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.
Post 7 May 2021 case studies
The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority Police and Crime Panel Meetings) Regulations 2020 were enacted on 4 April 2020 and permitted council meetings to take place virtually. The Regulations expired on 6 May 2021 and were not capable of being extended. Since 7 May, councils have been required to meet physically in order to conduct their business. Nevertheless, councils have been innovative in their approach to meetings, using the available technology to reduce the risks associated with council meetings within the scope of the current legislation.
- Essex County Council
At Essex County Council we had to organise our first face to face AGM following the May 2021 elections and the change in legislation. When we realised there was a high chance that remote meetings wouldn’t be permitted, we started checking venues that would have sufficient safe capacity. We have 75 members and were expecting a significant change in members as we had 18 not seeking re-election so we didn’t feel we could have a ‘quorum only’ meeting because it could disenfranchise our new members at their first meeting of the council.
Following an extensive search of the venues available to us and building in numbers of press, public, audio visual and officer numbers we knew we needed a venue that would accommodate at least 100 individuals in a COVID secure environment. There were surprisingly few in Essex and even fewer who were available, willing or on transport routes.
Following a visit to the Chelmsford Sports and Athletics Centre we decided to hold discussions with key members including the Chairman and Vice Chairman, Group Leaders and Cabinet Members. We felt this was the best available venue although it is a sports centre featuring a 60m running track and was never intended to be used as a debating chamber. We shared photos of the venue with key members and how we thought it would work. They agreed we could pursue this further and we wrote to all members to see whether they would attend a meeting if we held it; we were concerned we could organise a meeting and then members may not wish to proceed. We then held discussions with audio visual companies and settled on one local company who had experience of local authority meetings. The bookings were made and then planning really started.
We decided due to the venue size, cabling requirements that we would have:
- 25 tables in total, meaning the majority of members were not seated at a table
- Lecture style chairs
- Printed agendas (we are normally paper free)
- Microphones for key individuals, some sitting and some standing length stems
- 2 fixed ‘shared’ microphones, centrally controlled
- An agenda review with speakers identified in advance
We provided detailed planning notes for key members, attended political group meetings setting out how the meetings would run and provided them with detailed guidance and delayed the start time to allow adequate and safe travel time, particularly with those using public transport in mind. Some members were extremely anxious about returning to face to face meetings, even with the very generous social distancing measures that we put in place, with all seats at least 2.2m apart. We provided as much reassurance as we could.
We worked closely with the audio visual company to stream to our YouTube channel, this accommodated those who wanted to watch but who did not need to attend in person.
The cost of venue hire, audio visual and furniture hire was in excess of £6,000.
The meeting, although stressful, went well and we held a survey of attendees which was completed by around two thirds of councillors plus some officers. Members told us that they virtually all felt safe – which was our first priority- and they felt the meeting went well. Many members and officers completed the survey and we have used this feedback in addition to our own thoughts on how to develop and improve the meeting.
The upcoming July 2021 meeting will be equally challenging. We will again need to hold a socially distanced face to face meeting, but this time we are expected to deal with a much more complex debate including on motions meaning that more members will be speaking.
- Host the meeting at the same venue
- Provide tables and microphones for more members to assist those who found it difficult to hear
- Ask members with microphones to sit to speak instead of standing
- Realign the layout to reflect how members wished to move around the building
- Ask members if they wish to speak in advance
- Further delay the start time of the meeting again.
Conclusion and Next Steps
The Council Chamber has been well-used too. We have moved all our committee meetings into this space. Pre-pandemic we didn’t stream to YouTube or allow remote participation but we have quickly realised that this had become something that people just expected. For example we didn’t advertise that our June Cabinet Meeting was experimentally being streamed to YouTube and yet we had 50 people watching live. We have had to install video facilities in the Chamber and have managed to link zoom to our elderly sound system – all of which are challenges to overcome.
- Melton Borough Council
There had been intermittent problems with the audio system in the council chamber for some years before the pandemic lockdown which had caused difficulties in public meetings and generated complaints from members of the public. This feedback was taken extremely seriously and resulted in a commitment from councillors and officers to review the current provision because it was no longer deemed fit for purpose.
