Democracy and participation

Maximising the value of digital technology to improve democracy

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Work towards making maximum use of digital technology to improve councillor attendance, increase community engagement and collaboration, improve transparency, and optimise democratic decision making using the resources below.

Case studies

Online and hybrid meetings

Over the COVID-19 pandemic local authorities met virtually to continue business politically and day to day activities. This case study hub will set out several notable examples and resources of councils that have piloted virtual meetings for political and non-political purposes using various video conferencing platforms signposting you to key points to consider and contacts.

Online and hybrid meetings: Case studies

Dorset Council - Virtual family court proceedings

Dorset Council have worked with local judges and numerous internal stakeholders to embed a digital solution to enable Family Courts to continue despite the lockdown restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 outbreak. Family Courts provide vital services to the children and families of Dorset and are a vital cog in the process in ensuring the most vulnerable children can be safeguarded through issuing proceedings under the Children Act. Hearings within the family court are not traditionally run electronically, requiring, in most cases, physical face to face meetings involving social workers, judges, the other parties to proceedings and legal representatives. 

Dorset were requested by the local Designated Family Judge on Wednesday 18 March to provide an electronic solution to enable the provision of safeguarding, with a deadline set for Monday 23 March. The responsibility for this would usually fall with the courts; however the court was not able to facilitate the processes required, so passed responsibility to the local authority. Though the council had limited requirements and was not familiar with all the necessary stakeholders, the first court hearing was able to take place the following day.

The council has attributed this achievement to the following:

Quickly building relationships and establishing a common collaborative internal team across Children’s Services, the Child Care Legal Team, ICT, Property and Estates – primarily through MS Teams. Understanding the problem– must have MVP requirements, documenting a process to elicit requirements and identify misunderstandings ASAP:


And when I say minimal viable product those are our must-have requirements those are things that are essential for success. It really focused the mind as said earlier it, it kept us focused at desired outcome as well it's a great tool and I generally in the projects that I run if it's a bigger piece of work I'll have two two sets of requirement priorities, a requirement will have a priority for the overall programme but it might also have a priority for current piece of work and they could be different so you might have a must-have requirement for the overall programme but it's only you should have or won't have now but I think it's a good technique to use and adapt and something I'd advocate but bringing us back to where we were of the family court we needed to be prepared to adapt to meet those evolving needs so by taking a good approach we looked at things such as the people, the process, and technology in one it's not just about the technology.

Generally in projects as well you have things such as data and assets we need to consider but if, my feeling is experience over the years if you look at people processing technology and you consider all those things the design process you give yourself every chance of success if you forget one you're going to cause yourself some problems generally.

The other thing we did very early because it again we only had four days to deliver this we had very little understanding experience of what the family court process was we pulled together something for some people to see we couldn't very we couldn't really pull together a prototype what we did we pulled together a process map, a process map which showed all the key stakeholders on there and what we thought their role was and we put that in front of people, have we got the design right and by doing that we're actually very quickly able to understand that we've missed a requirement in this case that the judge was responsible for recording the hearing we hadn't picked that up and that could have had an impact on our overall design and actually could have caused some problems it's really important to get stuff in front of people not just because it helps direct requirements but you've got to recognise different people have different learning styles and seeing a picture or seeing getting hands-on with something helps certain people helps people draw out the requirements the other thing we made sure we did is we utilised our strengths I said earlier we as an organisation we've started to use Teams we started to use it actively but at that point in time our investment was in another product our skill set was in was another product and we were transitioning two teams so to deliver a requirement in that short space of time we had to utilise our strengths.

So I've talked a lot about approach there but where's the actual digital element of this presentation, well actually from my perspective the approach is what digital is about. I don't I don't like projects starting with a technical solution I think that's the wrong way around doing things, I think many of us have seen it in the past where someone says I've got this great solution, I've bought it and can you implement it for me but my first question would be what's your requirement?

Often when you draw it out you say well actually you've already got four of those in the organisation already so my feeling is that rather than taking the technical solution what we've done is followed a good design approach we've taken time to listen to people to involve people and be prepared to challenge and that's where the Moscow piece comes in because if you've got that tool set there you can look at requirements you can challenge people using the logical approach which everyone can understand.

The other bit about requirements is you have to be able to adapt a requirement isn't fixed so it's taken it from the point of view we've understood this requirement but things change and evolve new pieces of information materialise you have to be prepared to adapt.

