As a team of digital democracy buffs, the now-viral video of Handforth Parish Council’s virtual meeting (gone wrong) really struck a chord at CitizenLab. So much so, in fact, that it has already been shared at least a dozen times amongst our global team. Of course, there’s something lightheartedly relatable about a video like this, but it also touches on a more profound question we ask ourselves daily - what can digital do for local democracies?
Unable to look away, I found myself curious about the wave of reactions I experienced while watching.
Initially, I worried that people wouldn’t take local politics seriously. After all, the video sustains the stereotype that it’s mostly middle aged people of the same demographics squabbling about who has more authority than the other. No meaningful conversation or impactful work takes place. I feared it would denigrate the importance of local politics, and make it more of a laughing stock in the eyes of the nation.
On second glance, I realised the situation may not be as grim. Whilst we don’t want to promote the trend of mocking local politics, the video’s popularity got a lot of people talking about civic engagement and what an efficient local government meeting could look like. It also showcased that engaging in local politics can lead to animated discussions, including those where a bit of debate helps reconsider where authority lies. This struggle, although not particularly civil in this case, exposed the need for more adapted tools for governments to facilitate discussions that stay on track and serve residents efficiently.
And on my third watch, I realised that this video perfectly encapsulates why our work is so necessary - to strengthen local democracies, and increase their efficiency and legitimacy. Traditional online spaces and existing video tools simply aren’t made for democratic dialogue. The pandemic has forced local councils to quickly reorganise themselves by using the tools easily at their disposal, but these often lack moderation options, make it difficult for consensus to emerge and favour the loudest voices, and often have no accountability mechanisms for follow-through.
The video highlights the challenges that individuals and governments face when trying to connect. On the one hand, residents who are willing to contribute to local decision-making processes are often discouraged by poor communication, outdated tools, and a lack of transparency. On the other, governments find themselves ill-equipped to efficiently and meaningfully engage residents to move the needle forward on issues that affect them. To effectively address those challenges, we need to recognize that traditional means of connection - such as town hall meetings that can be intimidating and difficult to access - need to be enhanced with additional engagement mechanisms, such as those offered by adapted technology.
Digital tools should be used to open up discussions and bring more diverse voices to the table. It is now possible to help residents engage with their local government in civil, safe, and productive ways and GovTech tools are constantly evolving to meet the latest needs. At CitizenLab, for instance, we recently launched our online workshop feature to avoid the common flaws of online communication tools. We’ve helped about a dozen councils - part of the first cohort to use this new feature - move to online town hall meetings, and run citizen workshops or focus groups online. The emphasis is put on small group discussions, information sharing, and consensus building.
We recognize that many small, local governments have constraints on their time and budget; but we also know that digital engagement tools can help increase the efficiency and innovation of their work. By harnessing technology for good, local governments can connect with more of their residents, create equitable projects, and increase the impact their work has on their communities.
Wietse Van Ransbeeck is the CEO and Lora Botev is UK lead of civic democracy specialists CitizenLab