Read the full case study: Melton Borough Council: online and hybrid meetings
- Sevenoaks District Council
Context and Solution
Since the start of the pandemic Sevenoaks District Council have used Zoom for our Council meetings, streaming live to YouTube. We chose Zoom as it was the most accessible form on a variety of devices. We initially started with two Democratic Services Officers and this was then shortly reduced to one for the majority of the meetings, with the exceptions of Full Council and Development Control Committee. We realised early on that support for whoever was chairing the meeting was best provided with someone present physically in the building. The Democratic Services Officer who took the role as ‘meeting support’ was also responsible for ensuring all IT worked, screen shared presentations and kept an eye on the virtual meeting room to ensure members could be seen and heard at all times.
Following the end of the legislation that allowed for remote meetings, all of our council meetings resumed face to face. Our largest meeting space was the Council Chamber but this could safely only hold 26 Members, Officers and members of the public in total. This meant that with 54 Councillors alone, we would need to find an alternative location for our Annual Council meeting in May. After researching venues we were lucky enough to be able to hold the meeting at the local Theatre, where we could do our best to ensure all those who were present were kept as safe as possible.
Key Challenges or points of learning
As a small team of three serving 80 – 90 meetings a year, it was not sustainable to have two officers always present at each meeting. In a very short period of time, the Team had to be confident and competent with all aspects of Zoom, streaming the meetings live and more recently, using cameras in the Chamber. The Council Chamber’s technology also had to be updated as we previously had no provision for streaming meetings. An hour before our first face to face meeting for a Licensing Hearing was due to be streamed live from the Chamber, the brand new tablet failed. Thankfully this was a day time meeting and the IT Team were available to find an alternative way for connecting to the system; the meeting was able to go ahead with 3 laptops managed by one DSO rather than just one tablet and laptop. Nothing like a last minute challenge!
We also had challenges hosting the meeting at the Theatre, as we had to ensure the social distancing was maintained on stage as well as in the auditorium. It also required changes to some of the processes for investing the new Chairman and Vice Chairman with their chains, and gifts. Hand sanitiser was placed on a desk to ensure that before the exchanging of chains, hands were clean. Face masks were also required to be worn. We also had to have a DSO and colleague from the Legal Team with a roving microphone to go to any Councillor who wished to speak, and to make sure the microphone was sanitised before the next Councillor spoke.
Although the restrictions are lifting, we have decided that as a council it is still important to keep Members, Officers and the public safe and to maintain a social distance for our meetings for the time being. We have been lucky enough to once again be hosted by our local Theatre for our Full Council Meeting in July. Our next challenge with this meeting will be to see if we can stream it live to YouTube.
Any early benefits or impact/ Conclusion?
By streaming meetings live, we have seen an increase in meetings being watched on YouTube, compared to the numbers we would have attending a physical meeting. It has also enabled Chairman’s briefings to be continued via Zoom and created greater flexibility for those Members and Officers who attend.
Adjusting to the new ways of working and learning has been a great team effort. We try to work as “one team” across all council departments and we had support from colleagues from other teams to make sure meetings ran smoothly and without incident. Being able to find a suitable location for the May Annual Council also meant that Members were able to say farewell in person to Vanessa our Team Leader, who had been with us for nearly 10 years and was moving on to another role.
- St Helens Borough Council
What was the solution?
St Helens Borough Council has been using MS Teams Live for public meetings up to January 2021 and switching to MS Teams for any Private Agenda items. In January 2021 the remote platform with Public-I was utilised. This allowed meetings to be livestreamed using the existing equipment in the Council Chamber. One Democratic Services officer was present for each meeting and Members joined on MS Teams and the meeting was livestreamed via Public-I directly onto the website page. This was far simpler than having to download a MS Teams meeting and upload to you tube. It also meant that Members didn’t need to leave a MS Teams Live meeting to then join a MS Teams meeting for Private Agenda items.
On 19 May 2021 Annual Council was held in the Assembly Hall which could accommodate 50 people within the socially distanced guidelines. Exam tables were brought in from a High School so Members could have their Surface Pros set up with the electronic Agenda open.
Public-I was hired in to livestream the meeting and provide mobile microphones as this room is not set up for webcasting.
From 6 May 2021 Members have been attending face to face in the Council Chamber which can accommodate 17 people due to remote access guidelines. Any presenting officers have joined via Teams and the Public-I platform allows them to be shown on a TV monitor in the room for Members and officers present to view. The livestream shows a split image of those in the room and those at home on MS Teams.
Any observing Officers can watch the meeting live via the website link. Officers would have to loin via MS Teams to watch any private agenda items.
