How councils are using digital tools to improve efficiency and communication with their communities

AUTHOR: DAVID HALL, DIRECTOR AT CLOUDY IT


At the end of April, the High Court ruled against a bid by Hertfordshire County Council, LLG and ADSO to force the government into retaining the remote-meeting arrangements introduced in the first lockdown. For many councils, the instruction to return to face-to-face meetings directly after the May elections is a blow, particularly as public engagement has rocketed with virtual sessions. The government, meanwhile, does not intend to resume real-life sittings before 21 June.

Steve McNay, clerk/manager at Woughton Community Council – NALC’s current Star Council – commented: “We’ve seen exceptional levels of local support for online meetings. Having historically had few members of the public attendance in person, this week alone has seen over 500 views of two meetings. In the past year, our meetings have been watched over 7,000 times, and we’re eager to see council members empowered to continue to play a full and active role in democracy.”

It seems the digital-tools genie is out of the council bottle, no matter how much MPs fiddle with the stopper. The pandemic response and switch to online working have brought tangible benefits in terms of clearer communication both within councils and the communities they serve, improved data management that’s GDPR-compliant by design, and greater productivity, both time-wise and financial.

One of the most popular online tools is Teams, bundled with Microsoft Office 365, which enables smooth communication and virtual or hybrid meetings that connect in-the-room and remote participants. Despite the High Court ruling, Teams can still be used to support meeting management and live-stream meetings into the community, whether councils follow the government edict or elect to stay 100% online, based on their own risk assessment and duty of care to members.

Another significant area for progress with digital tools is accessibility. Some 20% of the population live with a long-term disability, yet 40% of local council homepages fail basic accessibility checks, even though accessibility has been a legal requirement for public sector websites and mobile apps since 2018. The international standard is WCAG 2.1 AA – check if your website measures up here.

There is an extra win with accessible sites, too. Because they improve the user experience (“UX”) across the board, they generally rank higher in searches than non-compliant sites, with visitors more likely to stay and return. One flexible approach is to bolt on a web-accessibility tool, such as that offered by Cloudy IT. This enables people to optimise settings to suit their specific needs, including for visual, hearing, cognitive or mobility impairments such as blindness, deafness, and epilepsy. It can be provided as part of a web-hosting service and means you do not have to make regular adjustments in the back-end depths of your site – it’s done for you, automatically.

Meanwhile, at the more lo-fi end of the tech spectrum, you can make Word files for agenda packs and the public access as you write them, using the built-in “check accessibility” feature, while a nifty Adobe Acrobat plug-in enables you to create accessible pdfs.

And if there is a productivity or accessibility tool you want that doesn’t yet exist, why not have it developed for you? A bespoke app is a low-cost way of getting what you need and can be built on top of Microsoft 365 to work seamlessly with your existing digital tools. It is also a great way of giving value to your community and setting a standard of innovation and service for other councils to follow.

To find out more about digital tools that could help your council improve performance and accessibility, visit www.cloudyit.co.uk/councilscatch up here on Cloudy IT’s recent Accessibility mini-summit and NALC-supported half-day summit on Meeting & Document Management, and take advantage of a range of special offers, including FREE Microsoft Office 365 training until 30 September and 15% off licensing for new customers.

The Cloudy IT Cloud Productivity & Finance Virtual Summit is also now booking. On 29 June 2021 from 9.45 am to 2 pm, it will enable you to explore cost-effective digital tools for supporting your teams and community. Guest speakers include experts from RBS Rialtas, who will be discussing accountancy software options for town and parish councils.

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