Could virtual AGM’s change the face (and actual faces) of Local Authorities forever?

Jade Bennett

In response to the outbreak of Covid-19, Councils have had to think fast about how to adapt in order to maintain ‘business as usual.’ The lockdown just so happened to occur at one of the busiest times of the year for Councils across England – the annual general meeting (otherwise known as the AGM), where Councils have an opportunity to re-elect Mayors and shuffle cabinet positions, portfolio holders, committee members and more depending on the structure and constitution of the specific Council.

Local authorities have been faced with 3 options for moving forward with an AGM during lockdown: 1) postpone the meeting until lockdown restrictions lift; 2) cancel the meeting and maintain all current positions for 1 calendar year; or 3) figure out how to hold an AGM virtually and shuffle the various positions online. All 3 options are valid, given that the government awarded councils the right to do all of these things under the Coronavirus Act 2020.

The question over which choice to select therefore, will come down the individual Councils preferences and suitability, however the third option clearly has some appeal in terms of stimulating change. The Coronavirus outbreak has presented Councils with a unique opportunity to finally digitalise; it will be interesting to see how broadening horizons into technology will contribute to boosting the level of democracy in Local Authorities through increased participation and engagement in the short-term, whilst potentially having a longer lasting impact on the attractiveness and accessibility of being a locally elected representative in the future.

In the East of England, a small minority of Councils have opted for options 1 and 2. Postponing an AGM is not necessarily a popular option, as the extent of lockdown and social distancing measures are not yet known, and a new date is almost impossible to stick to given that we cannot possibly know how the situation will look in a few months’ time.

Cancelling the meeting altogether and maintaining the current positions can be an even less popular option, particularly in Councils where there are already existing tensions and power struggles. It is of course a viable option for strong majority Councils – take Braintree District for example, who currently hold a majority of 44 out of 49 seats. The Council is entirely dominated by Conservative Councillors, rendering an AGM almost obsolete in any case, and their choice to cancel this years’ meeting altogether will have made almost no difference to the Council’s dynamic.

Option number 3 has no doubt been the most popular, particularly as most Councils are already holding virtual meetings on a regular basis anyway. The introduction of the Coronavirus Act back in March has given Councils plenty of time to trial and error virtual meetings, to the point where most are now going ahead seamlessly with minor technical hiccups. For the most part, Councillors have also taken to virtual meetings like a breeze – welcoming the ability to make important decisions without the hassle of travelling to the physical Council chambers.

Expanding the digital accessibility of the Council has also been profound in terms of engagement, with most Councils reporting an increase in public participation. By broadening the tools for getting involved in local politics through the use of virtual platforms, more community members have been able to view and participate in meetings which they might otherwise have been unable to attend, should the meetings have taken place in person. This aspect alone sparks the debate of whether moving to digital platforms would actually seek to broaden and improve the level of engagement and democracy in local politics. If the Council becomes more accessible for a wider audience, we might well see a wave of new faces standing for Council in the future.

Of course, virtual meetings do have their setbacks, especially AGMs with many attendees. The meeting host has the most difficult challenge here – ensuring that everyone is muted at the appropriate times, noting down the order in which people raised their virtual hands to speak, and being responsible for counting the all-important votes, just to name a few.

Failing to adequately fulfil any of these tasks would be easy for anyone to do, after all, the virtual meeting concept is unchartered territory for most. However, it can have important knock-on effects. Take Harlow Council’s recent AGM as an example, where tensions between the Labour and Conservative Councillors are already at boiling point. When the newly elected Labour Chair took over as meeting host and failed to identify a raised hand from one of her opposition counterparts, accusations began to fly, and confrontation ensued. It has become clear from observing various AGMs over the last few weeks just how easy it is for one minor hitch to throw a spanner in the works for the whole meeting.

The benefits of holding virtual meetings are evident however, regardless of the minor technical hitches. For the time being, they are the safest possible way to get things done, and this may well be the case for some time yet. Looking beyond lockdown however, perhaps virtual meetings are a concept that Councils should be seeking to adopt as we look toward the ‘new normal’. Virtual meetings have proven to save time, cut unnecessary travel and costs, and are just as efficient. Attendance at virtual meetings has also been stronger, given that Councillors are able to join at the tap of a button.

And in the long run, moving toward more digital options may just change the face of our future Councils. The convenience of online meetings might seek to attract parents, full-time workers or younger people into local politics, offering a more varied demographic to represent the local community. Reducing the barriers to attend meetings might also seek to increase community participation, inspiring local people to take a more proactive approach to what is going on around them and enhancing the level of democracy in our towns and cities.

Whether virtual meetings will pass as a lockdown phase or become part of our ‘new normal’ is yet to be confirmed, however their success rate and popularity so far may suggest the latter. Councils have been long overdue a move to the 21st century – perhaps the one silver lining of this awful outbreak is the opportunity to finally make the transition.

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