Key challenges or points of learning
The main challenge for the Democratic Services Team was to learn the MS Teams Live and Teams systems before rolling them out to Members and Officers of all differing IT abilities in a time when no one was allowed to meet face to face. A great deal has been learned over the past 15 months
Any early benefits or impact / Conclusion?
During Lockdown Members and officers have learnt new IT skills and how to access remote meetings confidently. Going forward there is more flexibility for officers to attend remotely if necessary.
Attendance was higher when meetings were held remotely.
Joanne Griffiths MBE
Democratic Services Manage
Pre 7 May 2021 case studies
- 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.
- 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.
Paul Brewer Director for Digital & Resources
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
Paul Tatam IT Manager
- 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.
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.
- 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!
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.
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.
Sarah Mitchell-Baker firstname.lastname@example.org
- 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.
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.
Karen Strahan Democratic Services and Scrutiny Manager
- 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."
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 email@example.com
- 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.
- 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, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Lambeth Council
Following work undertaken by the council’s Constitutional Working Group in January, the Democratic Services team at Lambeth had already made a good start on a remote council meeting project even before the COVID-19 situation. This meant they were in an advantageous position when the regulations changed to permit virtual council meetings.
On 22 April, Lambeth was the first council in the country to hold their AGM online despite the regulations allowing councils to defer and postpone this meeting to a more suitable occasion. In line with the council’s COVID-19 policy, they sought to continue to operate processes as they would under normal circumstances to allow activities to carry on as much as possible.
The team decided to work with the council’s strategic partner Capita after looking at capacity across democratic services. Capita with guidance from the council, were able to fast-track implementation, design and build bespoke training and also act as “meeting producers” for all virtual meetings.
The solution Lambeth has chosen is Teams Live Events. The team has used previous experiences to help script the flow of meetings to ensure the timings do not overrun or items do not become too time consuming. This has required developing detailed guidance for chairs’, and committee members, which has ensured proceedings stay on track. The team also introduced an ‘administrative advice line’ for the chair separate to the main meeting chat to offer support.
Lambeth has taken the approach of leading virtual meetings through a single person – this being the chair - as it provides this individual with the authority to direct the meeting as would normally be done in usual council meetings. This includes the Chair conducting a pre-meeting briefing.
It’s important to note that the ICT team also oversaw a rapid deployment of devices to councillors as Teams Live is not compatible on iPad devices so laptops were rolled out to the appropriate councillors to enable them to participate in the meetings.
As it stands at the start of May, the next stage of this process is to increase public participation. This is likely to be incremental and is dependent on the technology choices available. Capita is liaising with Microsoft to expand functionality while an options paper has been developed. Each option will be thoroughly reviewed and tested before deployment, with the ultimate goal to allow live, and interactive, participation by the public in council meetings.
In addition, the team is looking at how to make voting more efficient as the method currently being used is a roll call approach. An alternative is Microsoft Forms which is an e-voting solution that provides an option for faster voting, especially with a high number of members in attendance e.g. Full Council. The e-voting will be opened at the time announced in the meeting and closed in a set timeframe. Members can vote by either responding to the poll in the chat feed or by being issued a link and supplying their vote. The results can be displayed live so the audience will be are aware of the result in real time. There is also a report function to check if any votes are missing or to highlight if votes have to be withdrawn or redone for any reason. Microsoft Forms is already a product in Lambeth’s Microsoft subscription so will not result in any additional costs.
How will you sustain the new approach?
The team will continue to test and work with its supplier to ensure it is addressing the most pressing challenges for the remote council meeting project. This will include providing ongoing support and guidance for councillors, and officers, to enable all participants to become comfortable and confident when using this new technology for all types of committee meetings.
The team will also explore if hybrid meetings are implementable post COVID-19 and are open to the new possibilities this presents. The team are conscious that the resource required to operate these types of meetings is high with four members of staff required to do what one person would do in normal circumstances. However, if this works out in the long term and the team overcomes its challenges this could become the new BAU.
- Empowering the chair of the meeting is key – this gives the individual more confidence to carry out this role effectively, invest the time and training to ensure they are comfortable in that position of authority as chairing can be distorted on video conferencing.
- Early identification of IT and Democratic Services capability is also important.
- In the test runs the team found out that if the quality of the call was low that it was often because too many participants on the call had their camera enabled. It is important to keep this low on big calls to avoid unnecessary quality dips. To avoid other bandwidth related issues, where possible connect directly to your hub (with a cable) and ensure families / households are not downloading / streaming on other devices during the meeting.
