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