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Remote council meetings

Sustaining the democratic functioning of councils through the coronavirus pandemic remains key priority as they seek to direct and maintain services, and to co-ordinate local responses. Council and committee meetings form a vital part of this local democratic fabric

Background

Following on from the Act and in response to the regulations that have now been made available, we are keen to share some comprehensive guidance which will enable our members and the wider sector to facilitate public meetings efficiently and effectively, but in a virtual capacity.  

Socitm has been collaborating with the Local Government Association (LGA), the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO), Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS), as well as the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) and the London Office of Technology & Innovation (LOTI) to ensure that the guidance that it offers is aligned to the advice and best practice being shared and promoted by all of these agencies. 

A collaboration between the LGA, Socitm and others, the remote council meetings resource hub is a central pool of information, advice and guidance designed to help councils in their decisions about what platforms to use and how to run virtual council meetings.

Helpful discussions at both the Local CIO Council (LCIOC) meeting and Socitm’s Committee of the Regions have focused on provisioning virtual meetings, in particular what platforms are available and how they are being used. We are sharing a standard template for a repository that will enable regions to capture information about the platforms being used in their areas. 

A compendium of best practice is in preparation. This will comprise collections of case studies where the technology/platforms are being deployed effectively and meetings are successfully being planned or delivered. These collections will be made available on a rolling basis on Socitm’s new resource hub.

There are a number of discrete aspects that need to be considered in delivering effective public meetings which have been documented in the sections below.

Technical options and considerations

It is useful to consider the technical solutions to these requirements require two discrete groups of technical functionalities:  

  1. Conferencing (a platform for convening and managing the meeting), and 
  2. Broadcasting (how the meeting will be made available to public observers and/or participants.  

In addition to these technical elements, it is necessary to consider the procedural and skills issues associated with this revised way of conducting official business. 

Given that the current situation requires many councils to trial their first presentation of virtual meetings during unfavourable circumstances, including a considerable risk of higher than usual level of staff absence, this guide will focus on market-leading platforms that have an established footprint in the public sector. 

 

1. Conferencing 

The Act does not specify that any specific medium, e.g. video, be used for public meetings. Councils will wish to consider either video or audio platforms aligned with their existing technical infrastructure investments.   

A cloud-hosted product, integrated with Office 365 (O365), Teams is a conferencing platform included within the cost of an O365 subscription. The committee clerk or chair can be provided with meeting control functions. There is presently a maximum number of 250 participants in a Teams meeting, Teams also enables document sharing between meeting participants. 

Zoom is a popular, device independent platform that is widely used in public, domestic and commercial environments. Zoom host controls can be utilised by meeting managers. The initial set-up of Zoom is non-technical and reasonably uncomplicated. Meetings can be recorded for later viewing. Online video tutorials are available without charge. A range of subscription packages are available. The principal concerns associated with Zoom relate to reported security issues – please see More information for guidance.

Resources to help you and your teams safely and successfully transition to a remote work environment using Zoom.

Support during the COVID-19 pandemic (Zoom)

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Security features and functions

Security guide (Zoom)

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Advice to public servants on important security settings when using Zoom remote conferencing services for official government business, either within a public-sector organisation, or when collaborating with partner agencies. 

Zoom security advice for public servants (NCSC – New Zealand)

In response to the Coronavirus pandemic, Cisco offers free access to Webex in those countries affected by the pandemic. The conferencing service can host meetings of up to 100 participants with no time limit. External observers or participants can be added to a meeting, which they can attend online from any device, including mobile, tablet, or laptop computer. Chat between participants is included. The host has access to meeting controls and can mute the microphone of specific participants. Meetings can be recorded for later viewing.

How Webex is supporting customers to make effective use of its video conferencing solution. 

Support during the COVID-19 pandemic (Webex)

Voice conferencing 

The Coronavirus Act does not specify the requirement to use a video conference platform but states that:  

“Access to the meeting through remote means including (but not limited to) video conferencing, live webcast. 

Councils may consider the use of voice conferencing solutions that may be available through their existing IP telephony solutions. For example, BT MeetMe.  

The BT MeetMe service is a voice conferencing service that enables meetings of up to 40 participants. Participants can be invited to join a meeting from any location either toll free or at local number rates depending upon their location. MeetMe can be used from any telephone, either a landline or mobile. Conferences can be recorded and downloaded for sharing on the council website, if required. 

