At the Public-i User Group on Monday we spent our afternoon discussing ‘Rebooting Democracy’.
It was a stimulating, wide-ranging discussion that ended on a focussed note as we drew up a list of the things we’d change about council meetings and things we’d keep the same. I thought I’d draw the changes into a list, below. While we were shooting from the hip, I think a lot of people will agree that som are sensible and a few even possible! We’re in a period of real change for local government, with the Police and Crime Commissioners ahead of us and many cities considering elected mayors, so we think now might just be the time to start seeing how we can improve the central theatre of local democracy, too.
This is really about modernising meetings. We’re still carrying out our democratic process in much the same way that we did in the 19th century, despite huge changes in technology and society. Sometimes, in the case of Westminster perhaps, that can be treated as an indication of the process’s success. But I’m not sure anyone at the user group, online or in the room, would have claimed that we can’t do better!
- Plain English: One of the biggest barriers in the way of more engagement in meetings and local democracy is the use of council jargon. Finding ways to remove jargon, or explain language when it does need to be precise, would make meetings easier for people to undersand and take part in.
- Better timekeeping and shorter meetings: Anyone who has sat through council meetings will know that some have a tendency to… drag. While big decisions need to be made without pressure, we could still find ways to ensure they run to time and aren’t excessively long. As Lesley Blue from Camden pointed out, huge amounts of time, effort and organisation go into meetings. When they overrun it’s dispiriting and draining on those involved. It is also a problem for the public, who may find themselves leaving a meeting before the item they’re interested in is discussed, or having to return at a later date.
- Change the representatives: We know that it’s hard for many people to get into local politics – and ensuring that people from different backgrounds, with different perspectives can become involved is essential to ensuring that meetings are a genuine reflection of the communities they serve.
- End minute taking and…
- Explain the process: While meetings are hard to understand, we may have to find ways of giving the public a better grip on what’s happening in them. Damian Beaumont from Cheshire West and Chester suggested that with a full digital record of council meetings now available (through audio and video recording) we may be able to do away with minute taking – and, instead, enable democratic services officers to do more to help guide the public – and act as advocates for them in the decision-making process.
- Don’t hide agreements and decisions: Mathew Jellings, of Public-i, recalled an 11-hour budget meeting that was interrupted for a half-hour break in which oppposing parties came to an agreement. We should try to ensure that important decisions are made where possible in full view.
- More questions! Make it easier for the public to participate: One suggestion was to look at how we can change meetings to take advantage of the web more – allowing people outside the meeting to influence proceedings, through questions and other input. Technology already makes this feasible – it’s law, procedure and possibly culture that are getting in the way.
- Less formality: Matt Bond of Cornwall Council suggested we could look to hold meetings in less formal venues. He mentioned (and this in no way reflects on any of us, I promise) a pub – but finding venues that reflect the meeting and bring them closer to the communities they serve (when this is appropriate) could ensure a greater view of local democracy and soften and humanise the whole process.
- Hold meetings before you’ve made a decision, not afterwards: We know that the real decision making and thinking may long precede the meeting. If the point of meetings is to make the process of decision-making transparent, rubber stamping should be stamped out.
- Time to be agile: Meeting agendas are often set five weeks in advance of the actual meeting. While it might take an overhaul of other processes thorughout councils to do this, moving to a more agile system that allows meetings to better reflect citizens’ (and councils’) objectives could make meetings more relevant and councils more responsive.
Here’s Catherine summing up after the discussion: