Remote Council Meetings: Case studies

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. This case study hub will set out several notable examples and resources of councils that have piloted virtual meetings using various video conferencing platforms signposting you to key points to consider and contacts.

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Adur and Worthing councils

In response to the COVID-19 emergency Adur and Worthing councils have begun preparing to run council meetings online under new Government regulations to ensure democracy is transparent.

The team has selected Zoom as the video conferencing platform because it has a professional level of functionality, familiarity with users, and resilience for a high volume of attendees.

The team commissioned an audit of technical capability of all councillors to establish which devices they had access to, cameras and microphone capability, wi-fi and general connectivity. This allowed the team to formulate a solution that suited a wide range of users.  

The council established a project group with representatives from digital, HR, Legal and Democratic Services. The group is compiling an end to end process document that will cover how to run these meetings from preparation to voting in sessions to public participation. 

Zoom has been selected for the meetings as it provides user-friendly functionality around chairing meetings (in particular the raise hand, background, private message functions) while for the public who do not wish to contribute will be able to watch a YouTube live stream of proceedings. Councillors will vote via a traditional rollcall, having each member in turn cast their vote for, against or abstain. 

In order to prepare councillors, the digital team has run training sessions with 1 to 1 coaching on how to prepare technology for the meetings and ensure they familiar with the roles and processes in Zoom. They have also provided councillors with tips and tricks to ensure they do not encounter connectivity issues.

How is the new approach being sustained?

As of 7 April 2020, the team has hosted a test run with 25 officers and members from various councils assuming different roles in the council meeting proceedings in order to streamline the platform and processes. The team will also be carrying on their training sessions with members and officers to ensure everyone has the skills and knowledge to confidently participate. Pre-registered public question speakers will also have access to coaching on the technology if they would like it to ensure they are able to hold their members and council to account.

Lessons learned

  • It is important to survey and audit with officers and members in order to fully understand your technical capability.
  • Using the latest collaboration software and audio-visual equipment that suits your context is extremely beneficial.
  • Running personal 1 to 1 training sessions for councillors and officers ensures longevity and acceptance for this new form of technology.

Contact

Paul Brewer Director for Digital & Resources
paul.brewer@adur-worthing.gov.uk

Ashfield District Council

Ashfield District Council held its Annual Meeting of Council virtually on 23 April. The first testing sessions carried out were to decide which application would best suit a meeting with 35 Elected Members and up to six supporting officers.

Zoom AGM Meeting

We started by testing Webex as a means to run the meeting. The initial testing was positive and we decided to test it on Members of the Audit Committee by arranging a mock meeting. As the App could not be rolled out remotely because of a technical issue and Members could not bring their iPads in person, we telephoned each of the seven Members and talked them through downloading and using the App.

The training of Members, some of whom were not so IT literate, proved challenging over the phone. The test meeting was carried out on 7 April. Four of the seven Elected Members managed to access the meeting with the others struggling. Further testing identified some issues with the electronic polls and streaming the virtual meeting to the public.

Testing was then carried out with Zoom. Security issues reported in the press with regards to Zoom had initially made us reluctant to use the system. However some lengthy investigating and testing of the App were carried out, taking into consideration the issues that some councils had experienced with regards to securing the meeting. We purchased the Pro version of the software to enable meetings longer than 40 minutes and the extended user management issues.

Once all of the security issues had been identified, we began training the Members and holding some test sessions. The main security issues related to the default settings of Zoom, which appeared to allow open access for all, the ability to enter a meeting and speak, self unmuting and no restrictions on sharing screens. A pre meeting checklist was established to ensure nothing was left unsecure, this is detailed in the summary.

Training Members

An instruction guide was developed and sent out to all Members detailing a step by step guide to both download the App and to register through the host account. It was important to register for the following 3 reasons:

  • Standardise the naming format
  • Have the ability to invite Members remotely through a real time iPad call into the meeting, particularly important for less IT literate individuals who may have trouble accessing the meeting through an ID code and password entry
  • Ensure the security of the meeting by being able to admit legitimate participants and have the ability to identify threat actors trying to access the meeting for malicious intent.

Once instructions had been circulated, we called each individual Member that had not yet registered to talk them through registration and use. Once they were registered we then also carried out a test meeting with each individual to ensure they could see what a meeting looked like, how to activate their camera, submitting a poll answer and raising their hands.

For those Members still struggling with the basic download and registration, we used video calls to talk them though so we could see what they were looking at on their screen and provide instruction and advice. This is important as it should never be assumed that all Members even know what the App store is or where it is located. Furthermore, some were not familiar with basic terminology such as desktop, App, enter or touch screen and this had to be taken into account during training.

Another tip was that some Members were still in physical contact with younger relatives, which we utilised to assist them with download, registration and use.

All Members were then invited into a test meeting (group scenario) throughout the week in the lead up to council.

Operational steps

Meeting scheduling

  • Schedule Meting from the App, complimenting this with a regular email from Dem Services explaining they will have received an invite from Zoom.
  • Set topic
  • Check date, time and duration
  • Audio to “Telephone and Computer Audio”
  • Set Dial from US to United Kingdom
  • Check Advanced Settings:
    • Ensure “Waiting Room” is selected
    • Ensure “Join before host” is not enabled
    • Enabled “Mute participants on entry”
    • Enable “Automatically record meeting” and select locally
    • Prepare polls once meeting scheduled (if used)

We also carried out numerous test meetings with officers streaming to YouTube to see what it would look like to the public and test which meeting view was best suited to a formal meeting. We opted for Speaker View not Gallery View for the streamed presentation mode.

