Douglas Pullen: Zoom has boosted participation in local democracy

10 Sep

Cllr Douglas Pullen is the Leader of Lichfield District Council.

One of the many COVID-induced jolts that local government received related to our distinctly 20th century meeting schedule. While the private sector has been hosting Webex/Zoom/Skype meetings for nigh on two decades, the “compelling event” never arrived for councils to make the shift. Our officers all worked in one building, the councillors attended the Council Chamber for our meetings, and requests for conference calls involved someone putting their phone in the middle of the room on loudspeaker.

Well, the compelling event has arrived now – and the arguments to maintain some of the provisions of the Coronavirus Act beyond 7th May 2021 are impossible to ignore.

Here in leafy, largely uncontentious Lichfield District (with a population 130,000) we have had over 3,000 views of our 15 Zoom meetings, which have been streamed live via YouTube. Intrigue and novelty no doubt have played a part in these numbers, but we are seeing the numbers hold steady, and far in excess of the two or three politicos that would usually turn up our meetings in the chamber. Our attendance rates by councillors has shot up too, with virtually no “apologies” sent in so far, compared to a usual turnout figure of 80 per cent.

So councillor attendance rates are up and there’s increased public engagement. There’s also a reduction in our carbon foot-print, improvements in record-keeping, and greater transparency – all laudable, but that is just a mild improvement on what has gone before. The real transformative powers of retaining broadcast remote-meetings lies in how this shift could affect the demographic of our next cohort of councillors.

As a young(ish) leader with a family and a full-time job, I am rather unusual in local government. This isn’t because community activism isn’t appealing – it’s the almost daily dash across the country to return for a rigidly-fixed 6pm meeting which is distinctly unalluring. So the role of a councillor typically attracts retirees, the self-employed, small business-owners, and MP staffers, and typically excludes those with young families, the 9-5’ers, the commuters, and the night-workers.

We need a better mix of all of these types to ensure we can live up to the mantra of being “representatives of our community”, which trips so easily off our tongues when asked about our work as a councillor. Imagine the tectonic-shift in the demographic of our councillors if meetings could be attended by video-call from your toy-strewn living room, your office in another city, your work canteen, or the 17:43 Euston – Lichfield Trent Valley.

It gives an opportunity to strengthen local democracy and widen participation. Imagine how quickly our annual group photos will change to include more females, younger members, more ethnic minority councillors – and how that will positively impact our decision-making processes.

Amongst the many painful jolts of COVID, this is one which I warmly embrace.