Roundtable: What are the opportunities for local government to boost participation, consultation, and engagement in project planning and local policy making through digital democracy?


Chair

  • Chair: John Austin, Chair, Association of Democratic Services Officers

Presentation: Democracy in Kirklees

Kirklees Council shared a case study on work being carried out to boost participation in local democracy. The case study included work in response to the recommendations of the Kirklees Democracy Commission, which asked citizens and organisations what a strong and healthy local democracy should look like. Active citizenship, local identity, and sense of belonging emerged as important themes, as well as the principles of openness and telling the story at every stage.

Learning was extensive. Much work has been done and a key element of this work has been to enable active citizenship. This is a commitment to a culture of openness, creating online spaces for citizens not customers, and personalising the experience. Active citizenship has subsequently been adopted by the council as a shared strategic outcome (‘Shaped by People’) in collaboration with citizens.

A number of examples were shared of some the work that is being carried out in Kirklees to encourage active citizenship:

  • ‘A day in the life of a councillor’ videos, in order to open up the councillor role and help people understand more about local democracy.
  • Local people telling the story of the local elections, using videos and blogs.
  • Forums to help citizens connect with councillors - for example, Kirklees Question Time (with live webcasts, live twitter threads and online question submissions), and ‘Meet your Councillor’ sessions at schools (including online sessions).
  • A blog was created sharing people’s experiences of active citizenship, in their own words. The Our Stories Our Places website provides a space for citizens to share their stories and to give feedback from their conversations.
  • Citizens are supported to host conversations about their local place using the Place Standard tool, with all the learning and progress shared online on the How Good Is Our Place website.
  • These online spaces facilitate trust as the information comes directly from citizens in their own communities and everything is shared openly.

More information is available on the Democracy Commission website and @kirkdemocracy on twitter.

Questions

There was a question about how the council have been able to resource this.  To find the resources to take on such a large volume of work, the Democracy and Place Based Working teams have been evolving existing roles and essentially rethinking what it is they do, to gain as much learning as possible to then take back into formal spaces.

There was also a question about how they secured officer and member buy in. The Commission was strongly cross-party with support from leadership and councillors and had an all-party working group.

The final question was around how they measure the impact of the work. They are measuring impact towards the Shaped by People strategic outcome, using tools and approaches developed with citizens. These are focussed on the four things citizens said will help most: feeling that it’s worthwhile to get involved, having the confidence and support they need to participate, feeling included and listened to, and connecting with others in their community. The measurement approach has three aspects – gathering numbers through surveys and activities with citizens, having conversations to understand the impact on the community and people’s confidence in participating in local democracy, and helping people to tell their personal stories. There was an additional question about whether impact on voter turnout can also be used as a measure. However, this is not straightforward, given that many factors influence the turnout at each election. It is a complex picture, and they are committed to improving engagement at all times (not just at election times), so this is not the main measure they are looking at for impact, but generally they have found there has been an upwards trend.

Challenges

The discussion focused on the challenges and opportunities in boosting participation, consultation, and engagement in digital democracy. The main questions that were asked are listed below along with a summary of the key points.

What has been the impact of technical challenges on democracy? Do councils have the resources/capacity to go beyond business as usual and innovate?

The Covid-19 pandemic initially pushed councils to embrace digital technology but there was a concern that now the tide has ‘fallen away’. Smaller digital tools are managing to be adopted by some councils, but delegates highlighted the challenges in adopting more digital tools and carrying out remote meetings when these are not currently enforced, and it feels like ‘tinkering at the edges.’

Negative experiences were shared of cultural attitudes in some councils of both elected members and councils as a whole being against digital transformation thus acting as a barrier to the delivery of digital solutions. For example: The hesitancy over the scrutiny that comes with such transparency; Having to fight for simple digitalisation of travel forms; The insistence on paper copies from councillors and senior management; And a failure from councillors to even read emails. Anti-digital backlash includes a unanimous agreement that remote meetings are not an option even for working groups even in the context of rising Covid-19. The group suggested that the advantages of accessibility and transparency for the public needs to be highlighted more, as well as the fact that having online attendance as an option could maximise engagement.

However, a key point that emerged in the discussion is that experiences are varied particularly from amongst councils in more rural areas compared to those in more urban areas. One council noted the opposite problem, that councillors are frustrated at having to attend in person.

