Cllr Paul Mercer is a councillor on Charnwood Borough Council and is the Lead Member for Housing in the Cabinet. He is writing in a personal capacity.
The majority of large companies and banks, as well as many smaller ones, were quick to realise the potential offered by video conferencing. Not only did it mean that it was no longer necessary to travel to meetings, but one did not even have to be in an office. Today, it is rare to find corporate headquarters which do not have the facilities to hold remote meetings. Unfortunately, local government has been slow to realise the potential of this technology and, hopefully, one of the changes that will occur as a consequence of covid-19 is an acceptance not only that it offers cost savings but, properly implemented, could result in far greater efficiency and accountability.
Charnwood, like many other councils, moved its email platform to Microsoft 365 (as it is now called) but deactivated the Teams video conferencing function. On several occasions, I asked why this had been done but never received a clear answer other than being told that councillors had to be at meetings in order to vote. This was correct, although the Government has now modified the legislation. However, the majority of our meetings did not involve voting and there is no reason why members could not be remotely involved in discussions even if they were not physically present.
As often is the case with local government, the reason councils have not embraced video conferencing may have had more to do with an unwillingness to implement change, however much better the alternative was, if the existing system was working. Whereas companies may be driven by a profit motive, or the requirement to communicate with colleagues overseas, local government did not have an urgent need to use video conferencing, so never explored the opportunities available. Covid-19 changed all of this and we moved to introduce Teams. By now, many of those who had been using video conferencing had realised that although Teams was a secure system, it had limitations and rivals, most notably Zoom.
As Charnwood attempted to roll out Teams it was suggested that Zoom would be more appropriate, but we were told that there were ‘security issues’. The two essential problems with Zoom appeared to be a lack of encryption, which has since been corrected, and anecdotal reports that Zoom meetings had received unexpected visitors. At the corporate level, where sensitive issues might be discussed, there were legitimate concerns with the early versions of Zoom, but these have been addressed. At a local government level, where most committee meetings are open to the public, and those running the meetings knew everyone who is taking part, the threat was negligible.
At a cabinet level, we held our first remote meeting using Teams and although it worked, the limitation of only four participants being visible made it difficult to have a coherent discussion. This meeting coincided with Boris Johnson holding his first virtual Cabinet meeting and it was noted that he was using Zoom. The basic version of Zoom is free, although meetings are restricted to 40 minutes, so our subsequent informal Cabinet meetings have successfully used the Zoom subscription package. The council itself, having struggled to implement Teams, is now using Zoom for meetings.
Video conferencing offers local government far more than just the ability to continue functioning during a crisis, and as businesses have already discovered, it can be of significant benefit in the future. It is possible that some of these advantages to members might be resisted by officers.
The first, and most obvious, is that it means members and officers are no longer required to travel to meetings. Although Charnwood is large in terms of population it covers a relatively small area, but late afternoon traffic often means that members spend a long time travelling, not only taking up time but also adding to carbon emissions.
Secondly, it might mean that more people who might otherwise have been reluctant to stand for election might consider becoming councillors. Most of our meetings take place in the early evening and the need to travel might have discouraged potential councillors with disabilities, families, or work commitments from getting elected.
Thirdly, it offers the opportunity to subject policy to far greater scrutiny by members. Although Charnwood has enthusiastic councillors on its scrutiny committees, they are often presented with so many documents it is often impossible to read all of them before meetings, let alone give policies proper consideration. As the lead member responsible for housing, I have always welcomed scrutiny because it gives a chance to ensure that I understand the policies and that the officers are capable of defending them. With more councillors able to attend these meetings it should, hopefully, lead to far greater rigour in this scrutiny process.
Fourthly, it allows for longer meetings. Our meetings are generally restricted to two hours and often truncated with important issues sometimes not being properly discussed. With officers and members being able to join in from home without time spent travelling to and from meetings, more time could be dedicated to discussions without taking up any more of our members’ or officers’ evenings.
Finally, because these meetings can be livestreamed and archived, it offers the public the ability to monitor closely what is happening, as well as local journalists the ability to cover meetings without being there in person.
Beyond the democratic structure, video conferencing means that we can start to consider whether we need so much office space for staff and for meetings. Already, some officers have told me that although homeworking can be difficult at first, they are beginning to appreciate its advantages and, they believe, it makes them more productive while having a better work-life balance. This, in turn, is likely to have many benefits including reduced costs to individuals as well as a reduction in stress and an improvement in mental health.
The extent to which video-conferencing is now being used by government and industry as a consequence of covid-19 means that the technology is likely to evolve quickly and become more effective. This offers local government a huge opportunity to become more transparent, more cost-effective, and more democratic, but it is one which needs to be grasped by councillors and supported by the Government for it to achieve its full potential.