All images in this post are for illustrative purposes only

At the oddly named Marmalade, a conference for, and by, the UK community sector, I met Jess, who made a startling claim. She’s involved in community groups that make nearly no decisions face-to-face. Instead, they use an online tool called Loomio with a tightly designed process for proposing and voting on decisions.

That got me thinking, would it be possible for a group to spend Big Local money effectively with no decisions being made face-to-face? No more board meetings overrunning by hours, filled with the ungainly language of governance, and the challenge of capturing minutes. Instead, face-to-face time could be spent coming up with ideas, having fun, and connecting with new volunteers.

We explored the idea in a session, and what emerged were a few key points - 

Every collaborative decision making approach can exclude others

There’s a fear that those with the worst digital skills could be excluded by an online system. In practice, we felt any approach to collaborative decision making could exclude. Too fast, and those with busy lives might not be able to keep up. Too slow, and the activists in your area might look elsewhere. Meetings on days, evenings, and weekends suit different people. Some prefer a ‘corporate approach’ with minutes, roles and responsibilities, others would feel constrained without a pen and flip chart. Digital exclusion is a real challenge for a community trying to make decisions online, but it needs to be considered pragmatically, amongst the exclusion that inevitably stems from any meeting.

There are tactics to help manage exclusion. Providing training to decision makers is an obvious first step, but those that are struggling to read posts online can be ‘paired’ with a secretary or another decision maker to ensure they’re always kept in the loop.

Board meetings are a technology

Why does governance look and sound as it does today? Through hundreds of years of experimentation and iteration the approaches we think of as normal now have been developed - it might be common-sense now, but that it's still technology. If we think in this way, an online platform is just the next step of experimentation and the continuity between old and new becomes more obvious. Forums or groups might need to be ‘moderated’ and ‘adminstrated’, but is that really different to the roles needed to ‘minute’ and ‘chair’ a face-to-face meeting?

Using technology to improve decision making isn’t just about adding everyone to a WhatsApp group. It’s likely you’ll need to put in place other processes to make sure it’s being used correctly.

Decisions made online can widen and deepen participation

It's always a challenge for a secretary to capture a discussion, attribute comments to different decision makers and then sign off the minutes. Then consider how often old minutes are read by those in the meeting, or the wider community? Used correctly, something like Loomio can record people’s concerns, comments, and voting decisions automatically, and free up the time of a secretary to support a group of decision makers in a different way.

In Toothill Big Local, funding decisions are ultimately made by the community, who can vote online. That means people on the partnership board can spend their time improving project proposals, and preparing more strategic projects.

Act as opportunities arise

Boards often look to delegate responsibility so decisions can be made outside of an official meeting. This approach can work, but requires forward planning. With online decision-making, opportunities can be responded to if they emerge outside of regular meetings. Indeed, Brereton Million Big Local use a WhatsApp group to discuss and vote on opportunities that require immediate attention.

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So what next? At Big Local Connects in the Summer, we ran a popular session on using technology to improve community work with Ed Saperia. But that’s just the first step, we’re looking to share best practice with others, and develop support for community groups who want to experiment with technology to improve their day-to-day decision making and overall organization.

If you're a community group or small charity, we’d love to hear if you've used technology to improve your decision making - whether it's a WhatsApp group or a dedicated tool like Loomio. Just email david.king@localtrust.org.uk

David King is Partnerships and Innovation Lead at Local Trust, which runs the Big Local programme, a 15-year Big Lottery endowment to support community development and civic engagement across 150 neighbourhoods in England