To ensure the public and Members were aware that they were in the right place for the meeting, a holding screen was set up stating “ Meeting will begin shortly” another screen was prepared in case we had to adjourn stating “Meeting will resume shortly”.

We started setting up for the meeting two hours before start time to allow for any unplanned issues. Thirty minutes before the meeting start we remotely admitted all Members in the meeting waiting room and remote called the remaining Members to invite them into the waiting room. This preparation time before the meeting went extremely quickly.

We also decided prior to the meeting to carry out votes by physically raising their hand to the screen. Members were sent a “Meeting Protocol” prior to the meeting to set out how the meeting would be run and some tips for being on screen. It was also agreed that Members would be muted throughout the meeting by the host unless they were brought in to speak by the Chairman. Muting and unmuting was the responsibility of the host, Members did not have the ability to unmute themselves.

Once the meeting started

  • Live Stream to Youtube before meeting starts (but not too early)
  • Change to Speaker View for the Youtube Stream
  • Take off "Allow Participants to unmute themselves" … Next to invite mute etc
  • Take off "allow participants to rename themselves"
  • Play Chime on Entry/Exit
  • Remove allow participants to share screen (under security at the bottom)
  • Disable chat (under security at the bottom of the screen)     
  • Record to Computer (select at setup but check it is recording)
  • Stop your video and mute yourself (leave it on while attendees join)

Notes and thoughts from AGM

Meeting went extremely well, first few minutes was the only time we had some minor issues. This included Members not putting their cameras on and some iPads were not displaying their registered username (despite all showing on the previous day testing).  For those not putting their camera on, we remotely requested them in real time to activate their camera.

One of these was the Chairman, who was sent to temporarily sit in front of the Chief Executive’s iPad while we quickly resolved the issue. Apart from some minor delays resulting from Members being manually muted by default and manually unmuted via the host when they were due to speak, the rest of the meeting went smoothly and no other technical issues were experienced.

A couple of Members were dropping out at various points due to local (home) wifi issues,  but were quickly brought back in through the host inviting them back into the meeting remotely.

Due to the scale of meeting, we cannot underestimate the people resources required to manage the meeting, this includes both those in the building (Council Chamber) and those working from home, who had been given as the contact for Members to ring, who skyped various messages identifying any issues such as Members access, usage etc to those managing the meeting. We also had a runner, who was able to pass messages to us throughout the meeting from some Members who were situated in various rooms of the council.

Some other post-meeting considerations

  • Members to ensure iPads plugged in or fully charged at the least (particularly for long meetings such as our AGM which lasted four hours).
  • Work out how to switch view in Youtube stream to show voting in thumbnails – and any way to auto cycle round the screens?
  • TV in front of Chairman to help him see those Members raising their hands during voting
    • even better if we can work out how to scroll thumbnails
  • Resources? Managing the meeting from an operational point of view was the Service Manager Scrutiny and Democratic Services and the Service Manager ICT. In addition to the Chief Executive and Monitoring Officer, the Service Director Place and Communities acted as a runner between the rooms. We also had two Members of the Scrutiny and Democratic Services Team working with us from home dealing with Members and the IT Team on standby for any technical issues.
  • Members to wait until mute light goes off before speaking (some started speaking before they were unmuted).
  • Positioning of iPads for members (Chairman's was too close)
  • Need a list of attendees in same order as Zoom
  • Check the number of attendees regularly (as we did). Investigate any reductions against list above.
  • Try to dissuade virtual backgrounds
  • Headsets to stop distortion (People in attendance in the Council Chamber were well distanced but some feedback could still be picked up) and also a headset and log in via phone for people like the Monitoring Officer so they can listen while being mobile.
Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council 

The council will only be using Zoom for public council meetings where as closed and private meetings will be performed over MS Teams. They are still considering the approach for private sessions of public meetings (confidential reports), and will be testing locking webinars.

The reasons stated by the team to use Zoom are:

  • ability to live stream meetings via YouTube or Facebook. They currently livestream all the council’s meetings and then upload to YouTube
  • ability to have all councillors on screen, this is a requirement from the democratic team to be able to ensure members are present. This will also be helpful for any hand display votes should they decide to perform votes that way.
  • apps on all platforms / OS’s give flexibility to those who need to be at the meeting
  • Cloud, no changes in the IT Infrastructure required to set up this platform

The project team has been set up to monitor the progress and implementation of the processes. The team has representation from a range of departments including IT, Democratic Services and legal teams which provides a holistic knowledge base for organising meetings end to end.

How is the new approach being sustained?

The Democratic Team will provide the necessary support to the meeting, this is likely to mean an increase in the number of democratic staff supporting meetings so that minute taking and meeting control can be separated. The team is working closely with elected members to provide knowledge and skills where necessary. Democratic and Legal teams are considering the timings of meetings to ensure that officer participation is sustainable.

Lessons learned

The team has stated several key learning points:

  • It is conscious about having a broad range of ages and skills with members and have highlighted that communication is key ensure councillors have the confidence to participate.
  • Important to set up a central project team that has representatives from all of the key departments who contribute to the delivery of council meetings.

Contact

Paul Tatam IT Manager
Paul.Tatam@basingstoke.gov.uk

Birmingham City Council

Birmingham City Council held an Extraordinary Meeting of the Full Council, with 80 members, on 28 April 2020. The week before that, meetings had been held for Cabinet, Planning Committee and the Health and Wellbeing Board, using Microsoft Teams.

As the impact of COVID-19 became clear, Birmingham City Council officers from democratic services and IT formed a project group to propose a way forward for formal meetings to take place remotely.

The technical challenge the IT team was set was to find a solution that enabled over 100 participants to be in a meeting, with audio and video, and that allowed meetings to be livestreamed, recorded and subsequently uploaded to our website.

The solution development stage looked at multiple technologies from different providers encompassing both audio and video conferencing. Microsoft Teams had been rolled out across the organisation in the months before the lockdown, and officers were becoming accustomed to using it for internal meetings.

Although members had not used it extensively, it had been rolled out to them so was already loaded on their laptops. However, it didn’t satisfy all of the requirements in it’s out of the box configuration. Microsoft was consulted and the discussions resulted in testing a hybrid Teams Meeting and Live Event solution. We also worked with our webcasting contractor, Civico, that takes the Live Event stream and plays it through its website, ensuring that members of the public can access meetings in the same that they always have done.

Training Members

Once the solution had been tested, we set about providing training for members. Guidance was produced but more effectively, Members’ “chat room” sessions were held – over several weeks (Birmingham has 99 members at the present time) – for members to “drop in” and test their connections, use of the different functions and practice with the voting forms.

The Extraordinary Meeting of the Full Council

The feedback from the meeting was positive – though no-one thinks this approach will replace face to face meetings long term! Whilst the agenda was short, just two items, it took a lot of preparation to get right. The resources needed to make it happen should not be underestimated – with input from members, democratic services officers and an IT team in support.

Lessons learned

  • Preparing the members and supporting the chairs is key – running these meetings is harder than a physical meeting and demands a fresh approach. 
  • Participants need to be encouraged join the meeting early to check their connection – regardless of how many times you do it, there can always be hiccups or local connection problems.
  • Everyone needs a clear understanding of how the meetings will be held, their roles and how to interact with the Chair and each other.
  • Testing, testing, testing!

The future

A number of meetings are scheduled for May and June – we’re up and running with Licensing Committee hearings, Scrutiny re-starts formal meetings and the West Midlands Police and Crime Panel will be holding a confirmation hearing for a Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner appointment. And Cabinet and Planning Committee will continue their meetings.

Initial meetings were audio only – we’re now moving to test video, including the use of a corporate background to give a consistent view. We’re also looking at using “break out” rooms for private deliberations.
 

City of York

During the COVID-19 crisis, councils have been forced to shift communications online and interact with the public in very different ways.

Public participation has always been extremely important to the City of York Council which has traditionally held drop-in sessions post incident (more usually flooding). With restrictions from Covid-19, York had to consider different opportunities for the public to directly interact with Councillors supported by subject matter experts.

The solution

On Tuesday 28 April residents were invited to watch and interact with a live #AskTheLeaders Coronavirus question and answer session on City of York Council’s Facebook page between 5 and 6pm. Where the Leader and Deputy of the Council, the lead member for Climate Change and Environment along with the Head of the Paid Service, Director of Public Health and the Executive Director for Primary Care & Population Health from Vale of York clinical commissioning group answered questions from the public.

Residents interacted with the session by either submitting questions in advance by emailing them to YourQuestions@york.gov.uk or commenting on the live video on Facebook where leaders read out questions and responded. Residents did not need a Facebook account to watch the public live video however, they needed their own Facebook account to comment on the video with their questions if they had not already submitted questions via email. Questions were answered by theme rather than individually, so that the conversations covered as many topics as possible.

Each participant in the call was trained to join a secure Zoom video call from their homes and communications colleagues were able host the call, liaise with the participants and then to make their audio and video hidden to the public whilst the call was being live streamed.

The chat function of the Zoom call allowed for Facebook comments, prompts and notes to be shared throughout the call, not visible on the streamed video to Facebook.

In these unprecedented times, it’s essential that we try new ways of reaching our residents and enabling them to ask questions and raise concerns about the city’s response to the outbreak of coronavirus.”

“I look forward to hosting the live Coronavirus question time session and hearing from local residents. I hope the live session gives clarity, reassurance and useful information in this ever-changing situation.”
Cllr Keith Aspden, Leader of City of York Council

This is a great opportunity for us to get direct feedback from residents about how the lockdown is affecting them, their families and neighbours in York. We can also share some of the amazing work taking place in every community.

“I want to encourage resident to email us your questions and join us… to have a conversation about our city’s response to Coronavirus and how we are working together to save lives.”
Cllr Andy D’Agorne, Deputy Leader of City of York Council

With a city-wide population of around 200,000 and a Facebook following of 11,000 the Live Q&A reached over 11,600 people and received engagement from over 1,000.

Live viewing peaked at around 120 with 100 live comments received. Since then, there have been over 5,000 views across Facebook and YouTube of the Coronavirus Q&A.

Who was involved?

The participants included councillors, officers and representation for the Vale of York CCG, who each answered questions according to their role, experience and portfolio.

The planning and facilitation of the call involved colleagues across Communications and Marketing as well as Democratic Services, who shared learning following their ongoing work to facilitate online council meetings in response to the lockdown.

Contact

Sarah Mitchell-Baker sarah.mitchell-baker@york.gov.uk 

Devon County Council

Perhaps like a lot of people, I was a little suspicious of the new suite of Office 365 apps when they were first introduced at Devon County Council and wasn’t really sure how they would enhance or improve the way that I work.

However, as a team we began using Microsoft Teams to save and share documents and useful information, and record notes and actions from team meetings, which worked really well. We then began thinking about ways that we could use Teams on scrutiny task group reviews to share information and collaborate with Councillors, rather than sending everything by email. 

