Virtual Council Meetings: weeknote, w/c 22.06.2020

It’s goodbye from the project team and hello to business as usual

30 second read:

  • It’s business as usual for virtual council meetings from next week, no longer a project
  • I hope that some of the new ways of working will stay with the teams
  • People have been brave, kind and generous in a difficult situation
  • There is a big unanswered question about participation which is beyond the scope of this work
  • Next up: a discovery on the needs for community-style meetings/consultations

3 minute read:

Virtual Council Meetings move into “business as usual” from next week. We will cease to work as a project team, but I am hopeful that some of the working practices we’ve introduced will continue to shape the work of the new cross-functional team* delivering a full timetable of council meetings. Together we:

  • Collectively agreed priorities and visualised work towards these in a Trello board (other tools are available)
  • Used Google Chat to work in the open and asynchronously
  • Regularly reviewed our progress and how we were working together
  • Started from user needs, not user preferences
  • Changed and iterated based on feedback from users
  • Delivered a minimal viable product (MVP) and introduced small improvements frequently

Our achievements

In a nutshell, we have delivered:

  • Over 30 meetings online since the middle of April
  • 29 of those have been live streams
  • GoogleMeet tech checks and orientations to almost 100 councillors, officers, invited speakers and residents 
  • A new team of live streamers
  • A new process for organising and delivering meetings based on shared documentation and combined expertise across three teams
  • Knowledge sharing with other councils: Adur and Worthing, and Kingston and Sutton in particular. 

A few thank yous

My colleagues from governance and scrutiny have adapted to an entirely new way of working, using new tools, implementing new regulations with new people. This was not for the faint-hearted; their courage and “have a go” attitude got us through many of those early meetings. They helped to install confidence in committee/commission chairs, supported external participants to join meetings, answered copious questions and drafted a heck of a lot of new protocol. There were days when it felt overwhelming but they didn’t give up and always got the job done. 

My peers in ICT have been consistently patient, enthusiastic and generous with their time. We now have a team of live streamers broadcasting approximately 4 meetings a week, This includes tech checks with officers, councillors and external speakers and troubleshooting during meetings. This is against the backdrop of supporting 4,000 council employees to work from home in a pandemic. They are so good at it now, we’re getting requests from other departments! 

Senior leaders trusted the team. What does this mean – they listened when we needed to escalate, built on our recommendations and feedback, trusted our evidence and decision making. They protected us from small-p politics and let us get on with experimenting and delivering. 

Beyond our scope

For many, the prospect of delivering council meetings virtually sparked ambition for increased participation. Early indications show that more people are watching the live stream than would have attended a meeting in the town hall prior to COVID-19. Whether this trend will continue is something we need to assess over the coming weeks. 

The question of participation in local democracy is vast and fascinating. Lifting and shifting a face-to-face process online isn’t the answer**, albeit a catalyst for a lively conversation. We’ve replicated a process*** that is over 40 years old – something that wasn’t designed for internet-era culture, unresponsive to short feedback loops, out of step with people’s expectation of service provision and a 24 hour news cycle. How might we introduce changes? Would this require primary legislation? Questions well beyond the scope of our project, but the shift to online pulls it into sharp focus. 

In my dream world, this would make for a fantastic collaboration between service designers, user researchers and policy makers. 

What next?

We are planning a discovery to understand what the needs are for more community-style meetings and consultations. We will review our current tech stack against these needs to see if we need to make any changes. 
We are also looking into how we can support the continuation of councillor surgeries: 1-2-1 meetings between councillors and residents. You can help us by filling out this quick survey. You don’t need to be a Hackney resident or provide any personal information.

*That’s governance, scrutiny and ICT colleagues
**We’ve introduced time boxed meetings, shorter more focused agendas, and adjournments all at the discretion of the Chair
**Set out in primary and secondary legislation

Virtual Council Meetings: w/c 15.06.2020

Finish line is in sight

We had our June mid-point review on Monday. We looked at progress against our success measures and did a team retrospective. We are performing really well across our success measures, which is great.

Our biggest fear remains the live stream, specifically, if it goes down. To help mitigate the nerves we’re being more explicit about what to do. In a nutshell this is: let the technical support officer investigate and do what they recommend. Overall, the live stream is performing very well and is stable. People’s perception and reality are very different things but are equally valid experiences.*  Tackling perceptions by strengthening our advice is time well spent.

We’ve been hosting the live stream on the HackIT YouTube channel during this testing phase. In the next couple of weeks, we’ll be shifting it across to the Council’s official YouTube channel. We will be making some iterations at the same time (based on viewer feedback), including tags and more information in the meeting description:

  • Links to the agenda and papers
  • A message about what happens if the live stream is stopped 
  • An explanation about what to expect at the start of the meeting
  • A reminder that statutory meetings are held in public but are not public meetings.

What to expect next week:

  • I’ll be writing my last weeknote 
  • We are making final preparations to “go live” – by this I mean operating a business as usual service from w/c 29th June. It’s not going to look or feel like a project anymore
  • We are starting preparations for the full council meeting in mid July. 

*I leant this when in a former professional life as a mediator.