This one step forward, one step back approach appears common, with the move to digital slowly being adopted by other departments (i.e., ‘Ask your councillor’ projects, question times, live streaming of meetings), but without the lynchpin of online access to meetings, it feels as though small achievements are only happening on the periphery. Generally, the consensus was that councils going successfully digital are in the minority, even in smaller ways. 

Additionally, the group discussed the challenge of uneven resources across councils. Some teams have no additional resources to go online with meetings and have faced difficulties upskilling staff who are taking on additional responsibilities. It was recognised that technology yields a lot of benefits, but they would like to see more support for non-technical democratic services officers when managing digital tools or have more resource for in house expertise. For example, there is a lot of requirements for understanding audio-visual videos and democratic services officers become the main point of contact for questions. The group suggested it would be useful to receive more support/training around this.

The group also highlighted that there is limited collaboration between IT departments and democratic services officers. Practice varies over collaboration between democratic services and IT, with responsibility and case management overwhelmingly falling on democratic services officers. The group said that they would like to see more support from IT teams and collaboration when introducing new technology.

There was also another challenge highlighted around the issue of uneven advancement in how councils can engage with the public. It was suggested that it would be helpful to have a solid definition of a hybrid meeting, for example, and other standardised terms as well as clear guidelines about how a hybrid meeting can work in a way that aligns with the law and policies around privacy and assurance. This prompted questions around, how can we go to the government and say this is what we think a compliant hybrid meeting model would look like? How do we create a framework with local partners to ensure hybrid working is done well? The group would like to see more examples of best practice around how other councils have successfully navigated this.

Opportunities

Some positive examples of the role of councillors in the delivery of digital solutions were shared: An attendee has found an open-door policy for digital issues and questions to be (while time intensive) beneficial for building trust and confidence, and having councillors feel assured they would receive support with digital solutions led to higher uptake. When confronted with resistance, another attending council suggested creating apps for councillors to try out tools in a manageable way, and that if councillors are invited to participate in pilots, they may feel more included in the development of digitalisation and so be more on board.

Councillor wellbeing was agreed to be extremely important - council support teams found that informal meetings had been successful for collaborative work and judgement free support. However, some councillors felt that there was more pressure to be constantly available, so this is important to consider and that there is also a balance in protecting wellbeing.

What examples are there of successful digital tools and how can the LGA promote the advantages of digital to enable officers to come forward with proposals?

Due to the diverse range of digital usage across councils, it was suggested that it would be useful for the LGA to carry out a survey to see where councils sit on the spectrum, which could help councils support each other to move forward to a more reasonable benchmark.

The LGA is also planning a Digitalisation Leadership Essentials Course to provide members with the confidence and knowledge to lead the digitalisation agenda in their councils.

One success story was shared around how to make digital attractive in proposals. The council gained the support of the finance team to push digital solutions as a priority. It took two years of training and convincing, but they brought in cross team support to discuss the budgets and how it can link with the climate emergency priorities to consolidate support.

More examples of successful use of digital for engagement were shared:

  • Live audio webcasting of meetings was received well.
  • Changing councils petition schemes to allow for digital petitions, for example utilising change.org has seen an increase in engagement.
  • Rolling out google forms successfully (users can see benefits immediately so are more receptive – this is a small but important step).

Additional suggestions were made by attendees for practical things that can be done by democratic service members. These include:

  • IT inductions for councillors on their devices
  • Using or building an app to contact officers/monitor enquiries more effectively (it was noted that were was an absence of existing apps to do this effectively)
  • Using Microsoft Dynamics for councillor case work issues, Power BI for reporting and producing data, as well as migrating to SharePoint.

Conclusions & Actions

There was a wide range of feedback from councils about their experiences in adopting digital tools including the culture in councils and amongst members, the resources needed to adopt digital tools including staffing or technology. Upskilling democratic services officer and other non-technical staff is also seen as very important. Some of the LGA’s existing support offers were highlighted including a digitalisation almanac that is currently being developed and will be shared with the sector once published. The almanac is intended to be a practical guidebook for officers and members with key definitions, policy publications and reports, best practice, and self-assessment tools. There is also a training programme that councillors can attend. Further information is available on the Leadership Essentials webpage under digitalisation.

The LGA encouraged attendees to share feedback about what they would like to see from the LGA’s sector support offer. If you have any feedback, you would like to share please email cyberanddigital@local.gov.uk