- It is always worth ensuring that all members are briefed on items and reminded on code of conduct to ensure that online behaviour via the video conferencing platform is upheld.
Wayne Chandai, Head of the Chief Executive’s Office and Democratic Services Manager
- 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:
- provides live video feed of meetings (over 10 speakers are viewable on this platform to the producer)
- ability for public to attend (over 250 attendees)
- Q&A capability
- 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.
- 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.
Steve Simpson, Head of ICT for both Lancaster City Council and Wyre Council email@example.com
- 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
- 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!
Christine Lewis, Overview & Scrutiny Officer
- London Borough of Hounslow
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.
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.
- 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
- 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 Sutton
With a series of key meetings due just as lockdown came into place, we moved quickly to prepare for virtual meetings without quite knowing what they would - or should - look like. As the council already uses the Google Suite of products for day-to-day working, we adopted Google Meet as our platform for virtual meetings, offered a Google Chromebook to all councillors and worked with Digital and IT colleagues to livestream our committee meetings via YouTube.
With guidance and bespoke support proactively provided by the Committee Services Team to councillors, officers and members of the public, we quickly held successful meetings of our Strategy and Resources Committee, Planning Committee, annual council meeting and other committee meetings with no significant IT/procedural issues. Public participation has been mostly unaffected, with a guide on council meetings shared with residents and training provided to those who are participating in meetings. Preparations for the next phase of meetings, which we expect will mean something of a hybrid between virtual and in-person meetings, are ongoing.
We have also adapted our Member Development Programme to offer virtual sessions, including a recent discussion on civility in public life, and saw higher-than-average participation in this session with 67% of Members in attendance. This virtual approach to Member Development is further supporting councillors in their roles in the current circumstances.
How is the new approach being sustained?
The Committee Services team continue to offer guidance to Members, officers, and the public, and regularly review this guidance as our meetings continue and we recognise where further improvements can be made.
- Move quickly to think about and plan a best course of action and then look for input from a core group of colleagues before it is rolled out.
- Develop bespoke guidance for the officers supporting meetings, councillors and other participants. This not only helps those stakeholders but also gives space to think about how the meetings will run, how to best manage the process and to develop back-up plans
- Think about having another team member on hand to deal with technical issues for participants. It can be challenging to act as Clerk and address IT issues at the same time.
- Acknowledge that you are working through something unprecedented and so many things will be removed, added and changed as you move forward - be comfortable with these inevitable changes
- Know and build relationships with your Members - some aspects of meetings will be very important to them and will need retaining whereas others will not.
Matthew Stickley, Committee Services Team Leader
- 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.
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.
Keith Brown, Stakeholder Relations and Community Engagement Manager
- Moray Council
Moray Council has been webcasting with Public-i for many years and consequently the Council wanted, if possible, to keep current meetings transparent even if they are taking place via video conference.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, Moray Council suspended all Committees and created an Emergency Cabinet to convene when required. The first meeting of the Emergency Cabinet was held via teleconference and the management of the meeting was quite laborious as well as not being visible to the public.
We received an email from Public-i inviting Councils to have a look at their newly developed Connect Remote which would allow the live webcasting of meetings whilst being held virtually. Following an impressive demonstration, Moray Council was one of the earliest adopters of the new platform in Scotland.
Implementation was very easy. Prior to the first meeting we carried out a test meeting to ensure that the Councillors, who sat on the Emergency Cabinet and Officers were able to access and use the platform, this ironed out a number of issues (mostly on our side due to the Council’s firewall) to allow the first meeting to run smoothly. Public-I were great when we were getting started and were on hand to help with any issues. We’re now flying solo but assured that Public-I are there if we need them. We have held 2 further training sessions to ensure all Councillors are familiar with the platform. We have now held 4 meetings using the new platform, which has been so successful that, our first Full Council with all 26 Councillors is taking place on 17 June 2020. The feedback from Councillors and Officers has been really positive.
Hints and tips
Moray is an area that doesn’t have good broadband coverage so we have set up 2 PCs in the Council building which are available for any Councillors to use who have connection issues.
As we have got to grips with the system we have created a brief for the Chair, who, at the start of each meeting, sets out housekeeping tips, including mics and cameras off when not speaking, using the hands up button to indicate wishing to speak. As each meeting has been held we’ve learnt things and the meetings are definitely getting slicker.
