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Continuing with online meetings beyond the coronavirus crisis could create a more diverse set of councillors, the leader of Lichfield District Council has said.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced many councils to switch sessions online while in-person gatherings were unable to take place.
But Cllr Doug Pullen, leader of Lichfield District Council, says continuing to allow members to connect remotely to meetings would not only increase transparency of decision-making, but that it also had the potential to create a more representative group of councillors.
“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’m 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 un-alluring.
“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 nine-to-five-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 to Lichfield Trent Valley train?
“Imagine how quickly our annual group photos will change to include more females, younger members, more BAME councillors – and how that will positively impact our decision-making processes?”Cllr Doug Pullen, Lichfield District Council
Councillor attendance rates have “shot up”
As well as offering potential improvements in future, Cllr Pullen said the impact of online meetings was reaping rewards in the present too.
The Conservative leader said attendance by councillors at meetings had “shot up” since the switch to digital sessions took place.
And he said the council needed to think hard about whether it wanted to fall back into old ways of work rather than embracing the opportunities provided by online tools.
“While the private sector has been hosting digital meetings for nigh on two decades, the ‘compelling event’ never arrived for local government to make the shift.
“Our officers all worked in one building, the councillors attended the 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 of around 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%.”
“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.
“Amongst the many painful jolts of COVID, this is one which I warmly embrace.”Cllr Doug Pullen, Lichfield District Council
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