It is time to digitise democracy

By Heather Jameson | 03 February 2021
  • Heather Jameson

Life in lockdown has had its ups and downs in the past year, but what is extraordinary is the speed at which the world has adapted.

After years of obstacles to home working, a fortnight into the first lockdown the world had moved on. We are all digital natives now, jumping from Zoom meetings to virtual conferences, online shopping, entertainment streaming and video social lives.

What was previously an incremental rise in the digital world, bit by bit, has suddenly become a daily reality.

Local government is steeped in a proud history, from its majestic town halls to its quaint crests, all harking back to a bygone era. But that doesn’t mean it is stuck in the past. The past year has seen the sector embrace online meetings, streamed live for the public with a digital agenda to boot.

Countless councils happily sing the virtues of the new era of digital democracy, open and available to the public, without the need to leave home on a cold, wet February evening. It may not be Netflix, but some meetings are worth a watch.

Councillors like digital meetings. Officers like digital meetings. The public likes digital meetings. Even communities secretary Robert Jenrick is a fan – but come May we will be back to the council chamber, all due to a lack of legislation to let councils continue online.

In 2021, it seems odd – absurd, even – that we can’t find a way to let councils choose their own style of democracy.

Even more absurd, I conduct all my banking through an app, but online voting is not an option as we are all set to traipse to a drafty polling station – risking a sharp spike in COVID cases – to cast a ballot with a slightly blunt pencil

A lack of parliamentary time seems a feeble excuse for a failure to let councils keep their digital democracy. Are MPs perhaps fearful they will face remote Parliament – never to return to the Westminster bubble and lunches on the terrace? It would work wonders for the levelling up agenda.

Or is the Government holding fire, waiting to see if we need legislation to postpone elections? It would take a significant spike to provoke a further delay of the polls, but could ministers be waiting to see if they need to wrap it all up in a single legislative sweep?

Either way, isn’t it time we digitise democracy, bring it into the modern world and make it more accessible to the people it serves?

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