Communicating designs early now you know as I said earlier prototypes and process maps I think it's a fantastic tool and it's a fantastic way of doing things and and it certainly saves you a lot of issues where if you if you nip a problem in the bud at the outset it's a lot cheaper and easy to fix and when it when after the solution has gone live and then the final bit from the council's perspective we've developed this new culture of seek forgiveness not permission obviously within reason but that helps people it empowers people it helps people to to take decisions and move forward and there's I'll put a dot dot in there because there's one piece of one sort of lesson learned from the community shield piece of work we did was about engagement and keeping people involved in this decision making process and what I thought was fantastic there is that decision making can often be slow in councils but what that particular piece of work did it involved all stakeholders councillors were actually involved in the daily stand-up meetings that we had so we'd had representation for a multi-agency volunteer sector we had our own staff covering ICT food and medication areas etc but we had councillors that decisions could be made there and then and it was a great empowering process and fantastic to be involved with, tiring, but fantastic to be involved with.

Oh I said I don't really want to talk about solutions but I have to at the end of the day what we actually put in just to let you know to keep it simple and to keep things focused what we put in for the family court solution was Skype and we used Skype enabled video conferencing units we actually had a few locations across the county which had these unit in place and we put in place a process where if a family didn't have access to technology at home they could come into the environment which was cleansed kept clean, there's hand sanitizer etc and they could literally come in press a button and they'd join in the meeting and it kept the process running and ultimately it kept people safeguarded but if we had reverted to focusing on the technical solution that people wanted at the outset we'd have actually failed to meet two must-have requirements and we'd have significantly increased costs so demonstrating these things it's important to understand that there's a reason why we adopt an overall digital approach ultimately you end up more generally with the right solution at the end and you save yourself time and money but we'll just say with a bit of continual service improvement actually the judiciary are looking at putting in place their own system they've had the capacity to move things forward and they might end up with that desired solution in the end but that's another story and that's the end of my presentation so thank you very much for your time.

Reflecting on the implementation of the new system, the Dorset Council have highlighted that a good understanding and prioritisation of requirements is essential to a successful agile delivery need to exercise common sense and pragmatism (focus on the most important requirements first and be prepared to adapt to evolving needs). With this, they have impressed the importance of pulling together a design for review and comment as early as possible; adding that “often issues get picked up at this early stage rather than post development – in our case we documented a process map and shared it”. A further learning takeaway was that the customer should remain the focal point. In this case, that meant ensuring hearings could continue, with appropriate tools to get the job done and ensure that safeguarding responsibilities could continue – “bells and whistles can always follow”.

Having made the system work in the current environment, the council are looking to it might be continued; including whether the solution can adopt capabilities from other platforms. With the easing of lockdown measures, the future direction of this work will hinge on what the court decides but the Council have expressed in enthusiasm toward working with  Judges and the Court IT and admin’ teams to achieve whatever is required to secure the best outcomes for children and others within the legal system.

Justin Hoffmann, Programme Manager, Digital and Change, Dorset Council

Dorset Council on virtual family court proceedings video presentation


[Justin Hoffman]

Hi everyone I'm Justin Hoffman and I'm a programme manager at Dorset council and I work within the council's digital and change team and, like Gareth, you know I've sort of been thinking back over four months how much the world has changed and remember four months the day that they announced the lockdown colleagues and I thought this would be a good good time to have a real good play and see, see what we can get out of Microsoft Teams and we just sat down and we we took the opportunity just to try a few things out just as a white board and making sure that basically the video conferencing side of things was all working well, little do we know that a couple of weeks ago everyone would be using it.

Actually on that same day I ended up ringing around local food banks as well and it's it's been amazing how everyone across the whole country's adapted and done different things, I was ringing around food banks giving them donations for a thousand pounds just to get them up and running but literally the day after that the digital requirements really did start and I got involved in two main pieces of work one which I'm going to go over today which is about the family courts and this is the gist of what the slides are about.

I also want to go a little bit about what we did within our community shields piece the community shield was, well it's an amazing piece of work which the council operate with all its partners and volunteer sector and it was about ensuring that our public remains safeguarded so we had shielded people from our shielded list we had customers who were ringing us who might have a social care need they may need to take, support with bathing for example they may need their dog walked or shopping done or in significant cases they may need urgent or food and medication needs the council really adapted very quickly with colleagues across multi-agency, to put in place solutions and I was brought in a couple of weeks in with a couple other colleagues to see if we could try and join all those processes together and the approach we took is much the same as what we take with the family courts in that we were able to to listen to people and join up processes and we've actually ended up with an end-to-end system which is taking contacts from the outset and actually delivering and tracking those contacts all the way through to delivery including through to delivery within our volunteer sector so we've actually joined up with our volunteer sector and it is sort of a fantastic opportunity to think in the future to take that further forwards.

