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BLOG: Guildford Council through the advent of virtual meetings

As if leading and supporting their communities through a life-changing global pandemic wasn’t enough of a challenge, councils have also had to simultaneously respond, adapt and overcome the democratic challenges presented by social distancing – through the advent of online ‘virtual’ meetings.

“I think it’s worked really well. Much to everyone’s surprise,” says Cllr Caroline Reeves, Leader of the borough council in historic Guildford, the jewel in leafy Surrey’s crown. As one of the first local authorities in the country to take the digital leap of faith following the passing of the Coronavirus Act 2020 in April it is no surprise that this county town just 30 miles from London is also known as the UK’s Hollywood of Gaming with over 70 of the world’s top gaming companies choosing to headquarter here.

“I wasn’t conscious that we were one of the first until I spoke to other council leaders. I think everybody realised that they had to do it. We didn’t really have a choice,” she explains. “Because we were already set up to work and meet remotely it felt quite a natural next step.

“It was very important that as a council we could show our residents that life was going on. People were worried that planning consent was going to grind to a halt. But with virtual meetings, they could see we were still making decisions and are still involving people in those decisions in a positive way.”

Through its ambitious Future Guildford Transformation Programme which began in 2019, the Council had just invested in a wholesale IT infrastructure upgrade providing officers and all 48 councillors with Windows 10 laptops complete with Microsoft Teams. The roll-out had taken some months and was serendipitously near completion as the country sped into lockdown. One of the first tasks was software training for councillors.

“We drafted a remote meetings protocol to help councillors understand the basics,” explains Democratic Services Manager, John Armstrong, on the step-by-step guide to everything from chairing a remote meeting and dealing with confidential information to what to do if members lose connection. Once they had got to grips with the technical side of things, he explains, “first and foremost was the need to comply with the new regulations to ensure that we were able to lawfully hold meetings with councillors participating and voting remotely”.

“As a legal minimum, we had to ensure that participating councillors are able to hear one another during the meeting, and for any members of the public wishing to attend remotely to be able to hear all of those councillors.

“Until the Regulations were introduced at the beginning of April, the concept of holding council and committee meetings remotely was completely alien to local government. We had, of course, had webcast meetings that could be viewed during and after the meeting but nothing like this. We have all had a steep learning curve in getting to grips with the technology and the protocol.”

Yet within two weeks of the decision to recommence regular business – and with its Millmead offices closed to the public and all staff working from home where possible – the Council successfully held its first virtual meeting on 21 April.

Guildford Borough Council Chamber

Cllr Reeves is quick to praise the Council’s Democratic Services and ICT teams for making the transition a seamless one with their one-to-one training and ongoing assistance: “For some people it’s completely out of their comfort zone, and without that support it just wouldn’t have been possible. The officers have been so helpful and put a lot of effort into getting everybody trained. That has made all the difference and we’ve all been able to just get on and do it.”

The Future Guildford programme, a long term cost saving project to modernise the Council, improve efficiency and better meet the evolving needs of its residents, had already made provisions for remote working with robust new IT systems and integrated technology, and the Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak necessitated a fast-tracking of those plans.

The logistics of May’s Planning Committee meeting demanded more of the Microsoft Teams software due to the element of public participation.

“Everybody who wished to join and take part were able to do so. We had 14 public speakers, some of whom joined the meeting digitally via Teams whilst others dialled in on the phone, and overall, it worked well. Anecdotally the feedback was really good,” continues Armstrong, while highlighting other areas with room for improvement.

“We are constantly reviewing our processes for remote meetings. The main change necessary was in respect of voting, particularly in relation to how we conduct a vote in circumstances where a show of hands would normally be taken. We have experimented with both a ‘roll call’ – very time consuming – and using the meeting chat facility in Microsoft Teams. Neither option is perfect, so we will be looking at alternative options available to us going forward.”

Cllr Reeves also notes the occasionally labour-intensive requirements of meeting administration and housekeeping, to ensure that all councillors and members of the public are connected and able to speak, and the additional levels of concentration required in watching an online conversation – particularly when several meetings run in quick succession. 

However, with restrictions on public gatherings likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future, councils are having to consider making these temporary adjustments rather more permanent – and with clear environmental as well as work-life balance benefits, it is a prospect which she whole-heartedly embraces.

“Councillors and officers are already at home so there are less issues when a meeting overruns and finishes late, because they don’t have to drive home afterwards. On the whole any online meetings are saving us time and if all businesses are able to continue with the digital shift it will hopefully mean there’s a lot less traffic and air pollution. For me the fact that I don’t have to travel all over the county for meetings, for example, is brilliant. I don’t think many of the meetings I used to attend will ever go back to being all face-to-face.”




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