Then the current COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown happened, and everything changed! The biggest challenge for us was how we would continue to run the meetings necessary for councillors to make key decisions and provide scrutiny challenge. In particular the lockdown directive coincided with the publication of the Ofsted report which found Children’s Services in Devon to be ‘inadequate’. Councillors and the Chief Officer for Children’s Services were very clear that despite the Committee being unable to meet in a physical, formal way, it was important that Scrutiny Councillors had the opportunity question senior officers and the Cabinet Member on the inadequate rating and findings, in a transparent and public way. An online virtual meeting was needed.

Our fantastic colleagues in the IT Change Team provided me with tremendous support in using Teams to make this happen, including training for councillors, support during the meeting itself and assistance after the meeting to get the video recording published online. Considering that this was the first time that many of the councillors in the meeting had used Teams or been involved in a virtual meeting, it was a real success and feedback from everyone involved was extremely positive.

This success enabled us to make similar arrangements for our Cabinet meeting which took place on 8 April 2020, where members of the local press were also able to join the meeting. We will be using Teams for all future meetings of Cabinet while we are in a lockdown situation and are hoping to hold some of our other committee meetings in this way too, allowing the important democratic decision-making process to continue through these challenging times.

I am aware that many colleagues in other local authorities are without this this level of digital infrastructure and are struggling to hold virtual meetings, relying on free apps with less security and functionality.  I am very grateful to Devon County Council for choosing to invest in this technology when they did, and I am sure that my colleagues and councillors will continue to benefit from the different ways of working made possible by Office 365, long after we return to ‘normal’.

How the approach is being sustained 

The council has embraced this new way of work and have recognised the legacy such protocols could have on the organisation after COVID-19. It is focusing on ensuring this is business as usual where everything is in place technology-wise and everyone has a full understanding of protocol. It is important to keep the wheels of democracy turning and utilising virtual meetings is a crucial way to do this. As an example, the system is also being used more widely in scrutiny work, for example sharing documents in relation to a review on 5G technology and work is also underway in preparation for hearing School Admission Appeals in this way, tweaking the approaches to ensure parents are able to fully participate in the process. 

Lessons learned

Ensure the clerk is in control of housekeeping and general etiquette of the meeting – as lessons have been learnt around ensuring everyone has a clear understanding of how these meetings are organised and monitored. 

It is crucial to also make sure you have resource on the meeting to help balance and support the clerk and members. 

Contact

Karen Strahan Democratic Services and Scrutiny Manager
karen.strahan@devon.gov.uk

Harborough District Council 

‘Keep calm and carry on’ at first seems at odds with the challenges of lockdown. But there are areas of our work at Harborough where we need to carry on supporting people and prepare for life after lockdown. Making planning decisions is one of those areas, vital to the re-building of the economy. Faced with what is probably the largest planning application that Harborough has dealt with, it was important that our first ever remote faced."

Harborough District Council remote council meeting

The Planning Committee ensured everyone had the information they needed, facilitated public participation, and met our statutory and constitutional obligations. We also had to meet our responsibilities around social distancing and minimising risks relating to Covid-19 for everyone involved.

Conducting a remote Planning Committee brought with it a raft of challenges. So, we set up a physical ‘hub’ in the Council Chamber to act as our coordination centre. Located here were our Chairman, a ‘producer’, IT support coordination, and a couple of advisors – all appropriately socially distanced. Everyone else would be connecting using MS Teams, with coordination also taking place over the telephone.

Central to the success of the event was testing, testing, testing. We ran two full ‘dummy runs’ of the Committee meeting with Members using dummy content, and this was after initial internal tests. This is new technology for many, so we had challenges with getting people connected and provided training for operating this within the context of a formal Committee meeting.

We also needed to ensure we had a shared etiquette for operating in a virtual environment, so we developed and shared a set of ground rules for operating in a virtual meeting, utilising the facilities provided by MS Teams.

On the night, everything went smoothly. Everyone connected to the meeting. The public could see the proceedings online, and we had approximately 270 unique views. Our rules about ‘muting’ when not speaking meant that everyone could hear everything that was said clearly. And we had good feedback on the quality of the event. Running this meeting online meant that far more people were able to see proceedings than we would have been able to physically host, and from the comfort of their own living room. That must be something we can build upon. There is no doubt that in calmly meeting the challenges of lockdown, we have innovated to enable formal Council decisions to be made whilst maintaining social distancing, and also developed new ways of reaching a larger number of people through the broadcast of our Planning Committee meeting over the internet.

For more information about this case study or any other Harborough District Council services, please email communications@harborough.gov.uk

Kirklees Council

Kirklees Council held their first ever virtual council meeting on 1 May 2020 bringing together Microsoft Teams Live Events and streaming partner Civico. 

If you watch the livestream, you can see we went live two minutes early to ensure all the ‘tech’ we put in place was working as expected.

Just over two weeks prior to the event we made the decision to use Teams Live Events having no experience of live streaming other products. We spent two days researching the product and reached out to Norfolk County Council and Leeds City Council to share early learning.

Once we understood the limitations of the product, we carried out several user tests without briefing them beforehand to understand whether the system was easy to navigate for new users. This highlighted some limitations with the software which we then tested using run throughs of actual meeting protocols.

Once we had built some confidence in our test group and with just one week to go, we engaged with our cabinet members. Many had not used Teams before but they quickly adapted to the new format and preferred ‘the four person view’ of proceedings over Skype. 

Following another practice session, we decided to carry out the meeting with cameras and microphones on because the biggest issue was bringing in speakers, enabling cameras and microphones then presenting them ‘live’ in the stream.

In the final week we engaged with Microsoft direct regarding the limit of ten video presenters, the inability to pause the stream, and other options available. We also contacted our Council Chamber contractor R&W who helped us test the live stream to the existing Civico website providing consistency for our audience which was critical to us.