Virtual Council Meetings: Weeknote: w/c 08.06.2020

We are rapidly scaling up delivery

It feels like a real step change this week. We delivered seven meetings, two of which ran concurrently. We are rapidly scaling up the number of meetings we are supporting each week. We delivered seven meetings in May and now we are churning out seven meetings in a week! 

We tested a couple of different ways to run multiple live streams at the same time. We’ve got another week before the next set of concurrent meetings to bottom out our preferred solution. 

We started collecting YouTube analytics on our livestream views. This month we are creating a baseline to support a wider conversation about public participation in statutory meetings. It’s a fascinating area of discussion – but reaches way beyond the scope of our current work. The analytics vary considerably between meetings, which is expected. Unsurprisingly, planning generates a lot of interest and our public health scrutiny commission. 

We are having a mid-point review of our “beta -testing” phase next week. We’ll check in on our progress against our success criteria, celebrate what’s gone well and explore how we can keep improving. 

On my mind:

  • Starting the conversation about hybrid meetings – part physical, part virtual
  • Supporting committee and commission chairs to exchange experiences and learning

Short and sweet this week. 

Virtual Council Meetings: Weeknote, w/c 01.06.2020

To quote Mother Superior from the Sound of Music “how do you catch a moonbeam in your hand?”

We had a really successful planning sub committee on Wednesday. This is consistently our most efficient and effective virtual statutory meeting. Getting it right – everytime – is so much more than the tech working. It’s about collaboration, preparation and focus. 

We need to capture what is contributing to the success of this particular meeting and spread the learning. Hopefully I’ll have more to say on this next week.

Live streaming – our consistent frenemy 

In other news, we’re working out how to concurrently live stream multiple statutory meetings. At the moment the solution looks like utilising a second YouTube channel and another piece of enabling software to push the internal live stream to YouTube. Any other ideas welcome! 

YouTube analytics are amazing. You can measure almost anything! I’m like a kid in a sweet shop. The trouble is working out what is valuable to measure and how each measurement contributes towards building an accurate big picture. I’m actively seeking advice on this, so drop any pearls of wisdom into the comments section please. 

Reusing hard-won knowledge

I’ve picked up a side gig over the last couple of weeks. I’ve been working with the apprenticeship team on their recruitment for our September cohort. Apprenticeships are providing vital employment and training opportunities for young people in our borough and we are anticipating around 1000 applications this year. The team is thinking creatively about how to use GoogleMeet to host recruitment days and assessments. I’m so pleased that I can re-use the knowledge we’ve gained from the work on virtual council meetings to support them.  

Coming up next week: 

We’ve got six meetings next week; two of these are commissions which haven’t yet met under the new regulations. We’ll be getting our thinking caps on about hybrid meetings (part physical, part virtual) and how these might work as we emerge from lockdown. 

Finally, I’m keen we get committee and commission chairs and vice chairs together for a top tips session. I’d like to be able to pull together their shared experience to supplement the procedural guidance we have.

Virtual Council Meetings: Weeknote, w/c 18.05.2020

Don’t make a drama out of a crisis 

The worst happened this week. There was a broadband outage during one of our commission meetings. About half a dozen councillors lost their connection to the meeting and the live stream went down. Thankfully the outage was brief and councillors were able to rejoin the meeting. We were able to re-establish the live stream (albeit with a new link). We record all the meetings as a back up to ensure we fulfil our obligations under the new regulations. 

This is something we could not have prevented, but as a project team we had discussed what we would do in these circumstances. This prepared us to make decisions quickly.  

I was struck by how calmly the Chair and scrutiny officer managed the situation. The councillors who lost connection rejoined without drama – one pragmatically deciding to dial in. Behind the scenes, Mario worked quickly and resourcefully to get the live stream working again. 

One Crisis, no drama. 

The elephant in the room

We have delivered 10 statutory council meetings online since 14th April. We have recorded or live streamed nine of these. That’s a huge achievement. In June we scale up again and will be supporting 16 meetings. 

Here’s the rub. There’s one issue that keeps coming back to bite us. 

Meetings are looonnngggg

It boils down to this. Council meetings tend to be long, often running to three hours. Sustaining momentum and interest for an extended amount of time is hard enough with everyone in the same room, but what about online… 

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) moving a three-hour meeting online exacerbates the loss of concentration, productivity and focus. Added to this, facilitating complex discussions online takes extra time, interactions have to be managed, rather than organic, reading body language and emotions is much harder. 

Fun fact: the average attention span of an adult is between 10 and 20 minutes. 

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should*

To lift and shift something that isn’t ideal to a digital environment just because it is permissible by regulations isn’t smart nor is it desirable. We want to be resolving pain points not compounding them. Moving council meetings online is a good opportunity to experiment with new ways of doing things. 

The best way to eat an elephant or do something hard**

We need to revisit the length of meetings. Here’s some things we are going try in the next couple of weeks:

  • Limiting meetings to 2 hours
  • Less agenda items
  • More short breaks

We need to do this in collaboration with committee/commission chairs and the officers involved in meetings. We are breaking ways of working that have been in place for over 40 years. Small steps, open and honest conversations and iteration are going to be key to addressing pain points. 

If virtual council meetings are here to stay, we’ll also need to look at how information is provided and presented, But that’s another conversation for another weeknote. 

*My mum used to say this to me a lot when I was a kid

**Just to be clear I’m not advocating we eat Dumbo – or any other elephant