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Conferencing platforms for public meetings

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With the UK and Northern Ireland in lockdown, local government is being relied upon to look at options to allow the democratic process to continue. One of the biggest changes afoot is a move to holding council and committee meetings remotely, while retaining public engagement.

Under existing legislation, councillors are required to be present physically in a meeting room to be allowed to vote. However, the Coronavirus Act 2020 will allow meetings to take place where not all of the participants are in the same room and for councillors to vote from a remote location. Specifically, the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government [MHCLG] in England and equivalent bodies elsewhere) have been given powers under the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Part 1, Section 78) to make regulations about the manner of conducting of formal council meetings: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2020/7/section/78/enacted.

For our members and partners, this generates a number of challenges. Each day, we are receiving questions about how remote meetings would work. Would politicians be able to attend by conference call or if it would require a video link? How will remote voting be supported? How will the public still be able to attend council meetings? Which platforms have been trialled successfully? Which represent the best value for money and – perhaps more importantly – how much will this cost?

Together with the LGA, Socitm is looking to put together a list of virtual meeting platforms that local government can use for council meetings. This list and further research will then form the basis of a comprehensive guide to be produced in collaboration with relevant stakeholders. We want this guide to reflect your needs and experience properly.

We know that one of the biggest issues faced is that we each have existing systems in place. Users are, to a greater or lesser extent, used to these. But what if they are not adaptable to meet the fresh challenges we face? Change management is never easy. With time at a premium it is even harder. People need user friendly, low-tech, low-marginal solutions. And they need them quickly.

The most popular solution currently seems to be Microsoft Teams with TeamsLive but this might not be practical for all councils. Zoom is also popular video conferencing platform but, again, might not be suitable for everyone. Public-i is a webcasting solution adopted by around 200 councils but its application in these circumstances is still being explored.

What local government needs to know

The guidance we produce will cover (but not be restricted to) the following:

  • The challenge facing councils without Teams deployed. What are the alternatives? What are the pros and cons of alternative solutions, such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, etc?
  • Where web casting solutions are being used, such as that provisioned by public-i what further adaptations need to be made to it to enable it to be used effectively for public participation
  • Where Teams is in place, how and at what cost can TeamsLive be added?
  • How can councils with Teams, but without the ability to implement TeamsLive, address the challenge?
  • How can councillors and members of the public access remote meetings with minimal levels of IT support?
  • How can voting be undertaken and that data be processed securely?
  • How can comments and contributions from the public be harvested, shared and responded to?
  • Where to find how-to guides for individual platforms that are appropriate for these circumstances?
    • How can councillor training be developed and delivered?
  • Are there suitable etiquette guides available for virtual meetings (especially those involving press and public) and how would these be enforced?
  • How each solution meets and contributes to statutory requirements?

What we’d like from you
Your contribution to the preparation of this guide will be invaluable. Not only will this help us ensure we can provide you with direct and salient advice, it also means we will be better placed to ask questions about available funding and how local government can attract revenue that is sufficient to deploy a platform that works effectively.

Whatever your experience, which ever questions you’d like answered, we want to hear from you.

Whether you have additional areas you’d like the guide to cover or if you’d like to share your experience (best practice and what hasn’t worked so well), please email hello@socitm.net.

To produce the guide as swiftly as possible, we’d like all responses to be received by close of business Wednesday 1 April.

We’d also be extremely grateful to receive your success stories so we could incorporate into the guide and share on our website. Please submit these to the same address. If you don’t have the time to write these fully, we’d be happy to do our best to help.

Thank you for your time and help.