Sara Britcliffe, MP for Hyndburn, made history on 28 April 2020.
She became the first MP to make a maiden speech via video to the House of Commons. Covid-19 has thrown tradition out of the window for many of us but, somehow, watching this event and seeing this new way of working for Parliament really brought home how much every organisation and institution is having to adapt.
We currently support around 95% of councils across the country and, much like Parliament, they need to be enabled to continue to deliver democratic functions and offer public accountability to their citizens in a safe and secure way.
Recently, Lambeth Council – a client of Capita for over 23 years - approached us with a challenge. Its AGM was scheduled for 22 April 2020 and they needed our help to ensure it could still go ahead. We had three weeks to find a solution and make sure that everyone was trained to use it, rehearsed and we had put in the functionality needed for the Council to carry out its function.
We carefully assessed the requirements and selected a popular video conferencing platform, Microsoft Teams – a brand new piece of software for the Council and its colleagues to learn and use, so we needed to build up their confidence and capability. We prepared training guides for users, used in a ‘train the trainer’ approach, produced a guide to meeting rules and etiquette, held numerous drop in sessions for users to play with the product, hosted role play video calls and worked with Microsoft to enable live e-voting and flag to the Chairman when a participant wanted to speak.
The Council’s AGM, produced and facilitated by our team, took place successfully and made history during the event. Lambeth can now lay claim to be the first council in the UK to perform a digital mayoral swearing in ceremony – a moment the new Mayor of Lambeth, Cllr Philip Normal is unlikely to forget.
Now the process has been established and proven, the Council will continue to use Microsoft Teams for public meetings for the duration of the pandemic. This will include planning meetings where members of the public will also be able to participate.
What we now have is a repeatable digital solution. There is no limitation on other councils across the country being able to continue to make use of the best practice we have put in place and continue to support their citizens and remain accountable to them. But perhaps these limitations aren’t the only considerations local authorities should be thinking about.
Physical council meetings can create barriers that, arguably, impinge on our ability to have a truly inclusive democracy. People with disabilities, breast-feeding mothers, shift workers, or those with limited funds for public transport are just some examples of segments of society who may find it difficult to have their voices heard in the moment. Who is to say that tradition can’t be turned on its head and, in the future, some of the leaps that have been made in making use of technology in new ways can’t continue and become part of the new norm?