Under normal circumstances we only have one Committee Services Officer (CSO) attending the meetings, however we’ve found that using Connect Remote, 2 members of staff ‘attend’ the meeting. One is minuting and managing the meeting and the other is monitoring the chat function and dealing with any technical issues as we found it was too much for 1 member of staff to deal with.
It has definitely helped doing the tests before going live to ensure everyone knew what they were doing.
Due to the success with the Emergency Cabinet, we are now looking at rolling out Connect Remote to all our Committee meetings. The introduction of the e-voting is also something that we are looking forward too as life gets back to the new normal. We currently have the 2 Committee Services Officers as the moderators, however we are looking at moving to the Chair and a CSO being the moderators.
- 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 is 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.
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.
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
- Newcastle City Council
As councils were forced to work remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, central government gave councils the ability to host formal council meetings fully remote. This has unlocked a new landscape for councils to engage with citizens and ensure decision making continues unhindered.
A recurring issue for councils is around making voting efficient, accurate and quick as the most popular practice to take votes is by roll call to ensure all councillors present have their voices heard and the democratic services team can record voting patterns. It often ensures accuracy but consumes a large portion of the meeting time.
Newcastle City Council has delivered over 40 meetings remotely, running a full council meeting that had 73 of the 74 councillors in attendance on 24 June. It has required IT support and training for councillors to ensure they are getting the most optimum experience at the meetings.
The council is leading in the remote voting area of work. Since May 2019 the council has been using it in house mobile voting system (GoVote) for all votes in the Council Chamber. The system allows members to vote using their own personal mobile device (mobile phone, tablet, laptop) through a secure website. With the introduction of remote meetings, the system has allowed councillors to record votes from whichever location they are based. Admins can trigger polls on demand from the admin screen for any given subject. Vote results can be displayed on a results screen mapped to a room layout in real-time. Votes can be analysed after the session in Power BI.
The system has full IT support to ensure technical experts are on hand to help councillors work through the voting tool.
Each councillor has a unique ID and password attributed to them with users needing to be authenticated and checked in to be able to vote. The user interface which is controlled by the lead democratic services officer allows the team to track how votes are being cast with a Red (No), Yellow (Abstain) Green (Yes) system which is mapped out on the council chamber seating plan. This comprehensive view allows the officers to track who is online at any one time and who has voted in an easy detailed layout.
The council has developed this voting web app in house and is maintained by the IT team to run in Azure, using Azure B2C to authenticate users. The council has now made this available open source on GitHub.
The council is now looking into further integration with the Microsoft Office Suite and how it could work with the Teams software for even more convenient voting during meetings through the video conferencing portal.
Service Manager Democratic Services
- 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).
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”
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.
#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.
Christopher Burton Head of Communications
- 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.
Teams may not work with Safari meaning Apple users have to download an alternate browser or the Teams App to join a call.
- 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.
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).
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.
Mark Pritchard, Communications Lead: Campaigns
- Warwick District Council
Warwick District Council first broadcast a live Committee meeting on 7 May 2020. Having tested various products, we decided to use Microsoft Teams with live broadcast via YouTube.
We had previously not used Microsoft Teams, nor were we broadcasting our Town Hall Committee meetings, so both officers and councillors had to learn a new way of conducting meetings in a short space of time. Some of the things we worked through included meeting etiquette, dress code, protocol for indicating request to speak, voting and the practicalities around “leaving the room” in the case of a pecuniary interest. Committee Services officers supported by colleagues in IT offered one to one training sessions to our Members. We had several test meetings which provided a great place for identifying weaknesses in the system and coming up with improvements. Whilst our priority was to resume our council and Committee meetings, holding these remotely has brought some unforeseen benefits for the Council and the community.
The decision of using YouTube for the broadcast was taken as the Council had a channel already, and a good social media presence. YouTube being a widely used and free platform were added benefits. This therefore presented an opportunity to increase engagement not only on Council meetings, but also the other videos published by the Council.
To date, the council has broadcast live 21 formal meetings (council, Executive or Committees) over 24 different live feeds on YouTube. The recordings of the live meetings will continue to be available on YouTube for a year after the meeting took place.
Viewing figures for live broadcasts vary from 4 or 5 to 50 or 60. The maximum the public gallery can hold at the Town Hall is 35 to 60, depending on room layout.