In terms of the flow of the meeting, it was decided to ensure we only saw one speaker at a time to avoid confusion for the audience, take written questions for the first meeting, hold a visual roll call vote so viewers could see exactly how each Cabinet member voted and ensure the meeting producer understood the running order so it flowed effectively and looked professional.

Lessons learned

  • Treat your council meetings as events and engage a ‘producer’ for the event as well as technical IT support.
  • Start small and vision what your minimum viable product will look like, then each meeting, consider bringing in new features.
  • Do not underestimate how quickly your councillors take up new technology and do not overcomplicate things. View virtual meetings like regular meetings in your chamber.
  • Do remember that using multiple products can become a distraction so keep it simple for your councillors and officers who contribute to the meeting.
  • Practice does make perfect and good planning makes it more so.
  • Be brave, be bold, but have the people and processes in place to recover something going wrong such as a holding page and a backup producer.

Moving to virtual meetings will now allow us to bring democracy back to our decision making in Kirklees. It was really important that we got the technology absolutely right so it’s as easy as possible for our residents to use and follow. I’m really pleased with how easy the system was to use and the final product seen by residents watching online. I’m looking forward to building on this further as an authority and continuing to develop and improve how we deliver our public meetings online.”
The Leader of Kirklees Council, Cllr Shabir Pandor

Contact Officer: Terence Hudson, Head of IT, terence.hudson@kirklees.gov.uk

Lancaster and Wyre councils

Lancaster and Wyre councils share a Head of ICT and have a vision to share IT services. The current pandemic has highlighted the need to share software and processes between the two authorities.

The team is looking to use Teams Live Events as the platform for their virtual council meetings as it coincides with the core Teams software replacing their telephony system, and found it covered the core functions it wanted to deliver:

  1. provides live video feed of meetings (over 10 speakers are viewable on this platform to the producer)
  2. ability for public to attend (over 250 attendees)
  3. Q&A capability
  4. ability to vote on decisions (the team will develop an interactive form to send to councillors in order to record votes with results published in the channel function for attendees)

The team has also explored using Webex and GoToWebinar as they also both provide the core functionality that is required and will be proposed as a backup.

The public will be able to join the meeting through the dial in option to participate in the session. The team will, at the minimum, adhere to the regulations by allowing the public to hear proceedings and contribute as they happen.

Structures within the councils also contain service super users so the organisation has built in resilience if they need to draw in additional resource for processes.

How is the new approach being sustained?

The team is planning to continue stress testing of the platform and processes daily in the lead up to the first live event to ensure roles and step by step procedures are understood and resilient.

It will also ensure those running the technical side of the platform understand everything they need to in order to ensure the proceedings are as smooth as possible and are able to do this independently.

The team has also been meeting with its regional technology partners from Microsoft who are offering additional support to streamline this project. 

Lessons learned

  • Your team needs to be adaptable and ready for anything – able to deliver what’s necessary in time pressured situations.
  • Engaging with regional stakeholders is also important as requirements cover other councils in a similar situation to you. Networking and sharing learning is a crucial aspect to adopting new practices.
  • Continued testing is essential. 

Contact

Steve Simpson, Head of ICT for both Lancaster City Council and Wyre Council sjsimpson@lancaster.gov.uk

Lichfield District Council

At first, Democratic Services, working with the IT team, tested a number of potential software providers and decided upon Zoom US due to the consistent quality, ease of use and favourable functionality. It also helped that many of our Members were already familiar with this platform in their private lives.

We did, however, continue to develop guidance and carry out training through one to one set ups, and group sessions for the more tech savvy. We are also offering the same for any residents joining a meeting as a speaker which also gives the opportunity to test their connections before the Committee.

In addition to the ability to host meetings virtually, we looked at the options to enable the public to be present. Reflecting on the Government guidance and replicating the approach used in our physical meetings, we have decided to live-stream our meetings to our YouTube channel thereby ensuring transparency.

Our first scheduled virtual meeting was Planning Committee, so we conducted a full test meeting including officers, using an old application. This allowed us to refine the procedure and give all involved an opportunity to be fully familiar with the meeting functions including raised hands. We also had separate sessions with the Chairman to ensure he was happy with how the meeting would run.

We’re incredibly pleased at the success of our first online meeting, which saw record numbers join us either through our own channel or through other sites and hope to continue this as we return to our normal committee cycle. We have had significant positive comments from other councils and our public and have responded to ongoing feedback to further refine our solution to be the best it can and meet the needs of our officers, members and residents.

The dry runs and the importance of understanding the workings of the platform cannot be overstated. It is to Members' credit that on the night they all coped with the workings of Zoom very well, and there's no doubt that the preliminary sessions which were held made this possible. Working with me as Chairman was very useful and enabled me to make all my mistakes before I was exposed to the public's gaze! It was comforting for me to know that the Members were au fait with the various procedures.”
Planning Committee Chairman

Lessons learned

  • Get Democratic Services and IT working together and working well together. You need Democratic Services to be happy from a governance point of view and IT from a security and tech point of view. And you need that relationship to get the happy medium.
  • Do dry runs and test, test, test. Try and know which Members will need extra support and plan for that, but don’t assume you are more tech-savvy. Members may not have used a virtual meeting platform in such a way as required for Committees.
  • Strength is in your Chairmen so take time to go through the procedure with them. Make sure there is a way to communicate with them as they won’t have an officer sitting next to them to guide.
  • Make the meeting procedure as simple as possible. If you can, have two officers there with one hosting and covering the technical aspects, such as muting people if they forget, and the clerk carrying out normal duties.
  • Finally – just don’t panic and don’t try and plan for everything as you will be too scripted and look predetermined, just make sure you have the type of people there who can react and work the problem calmly. Let's be honest, Committees in the same room don’t always go to plan so why should virtual ones be any different!