 

2. Broadcasting 

Broadcast of meetings may be achieved either as a live stream or by publishing a recording of the meeting on the council website. Zoom, Teams and Webex each provide broadcast functionality.

Zoom video webinars can be broadcast to up to 10,000 view-only attendees, depending on the size of the webinar license. Webinars can be streamed across social media platforms including Facebook.   

An extension of Teams meetings that enables the scheduling and production of events that are streamed to large online audiences. 

Events can be recorded and made available for download from the council website. 

Teams live will not permit the public to broadcast their webcams to the meeting; however, their participation can be enabled through the chat feature.   

Webex meetings can be recorded for publication on the council website. 

Public-i is a broadcasting tool which sits alongside a video conferencing platform using a piece of software to capture and stream the meeting. This process requires a dedicated laptop with a USB video capture card. An operator is required to manage the Connect Anywhere software.  

Processes and procedures

Running meetings

London Office of Technology and Innovation (Loti) has produced a comprehensive guide to running online meetings accessible to the public, which is currently out for consultation and finalisation. The guide offers useful advice on meeting operation and process and may be consulted when organising your council’s procedure for online meetings. A number of councils are developing practice notes to support running remote council meetings. 

 

Governance and meeting management

Modern.Gov delivers cost-effective, efficient and transparent decision management for all stakeholders, meeting organisers, committee members and the public. 

The solution is designed to support meeting organisers, empowering them to compile meeting packs, it reduces paper usage and printing costs. Last minute changes to agendas can be quickly published, without needing to reprint documentation. This delivers significant time and cost savings and so is a solution that is widely used in the sector. Having used the Modern.Gov system to prepare the necessary committee documentation, the recommended platforms can be used to share the necessary information. 

 

Voting

In all the platforms cited in this paper, voting or polling functionality is untested in a formal committee setting. It is recommended that a committee clerk takes a roll call of participants when a vote is undertaken. Further information on voting etiquette is provided below. How voting is controlled does depend on the platform used. Socitm will provide further details in subsequent guides produced in association with our executive partners. 

 

Public participation

Where meetings require direct input from the public this might be best achieved by asking for written comments in advance; comments could then be read out during the meeting by the chair. Where a platform permits direct participation by the public, such as in a Zoom or WebEx it will be necessary to email meeting invitations; the chair will then know who is likely to attend. It is not recommended that meeting identifiers or access codes are published widely as this can leave meetings vulnerable to malicious hacking. 

Chat messages could be used in the meeting to enable the public to ask questions. However, there is a risk that chat can also be used for other less constructive commentary. A moderator role could be fulfilled by an administrator familiar with the platform. The moderator could also control management functionality to switch off the connection of a meeting participant or observer if this is appropriate. 

Behaviour and virtual meeting etiquette

The nature of the Coronavirus crisis is such that the adoption of virtual meeting technology will happen with minimal training or change management. Consequently, it will be necessary for meeting organisers and participants to adjust ways of working in order to navigate and manage effective, socially distanced meetings. Good practices will include: 