In addition to people watching live, to date, there has been a total of over 2,900 views of the council meetings (averaging 134 per video). The most watched video to date is Planning Committee (Part 1) on 17 June with 311 views, followed by Council on 20 May, which was a combined stream for both an ordinary council meeting followed by Annual Council, with 308 views. This flexibility allows people to engage with broadcasts live or retrospectively at their convenience.
While these numbers are very positive, officers are also receiving positive feedback from the public about their experiences of both speaking at meetings and watching them online. Some of the comments included:
“Excellent support from Committee Services to public speakers to ensure they can join and participate in meetings”
“Public speaking at the remote meetings much better than at the Town Hall; at the Town Hall, one can barely see who is speaking at any time, both from the public gallery and whilst sitting in the public speakers’ area in the Chamber. This is much clearer online”
“The sound is much better with remote meetings, both when part of the meeting and when watching it on YouTube”
“Voting is so much more transparent this way by calling out each individual, and this is important for the public because they want to know which way their Ward Councillor voted.”
Overall, there has been an increase in residents engaging positively in our remote meetings, indicated through viewing analytics on YouTube, as well as the amount of subscribers to the channel which has increased from 26 (7 May 2020) to 177 (21 July 2020) with minimal promotion.
Reflection and the next stage
When initially exploring the benefits and flaws of different systems, the team were simultaneously learning how to operate and learn all aspects of functionality. We received support from colleagues in IT, who arranged demos and provided training, as well as seeking solutions to issues as they arose. A lot of documents with guidance for councillors, officers and members of the public had to be written, as well as considerations around privacy and data protection. At the same time, we had to reconsider our calendar of meetings and make amendments to accommodate the implications of remote meetings and the additional demand on officers.
We were keen to facilitate public involvement in our Committee meetings, and we were able to welcome members of the public to join from the very first Planning Committee meeting, which was a success.
During this time of change, forums such as ADSO and the LGA have been extremely helpful, and we have learnt a lot from experiences shared by other councils, which we are very grateful for. Having held 121 remote Committee meetings, we are now in a place where we are confident with the system we have in place. Our colleagues in IT are keeping an eye on developments / updates from Microsoft Teams and any impact these might have on our remote Committee meetings.
- Wirral Council
Wirral Council has been using Public-i to webcast the majority of our public meetings for over two years. When the COVID-19 restrictions came in we decided we wanted to continue broadcasting via Public-i as a lot of residents were already used to finding our webcasts on the Public-I micro-site.
We have been running our meetings through Microsoft Teams and broadcasting them through Public-I’s Connect Anywhere system.
We ran our first virtual committee on 28 April 2020 for Planning and have now held 21 public meetings up to 7 August 2020, including a full Council meeting, Cabinet, Licensing Panels and Sub-Committees and a Scrutiny Committee Call-In.
We have also been running the general presentations for school appeals through the same set-up and have held 27 general presentations broadcast through Public-I with the panel and presenting officer talking through Teams. We have set these webcasts to “hidden” and given them password access so that only the relevant parents can view them. We have run over 500 individual school appeals through Teams with parents invited to join the meetings via individual meeting links.
We chose to use Microsoft Teams because we were already using it (to a much smaller degree!) before the restrictions were put in place. Our legal and IT teams felt it was more secure than alternatives such as Zoom.
When we first started using Teams for public meetings it was restricted to showing a maximum of 4 video feeds at once. We developed a protocol for meetings with only the chair and lead officer keeping their video on and others only turning theirs on when speaking. Teams was rapidly updated to show up to 9 video feeds at once and the newest version can now show up to 49.
Chairs have been given an additional script for when they begin meetings to explain how the meeting will work on-line and what the expectations of members are.
All voting is done via role-call and verbal/video response. We also ask that members confirm that they have heard the full debate on each item before they cast their vote.
We organised multiple training and practice meetings before each committee meeting to ensure members and officers were happy with how the meeting would work on-line. The number of these meetings has reduced the more committees we’ve held as the majority of our members have now attended multiple committees.
Initially we had one officer capable of webcasting these meetings and have had to buy new equipment for other staff to ensure that multiple people can cover this role.
We have been using the webcasting officer to also facilitate meetings, i.e. making sure that the correct people have joined, letting guests into the meeting and creating private chat groups for the chair and lead officers. We have also made sure that there was IT support for the earlier meetings and for larger scale meetings like full Council.
Bryn Griffiths, Scrutiny Officer
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