes to keep our councils 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 were required to work from home during the pandemic wanted to continue to do so in some form. The Greater London Assembly has already decided to permanently shift to hybrid working to give their workers the flexibility they want, and more and more councils are working with Zoom on the wider opportunity for local councils up and down the country to do the same.
As we look to build forward from the pandemic, and embrace the lessons from the past year, both residents and councillors have made it clear that local democracy shouldn’t just return to business as usual, because technology has the potential to make local government better. The wheels of change in local government are already in motion, and with the train already having left the station, it’s up to central government to ensure it stays on the right track.
Pauline Yau is head of public sector at Zoom