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.