Contact

Christine Lewis, Overview & Scrutiny Officer
christine.lewis@lichfielddc.gov.uk

London Borough of Hounslow

The challenge

Hounslow Leadership Group (HLG) consists of the most senior 100 managers from across Hounslow Council. The group meets every month to discuss the Hounslow hot topics and input and shape the strategic direction of the council.

As with the rest of local government, the council is adapting to new ways of working as part of it’s response to the coronavirus. With much of the council working at home and a large number directly involved in the immediate response we were unsure whether the April HLG meeting was going to go ahead.

What started as a conversation around should we hold the meeting at all soon, turned into realising that it was essential that it took place.

Conversations had started to turn to recovery and it was important to engage the wider leadership group in the recovery stage of the pandemic. This approach is an important part of the #1Hounslow internal transformation programme and essential to ensure we are operating according to our values.

Digital has been at the centre of the response phase, with massive increases of staff working at home, spinning up a new contact centre, creating digital processes for the Community Hub and using data in more strategic ways. But the question – can we do all this using our digital tools, making it interactive and engaging – we then had a week to pull it together.

A team from Digital & IT, Organisational Development and Corporate Transformation worked together to make the magic happen.

We had used MS Teams for several other events in the Council, such as the weekly live Q&A with the Chief Executive to all staff, so it was a natural progression to use Teams for HLG.

The solution

In terms of planning, whilst the meeting had been in the diary for a while, we needed to ensure that we knew who was now able to attend and to enable us to allocate colleagues in the workshop groups.

Colleagues were put into groups of about 10 people, with a facilitator of each group volunteered to then feedback during the main session.

We used Microsoft Teams live to stream the main event, with individual Teams meetings for the workshop sessions. Staff were invited to the workshop groups the day before so they had two Teams meetings in their diary (main live Teams event and the workshop normal teams meeting).

Workshop facilitators and all the Directors who were presenting or hosting were made presenters of Teams live event. There were two producers.

On the day

We opened the session with a quiz – we wanted to have something informal whilst people were finding their virtual seats. Colleagues messaged the answers to Mark, (Director of Digital & IT), and he read some of them out, so we had some interaction. He then introduced the session, explained how things were going to run and work, with some ‘ground rules’. Embrace the Digital – Be in the virtual room!

We then wanted to ensure that we were able to get a sense check of how people were feeling at the time, especially important as we were not able to see everyone. We used www.slido.com for some interaction and got colleagues to answer the question – How are you feeling at the moment?
The results of this gave the Chief Executive an understanding of the thinking in the virtual room to frame some of the discussions.

Niall (Chief Executive) welcomed and thanked everyone for all the amazing work and for taking the time to attend, Kelly (Director of Public Health), Clive (Executive Director of Finance and Resources) and Mandy (Assistant Chief Executive) gave updates on our response to the pandemic. Mandy then introduced the workshop session.
The workshops asked colleagues to focus on the future, from response to recovery and thinking about what we want to retain, restore and reinvent for the communities of Hounslow. During the workshop they were all asked to complete a template that everyone was able to collaborate on – attached at the end of this post.

The main session, continued to run empty (with just the two producers and a couple of other presenters), while they joined the workshop Teams meetings. Workshop facilitators led the discussions and captured info into the template.
Thirty mins later everyone re-joined the main Teams live event where Steve, Director of HR and OD led the feedback from the workshop facilitators and discussion. We prepared the order that they would feedback in beforehand so that everyone was clear what was going to happen when.

The main producer used the slide deck to produce the event, cutting between slides and presenters etc as appropriate – it was important we had some structure to the event.

It all went really well. Staff were really engaged and we got some great feedback. It was a bold idea to run the session as a virtual session with so much packed into it. But it worked!! Its essential to get colleagues engaged in the discussions, especially at this time and perhaps worked a bit too well, we have another one in a few weeks. We are happy to have any further discussions if anyone is interested as part of our working in the open for our Digital Strategy.

Lessons learned

  • We would think about how we invite people to the main event so that we could use the Teams meeting chat function. We used an ICS file that colleagues individually downloaded into their calendar but it would have been good to have the chat functionality with everyone
  • Having a host really worked to provide some continuity through the sessions – we’d formalise this for next time
  • More guidance for the presenters in advance on the fact that there is a delay when slides move and they need to be in order/followed
  • Make it run to time more

What worked

  • Two producers works and provides some resilience
  • The slide deck gave a running order for the producer of the event to know what was happening when
     
London Borough of Waltham Forest

We arranged a Committee Room large enough to allow social distancing to take place. Sufficient councillors were present in the room to meet the quorum requirement and only these councillors voted (meeting the legal requirements at that time).

Council planning officers, applicants, objectors and observers joined the meeting as guests using Microsoft Teams, and to avoid the common gripe with conference calls where people speak over each other, microphones were controlled by a council officer so only one person spoke at once. 

Presentations were given using the share screen option which was also projected on a screen in Committee Room for councillors to see.

We used Office 365 Teams to facilitate the meeting combined with Logitech room solution for teams. The setup included the following Logitech hardware, the TAP for simple connectivity, the Rally Camera to give ultra HD imaging, a single Rally speaker and microphone to give us clear audio in the room so the participants in the room could maintain social distancing   as required and still be heard. 

How is the new approach being sustained?

