New tech solution enable democratic business continuity during pandemic

The Challenge

Following the COVID 19 pandemic councils across the country were forced to cancel or postpone council meetings. Legislation for formal council meetings and technological constraints prevented holding remote meetings but once legislation changed to allow members to attend remote meetings and vote, Birmingham City Council took up the challenge to develop a technical solution that allowed the council to deliver council meetings online.

The Solution

Birmingham Council’s IT & Digital Service (IT&D) was tasked with developing a technical solution that would not only allow council meetings to be organised online but also to be streamed live with voting capability for councillors.

IT&D looked at several different types of technologies and decided on developing a unique solution that combined the streaming element of MS Teams Live Event with the organising features of MS Teams including the capability of MS Forms to enable the councillors to vote in the meetings.

The combination of technologies was a bespoke solution and a first across the UK. Birmingham City Council are now supporting other local authorities in developing the same solution. Due to the growing interest from other councils, Microsoft have started rolling out this capability.

The diagram below illustrates the steps involved in producing a Live event of a Team meeting:

Training Members

Once the solution had been tested, we set about providing training for members. Guidance was produced but more effectively, members’ “chat room” sessions were held – over several weeks (Birmingham has 99 members at the present time) – for members to “drop in” and test their connections, use of the different functions and practice with the voting forms.

The Extraordinary Meeting of the Full Council

The feedback from the meeting was positive – though no-one thinks this approach will replace face to face meetings long term! Whilst the agenda was short, just two items, it took a lot of preparation to get right. The resources needed to make it happen should not be underestimated – with input from members, democratic services officers and an IT team in support.

The Impact

We will continue to schedule on-line meetings throughout May and June – we’re now exploring the use of video (initial meetings were audio only) including the use of a corporate background to give a consistent view.

The next challenge will be so-called “hybrid” meetings – whereby some members are present in the Council Chamber and others join via remote means. As the lockdown eases, more members will want to come into the Council House, whereas others must stay shielded.

We also await the Government’s next move on this – there have long been calls from some members for remote voting, to support members to work more flexibly. However, the regulations that currently permit this expire in May 2021.

Online meetings have enabled The Council to maintain its business operations throughout the pandemic.

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