06 May 2021

The future of digital democracy

Blog by Georgina Maratheftis, Head of Local Government at techUK.

Over the course of the pandemic, councils have been at the forefront in mitigating the impact on communities and ensuring services run as usual as well as rapidly spinning up new ones to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and those shielding. Councils have been able to adapt swiftly, including ensuring vital council business were able to continue by adapting to virtual meetings at short notice last year.

The government announced that it will not be extending the emergency legislation to enable the continuation of remote council meetings. However, all is not lost as the government launched a call for evidence on the future of remote council meetings. It seeks to understand the experience of local authorities in the whole of the UK regarding remote meetings, to inform any potential future legislation regarding their use beyond the pandemic.

Support for virtual meetings

The last year has been a catalyst of digital change for many councils, rethinking how services are delivered and what engagement with the citizen looks like. A survey sent to monitoring officers in all English councils by the Local Government Association clearly shows the appetite for councils to continue with remote meetings. All councils that gave a view said that they thought powers to hold public meeting remotely should continue to be available, whether or not their council intended to use these powers. Assuming they had the power, more than four-fifths of councils (83 per cent) said they would be very likely or fairly likely to conduct meetings remotely once the coronavirus emergency was over. Virtual meetings were described as having worked well throughout the pandemic by nearly all respondents, and as positively benefitting local democracy.

Not only do remote meetings benefit modern local democracy by enabling more transparency in the decision making process and encouraging greater public participation, it is helps to create inclusive places. This raises the question of where else digital can further strengthen meaningful engagement with the citizen and enrich community engagement.

Strengthening community engagement

While remote meetings have been placed on hold, local authorities have the opportunity to have their say and make the case for digital in the call for evidence. At the same time the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government issued its ‘Planning for the Future’ whitepaper, which focuses on turning the planning system from analogue to digital. In the proposals, residents will no longer have to rely on planning notices attached to lamp posts, printed in newspapers and posted in libraries to find out about newly proposed developments. Instead people will be able to use their smartphone to give their views on Local Plans and design codes as they are developed. Communities will be able to trust the planning system again as their voice will be heard from the beginning of the process and better use of digital technology will make it radically easier for people to understand what is being proposed in their neighbourhoods and provide new ways to feed their views into the reformed system.

A hybrid future?

Technology has enabled the delivery of democracy at a local level, allowing councillors to hold decision-making meetings while social distancing restrictions have been in place. Virtual council meetings helped reinvigorate local democracy, with increases in public participation and a renewed sense of place. It will be a missed opportunity if future legislation does not allow for hybrid meetings.

The last year has been a good example of digital democracy in action for local government. Beyond the efficiency savings, councils must continue to look at how digital can strengthen community engagement and drive collaboration on issues important to communities, such as climate change.

Georgina Maratheftis

Georgina Maratheftis

Associate Director, Local Public Services, techUK

Georgina is techUK’s Associate Director for Local Public Services

Georgina works with suppliers that are active or looking to break into the market as well as with local public services to create the conditions for meaningful transformation. techUK regularly bring together local public services and supplier community to horizon scan and explore how the technologies of today and tomorrow can help solve some of the most pressing problems our communities face and improve outcomes for our people and places.

Prior to techUK, Georgina worked for a public policy events company where she managed the policy briefing division and was responsible for generating new ideas for events that would add value to the public sector. Georgina worked across a number of portfolios from education, criminal justice, and health but had a particular interest in public sector transformation and technology. Georgina also led on developing relationships across central and local government.

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