The system worked well with up to 50 people at one time, and we know we could have many more joining in this way. Going forward we will likely use this approach for future meetings during COVID-19 emergency, including councillors joining the meeting virtually when the new Government regulations allow this to take effect. We are also looking at how we can use this to deliver our wider engagement programme activity with residents.

Lessons learned

It is possible to have an interactive democratic meeting with good participation using the latest collaboration software and audio-visual equipment. The expected new government regulations will make this even easier. It is straightforward to send out a web link and for the public to join. This could increase the amount of democratic participation and may well be good for those with accessibility issues who would have struggled to get to a physical location previously.

Contact

Keith Brown, Stakeholder Relations and Community Engagement Manager
Keith.Brown@walthamforest.gov.uk

Newark and Sherwood District Council

The team has identified Teams as the suitable portal to deliver online official council meetings. Its versatility allows councillors to join meetings either through video or dial in options in a secure setting.

It also allows the chair to mute attendees and kick disruptive people on the call if necessary.

The council will be live streaming meetings simultaneously on YouTube with comments enabled to allow full public participation, this is currently under review with a member of the communications team potential fulfilling this role. Members and the public dialling into the meeting can keep their number private with the additional of 141 in front of the conference number to keep their phone number private. The moderator of the meeting also holds the capability to stream the meeting on the same device to ensure all processes are followed.

Councillors were extremely receptive to the move to fully online meetings as they already had been issued with a iPad along with access to Modern.Gov that gives them access to the bookmarked papers and confidential papers not available to the public.  

The team have clearly set out meeting etiquette and set out standard procedures for speakers to follow which are sent with every invite to the meetings. Votes and invitations will been managed through the Democratic Services support to ensure orderly conduct at the meetings.  

The Microsoft license partner have been supporting the digital team at the council through the extension of existing license capability  

In order to mitigate against connectivity issues the team has ensured that they selected a platform that also allowed attendees to dial into the call, giving them the minimum opportunity to contribute to meetings if they had Wi-Fi issues in rural not spots.  

The council are also leading on supporting their Parish Councils providing guidance where possible and tech support. Parishes in the area welcomed recommendations to take advantage of Skype’s new policy on hosting meetings without the need to have an account.  

See our first virtual meeting 

How is the new approach being sustained?

The team are testing the software and processes extensively over the coming weeks to ensure everything is prepared and working for the first full council meeting. The team are investing time and effort into this process as it will be an essential resource for the foreseeable future and could be a permanent aspect of council meetings in the future. 

Lessons learned

The team highlighted the need to get meeting etiquette standardised and understood as a crucial prerequisite to any meeting to ensure that proceedings run as smoothly as possible. Draft standing orders will need to be considered to reflect the new regulations to enable meetings to happen in a virtual way.

Contact: Dave Richardson ICT Business ManagerDave.Richardson@newark-sherwooddc.gov.uk

Norfolk County Council

Norfolk County Council already has processes set up to broadcast Full Council, Cabinet and Scrutiny meetings on YouTube for public viewing. It is now doing testing to use Microsoft Teams to set up a Live Teams Event in which the Members would be “Presenters”. 

There will also be a “Production” role that will be filled by someone familiar with Teams to moderate the video stream and the chat messages.  Norfolk has used this approach many times before with officer groups but this will be the first time with elected members and the public.

The council will publish the link to the public such that they can watch a live stream of the Teams meeting. The public could use the Teams Web App but would be more likely to access through a web browser and do not have to sign up for an account to attend the meeting

The current processes to allow public participation in the meeting is to enable Chat messages in the meeting channel so the public can submit questions, which are only visible to the person fulfilling the ‘Production’ role who can pass them onto the chair if appropriate

How is the new approach being sustained? 

The joint IT and Democratic services team is testing the technology and processes internally to simulate how the elected members and the public would engage in the scenario of the virtual meeting to see what could occur and how the team would deal with it

Norfolk has now amended the Teams configuration to allow the public to link into the Teams Live Events (which was previously restricted to named guests only). 

Lessons learned 

That council staff and elected members remain open and able to innovate, taking an agile approach to trying out new technologies despite the challenging circumstances, as can be seen by the following quote from Cllr Tom Fitzpatrick Cabinet Member for Innovation, Transformation and Performance.  “This shows the need to embrace change and use technology to drive the transformation of the organisation so that we are in control, rather than just reacting to events.  Allowing public participation in the current situation is something we see as a necessary and positive move. We can deliver this now, because we had taken the decision to do something last year and are able to build on it, rather than being under pressure and having to start from scratch”

Contact

Geoff Connell, Director of IMT & Chief Digital Officer
IMT, Finance & Commercial Services 
Phone: 01603 973230

Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council

Despite the current “stay at home” restrictions which is making face to face meetings impossible, councillors at Rotherham Council has remained available for residents to contact if they require support on community and council issues. In light of the need to reduce face to face contact in order to save lives, all advice surgeries will now be taking place by telephone or online only.

Councillor Emma Hoddinott is working with her other two ward councillors to host a “virtual” surgery every Monday evening between 6pm and 6:30pm. They are using a Zoom Pro subscription to run these sessions due to the additional functions that are included in this package. The waiting room function in particular allows the councillor to let residents wait while the councillors are already hosting a meeting with another resident.

If the resident has a computer with a webcam, they can videocall via a link on the council’s website and they can also find the link on social media. The resident can also dial in by telephone to the same system by calling the number and entering a meeting ID.

The processes were tested beforehand with the other ward councillors where they held a couple of dry runs to ensure the links, dialling options and the waiting room function worked. The councillor is the controller of the meeting and administrates the call for the half an hour slots. 