  • For important meetings, hosts and participants should schedule in time before the meeting begins in order to test equipment (for example, signal, WiFi, sound)  
  • Make sure you are aware of how to access support and that attendees know how to report any issues 
  • Consideration should be made for Councillors needing to concurrently participate in a video conference, refer to meeting papers and vote   
  • Use video when circumstances and internet connection support it. Video facilitates a much more effective meeting than audio   
  • Set who is a Presenter and who is an Attendee when setting up the meeting 
  • Take care when sending out the meeting invitation, ensure it only goes to those who are invited and validate participants   
  • Where there are committee members from other organisations (for example, joint committees involving members from other councils), you should consider (according to the platform used) how to invite them  
  • Ensure anonymous join is enabled (requires lobby controls to be in place otherwise anyone with URL could join/re-join a meeting)   
  • Check that all internal participants have the correct equipment for the meeting and any required app 
  • Start your meeting a few minutes early, especially if you have public participants. This will give you time to join and prepare for your meeting. It also allows for conversation at the start of the call before beginning business 
  • When sharing webpages, zoom in. This helps your attendees see what you’re showing 
  • The chair, as meeting host, should facilitate the conversation, ensuring each agenda point is met and engaging all members on the call. The chair should also make it clear whether they would like to ‘invite’ people to speak and for how long, or whether the conversation is open 
  • Participants should send apologies or expected lateness ahead of the meeting so that conference call is punctual, and no time is wasted. Equally participants should tell the chair if they need to leave the meeting early  
  • Participants should mute their sound if they are not speaking to avoid sound pollution. If you are typing minutes, this point is imperative 
  • Participants should mute all other applications and silence their phone to avoid additional sound pollution 
  • Participants should keep their video on, if appropriate, so that the chair and all members can see who is speaking. If video is used, participants should make sure the lighting is bright and not backlit. In order to avoid distracting other participants it is advisable to blur the background image during the meeting  
  • Frame your video, ensure you are in the frame and position the camera at eye height signal,  
  • When participants do contribute to the meeting, they should make sure they speak clearly and concisely, and get straight to the point 
  • Ideally, participants should not use loudspeaker settings in order to improve sound quality 
  • If there are a lot of participants, when someone starts talking, they should identity themselves to avoid any confusion as to who is speaking. This also helps the chair to facilitate who should speak next if multiple people have a point they wish to discuss 
  • All participants should try and stay focused and refrain from multi-tasking, so that they are engaged and ready to answer any questions directed to them 
  • When sharing screens be careful about what may be visible to others – for example, email, open documents on the desktop 
  • As organiser, have control over who can speak at meetings by muting users’ mics 
  • At the end of the meeting, eject all participants one by one. You should be the last to leave   
  • In some circumstances it may be appropriate to record your meetings for future reference. The videos can be useful for training and people who were absent. You should make sure everyone is aware that you wish to record the meeting and obtain their permission, and finally 
  • According to your chosen platform, research ways in which voting can be restricted to elected members. For example, with MS Teams the simplest way is to use MS Forms Quick Polls in Outlook.  

Final thoughts for now

Turbulent times mean agile solutions. We’ve worked exceptionally hard to cover a lot of ground very quickly. It’s been exceptional to see the number of agencies working together to achieve the same end goal. Although there is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach to a solution, and much will depend upon the strategic investments already made in any given council, we can provide some high-level steer as follows:  

  1. For councils with an O365 investment and who are likely to have relevant administrator expertise, Teams live events is a standout solution. Microsoft has a good record in the delivery of enterprise cloud solutions.
  2. For those without O365 licences, Cisco Webex provides a cost effective and robust solution. Alternately, consideration should be given to voice conferencing for meetings which are likely to involve a smaller number of participants. 
  3. Operating procedures for online meetings should be revised in line with the advice published by the LGA and the developing experiences and practices of local councils. 
  4. Think about actively monitoring the solution(s) selected. In addition to ensuring the right audience is being reached effectively, the underlying data can provide insights into material security and performance issues. 

We’d like to continue to hear from you – please share your feedback; what’s working well and where you are experiencing any difficulties. And do continue to share your success stories with us at hello@socitm.net. Our best practice repository will continue to be updated and your involvement is encouraged and appreciated. 

Socitm and the LGA

Socitm has been working with the LGA and other partners to help create a central pool of information, advice and guidance to help local government comply with the Coronavirus 2020 act. Sustaining the democratic functioning of councils through the coronavirus pandemic remains a key priority and council and committee meetings form a vital part of upholding democracy. Our resource is part of the LGA Remote Council Meetings Hub and is constantly updated.

As part of this process, we are developing this evolving guide to the use of remote meeting platforms. This will include guidance and support for local government ICT and democratic services leaders at every stage, from procurement to operation, to enable that remote council meetings to be facilitated smoothly, efficiently and cost-effectively.

The LGA has researched the platforms available and assessed their proficiency in meeting the requirements of the Coronavirus 2020 Act. The growing pool of resources being assembled by Socitm will build further upon their work, through placing greater emphasis on case studies and best practice examples of the use of the various platforms. This will enable unique insight into the overall functionality requirements for running remote council meetings. We will also be adding further information about processes and procedures as these become apparent and established through the experiences of our members and their local authorities.

Since the Act was passed, we have received considerable input and enquiry from our members. This resource will also play host to the many experiences recounted to us, helping you to assess your options more fully.