As part of our #HereForDerby series we talked to Alex Hough, Acting Head of Democracy, about how he and his team have been overcoming the challenges posed by COVID-19 to ensure the city’s democratic decision-making processes can keep running.
“A fundamental requirement of local democracy is that almost all of the Council’s decisions must be made in public – and during a time of crisis and uncertainty, it’s even more important that our elected members are seen and heard by the city,” said Alex.
“But as soon as the COVID-19 crisis began to really take hold here, it was very clear that our usual way of doing things – as is set down in legislation – was going to have to be rapidly re-thought,” said Alex, who manages the teams which look after DCC’s constituted meetings, like Cabinet, Full Council and Planning Committee.
“Things were changing and evolving so quickly back in late March and early April,” added Alex.
“It was a really challenging time – while we could see that new processes would need to be swiftly put in place, crucially we had to wait on new emergency legislation from the Government, which set out how we could still legally hold public meetings and take decisions, while adhering to lockdown restrictions.
“At the start of lockdown – like councils up and down the country – some meetings just had to be cancelled because they couldn’t safely take place. Instead, we were heavily reliant on emergency delegations to senior officers to respond to the rapidly changing situation. But in early April, the Government brought in new regulations which meant we could legally hold meetings, and vote on decisions, remotely.”
The fast-track of the Council’s Digital Workforce project in response to COVID-19 put us in a strong position to adapt quickly to these new rules.
Alex and his team worked with IT colleagues to understand how our new technology could be best used to help keep the decision-making and democratic process going, despite both councillors and officers working from home.
Colleagues worked with elected members to get them set up with what they needed, and overcome any technology issues.
It took a few attempts to get things right and some of the initial meetings were beset with technical and practical challenges, but over the weeks the process has improved to allow for better public engagement. All of the Council’s constituted meetings are now held via Skype and shared with the public via the Council’s YouTube channel.
“It wasn’t just the practicalities of technology that we had to work through,” added Alex. “Council meetings have to follow quite a strict set of rules and processes by law, and as part of our Constitution.
“We had to work really hard to understand how that could be replicated remotely and still work – how we would organise a transparent voting procedure, or how councillors could deal with confidential business for example.”
In June, DCC held its first ever virtual Annual General Meeting (AGM). Usually a very traditional and ceremonial affair, when the new Mayor is elected, sworn in and accepts the chains of office, things had to be a little different this time.
“Unfortunately, there wasn’t a way that we could truly replicate the ceremony of the occasion, but we still found a way for the important business of the Annual Meeting to go ahead.”
Despite the difficult times which COVID-19 has thrown at the Council, and the city, colleagues always look to see some positives in a situation.
“Obviously, overall this has been a horrendous thing to have happened, but it has been an opportunity to review how local democracy operates in this country, and how we can look to modernise and use technology to make local decision-making more accessible and engaging,” said Alex.
“We’ve definitely had more members of the public attend our virtual Council meetings than would in person, and that can only be a good thing for local engagement.”
Reflecting on the last few months, Alex added: “Overall, what has really struck me is people’s willingness to do whatever we can to adapt – both colleagues and elected members – to ultimately make sure we keep things running as smoothly as possible.
“It’s been a huge team effort involving people from across the Council, too many to name individually! But sincere thanks to everyone who has put in the long hours and the hard work to navigate our way through these really unusual times.”