In addition, councillors have embraced online visual methods of promoting council work to residents. Video updates have been immensely popular to communicate updates to residents covering changes to services or other important information such as bus timetables or bin collection changes through Facebook live videos. Viewership is often higher after the video when residents can watch the updates at their convenience this proves that this format has reach in communities and is a viable way of continuing local democracy functions.

Lessons learned

#Councillors found that it was surprising how similar this was to a usual surgery. The councillors recommended that continuing to act as normal as possible was key and maintaining or increasing regular appointments is key – it is great to remain visible to the community and offer them help if they need it through as many mediums, whether that be phone, video conferencing, social media, email. 
Visual often simplifies messaging over written forms of updates and can be highly successful at reaching audiences and spreading important updates. 

Contact

Christopher Burton Head of Communications
Christopher.Burton@rotherham.gov.uk

Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

The team has developed two methods of running virtual councillor surgeries. The first will involve councillors in the ward hosting a Teams meeting for two hours on the designated day available for residents to drop in to by following a link from the council website.

A basic Teams meeting allows councillors to admit residents into the main chatroom from a lobby which also includes an instant messaging function for one of the councillors to contact the resident waiting in case they are still talking to the previous person. Teams also allows those who do not have the application installed on their device to join via a browser and it also has a dial in option for those that do not have a device for this.

The second option builds on the first by integrating a booking system into the surgeries process to give more control and order to proceedings. Using an app like the free booking system Calendly residents could book appointments with local councillors. Councillors could also ask the residents to provide some details about the issue they wish to raise and their address when they book. By asking for an address, councillors can check whether an individual is actually a ward resident.

This booking system also sends out a unique email to the resident with a link to the teams meeting and provides them with an Outlook calendar invite.

How will the new approach be sustained?

The approach will be implemented and controlled by the ward councillors with officers available to provide technical support. Online surgeries will only be implemented where the local Members feel it would be helpful to do so.

Lessons learned

Teams may not work with Safari meaning Apple users have to download an alternate browser or the Teams App to join a call.

Contact

Tom.McColgan@rbkc.gov.uk

South Staffordshire Council

South Staffordshire Council is using MS teams to hold remote meetings.

The One Council approach to service delivery has been demonstrated in the focused approach to delivering our business through remote access during the public health crisis.   Building on an already excellent corporate relationship with the IT team the services have been able to match an understanding of the IT capability and functionality with the service area business needs.  

On 21 April South Staffordshire Council delivered a Planning Committee with 21 members, a number of key officers and a number of public speakers who were all engaged in the committee business.  The event was streamed live and was viewed by those who would ordinarily have been able to view to the event in the Council Offices.  
This capability has also meant that we are now working with partners to host a programme of events for our local businesses to ensure that we can keep in touch with them, to ensure that they can access the support they need, that we can be as responsive as possible to their needs and that our businesses can connect with not only the Council but each other.  This digital method of connecting people has given us a platform to sustain our relationships with business and forge new ones. 

How is it being sustained?

Testing, testing, testing, trial and error and many sessions of officer and member training sessions utilising ‘dry run sessions’ running up to the main first event to ensure the first session went as smooth as possible.  These training sessions allowed procedure notes to be prepared to cover each stage of the committee process.  This meant that as many issues as possible were identified, isolated and resolved.  The use of digital technology to communicate has become second nature, with daily Corporate Leadership meetings being held through teams along with engagement with members both in an informal and formal capacity.  This has meant that the step to holding meetings in the public forum has been a natural progression.  The Council have now held a number of public meetings and we are constantly refining our approach.  

Lessons learned

Take the time to test and accept that it will not go right the first time of testing.  Ensure that there are the experts on hand in the meeting and behind the scenes if things don’t go to plan and have a easily executable back up plan that is compliant with the regulations ( e.g. agreement from a public speaker that an officer can read a public speaking script if the member of public loses connection). 

Contacts 

Annette Roberts – Corporate Director Planning & Infrastructure 
Andy Hoare – Assistant Director Business Transformation 
 

Swindon Borough Council

Swindon Borough Council ordinarily held quarterly meetings of their Wider Management Team, which involved approximately 120 Directors, Heads of Service and Senior Managers coming together in face to face round table meetings.  Working within the restrictions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, these meetings were no longer possible. 

This is a uniquely challenging time for councils and being able to maintain communications across the Wider Management Team is key to understanding the daily challenges to delivering front line services across the organisation. The Communications Team used the Live Event in Microsoft Teams, which enables a large conferencing facility.  It allowed the Communications Team to arrange a meeting so that 120 managers could get together in a way that enabled the Chief Executive to get key messages across practically, but also giving the opportunity for those watching the event to take part.  The invitation to the event included an opportunity for questions to be sent in advance.  The Communications Team acted as producers.  The platform allows for other roles being presenters who do the talking and viewers who watch and can submit questions on the day through the Q&A function. 

As the event took place, the Chief Executive was able to speak to the managers, thank them and highlight achievements across the organisation.  Notice of what was coming, headlines from the Public Health Director and an update on the staff survey from HR were all included.  The approach to Recovery was another key discussion.  The meeting ended with a Q&A session. The Team have received positive feedback since the event. 

Attendees have said how helpful it is to know how they are supporting the council and helped them to feel involved in the work that the council was undertaking to help residents.  In terms of learning points the Communications Team would like to improve the interactivity of the event.

Contact

Mark Pritchard, Communications Lead: Campaigns
MPritchard@swindon.gov.uk

Help us add to this collection by sending your examples of Remote Council Meeting good practice to thomas.denman@local.gov.uk. Please include an outline of the work taking place and names of the councils (and where applicable, partners) involved.