But if I move on to my first side what I really want to talk to you about is the family courts so bear with me as the slide transitions. Right so with family courts children's and family still needs to be safeguarded despite what happened with Covid-19 and part of the way we do that is through issuing proceedings under the Children's Act but the judiciary which is traditionally a face-to-face meeting organisation and for as long as, yeah, basically forever that's been the process couldn't, they could no longer accept face-to-face meetings overnight and we still needed to ensure that our children remain safeguarded so we received a request could we support them in trying to get the family courts up and running and keeping that service, service running getting that service running as soon as possible and we were literally given five days to get that, that started but we had no brief, no requirements the limits of what we had were that we needed a solution in place to enable the courts to run and from our children services directorate they requested that could we enable people to access the service who not don't necessarily have technology at home, so that was a limit of our requirements and the other thing which I think many of you will come across is that none of the stakeholders has passed across before so not only were we having to deliver something really quickly we hadn't met with anyone before, and we didn't have the ability to meet face to face that we had done traditionally in the past so it was a real challenge it's basically gave us something really to focus on so the approach we took was very much about remaining on, focused on that outcome.

The outcome was that we needed children and families to remain safeguarded to do that as soon as possible we needed that family court process to run and that helped us all the way through to ensure that where other requirements were coming in, we may focus is this essential for us to deliver the service if it's not then it's not a must-have requirement we must get this we must get the overall solution delivered and what we had to do very early is actually identify engage with stakeholders and there are a lot of stakeholders involved in the process so not only do we have our own legal, internal legal, admin teams our children social work teams but we had our external customers we had their legal representation we had their own internal ICT department and our facilities management teams.

All those stakeholders had to be engaged in some way and I'd have to hold my hands up at this point in time it was almost impossible for us to engage with a customer stakeholder in those time frames, in that particular situation and that's something that is a lesson learned for all future projects we want to make sure is, the customer is at the centre very centre of the decision-making process involved in their design process and there's a piece of work kicking off in the council at the moment around actually looking at getting our child protection conferences running digitally and we're testing some things out there and actually ringing people up and listening to what the customers experiences are so that's something that we're taking the lesson learned from what we've done here and taken into the next piece of work but by identifying engaging in our stakeholders what we're very quickly able to do is to draw out what the requirements were now I've used a technique many of you probably heard this before but Moscow rule so must have, should have, could have won't have this time around and that very quickly is able, makes it able to focus and understand what the most important things that must get delivered so very quickly we were documenting requirements and understanding as from a minimal viable product what were the things we needed to do.

Working with colleagues to ascertain tools that could meet the requirement, adopting common sense and pragmatism – the decision was to use Skype, which at the Council is a tried and tested technology (Dorset Council had only recently started to use MS Teams and staff did not yet have expertise in the platform; and their Skype rooms did not then support MS teams – for this reason, MS Teams was discounted). Skype recording - Skype Video conferencing units with 1 room in Weymouth 1 in Ferndown – available to be booked by DC on behalf of families and their solicitors. The Skype rooms are simple to use – with one click, participants can join the meeting. It is understood that Dorset was the first local authority in the UK to provide this level of support to parents in care proceedings, something which was recognised by the senior judiciary; Skype calls working with the judges and DC legal teams – training them on the calls 1:1 Training and support for key users- Judges, legal admin Adapting to changing requirements – after go live, the requirement emerged that legally the judge needed to record the call rather than the DC legal admin’ team. DC enabled federated access for our legal admin staff which allows the judges, who sit in a different organisation to record (note MS Teams does not allow this). Hearing must be recorded Hearings can last a whole day Available for judges, social workers, other parties and legal representatives Some parties may not have access to the required technology – venues needed where they can easily join the hearing


Remote Council Meetings

Despite these unprecedented times, local authorities still need to deliberate and make decisions about the future of their localities, enable democratic participation from applicants and residents, maintain momentum on major developments in their boundaries while adhering to social distancing and new government regulations during the COVID-19 emergency. The LGA’s case Remote Council Meetings: Case studies hub sets out notable examples and resources of councils that have piloted virtual meetings using various video conferencing platforms, including Zoom and Microsoft Teams, signposting you to key points to consider and contacts.