How to prepare new councillors for the future of hybrid meetings and workplaces
AUTHOR: DAVID HALL, DIRECTOR AT CLOUDY IT
With just weeks to go before the May local elections, councils are taking stock of the last 12 months. The biggest change has been the shift to remote working, and among the biggest winners has been local democracy, with online council meetings enjoying far greater participation from both councillors and public than was typical with traditional, face-to-face meetings.
The consensus was that councils would continue to reap these digital benefits in the shape of hybrid meetings, combining in-person and remote attendance. No wonder, then, that NALC, the Local Government Association and councils all over the country were dismayed by the government’s decision on 25 March not to extend after May 6 the emergency pandemic powers that had specifically allowed remote meetings from April 2020. However, in the face of a huge outcry and legal action, the government has now opened a consultation into their future.
It was inevitable. While society is, with the vaccine rollout, taking baby steps to “get back to normal”, one thing that’s not going back into the bottle is the ability to work and meet online, and that applies to councils as much as it does to businesses. Apart from the democratic dividend, virtual working can boost productivity and enhance data protection, especially with the right tools and training in place.
Many councils are increasingly adopting Microsoft Office 365 as their platform of choice. With Microsoft Teams being a free option within the accessible 365 suite, councils are maximising on the secure online conferencing system Teams offers, as well as the range of integrated apps that create a hub for effective teamwork and that, make meeting management much easier – and GDPR-compliant to boot.
Take the meeting agenda pack, for example. Instead of the clerk having to painstakingly compile, cut-and-paste, print and photocopy to produce all the supporting documents that have to be issued to councillors, the Decisions app (that integrates with Teams and Outlook) enables information to be merged seamlessly into a shareable, master document in a matter of minutes. Files associated with the agenda are automatically linked, making it quick to administer and disseminate for clerks, and clear to follow for councillors.
Stored and accessible online, the agenda pack can be updated quickly and dispenses with the need for reams of paper that take over home offices or spare bedrooms. The digital files can also be assigned different levels of security. Some will be freely available to download and annotate before or during meetings, while more sensitive documents can be protected from downloading, copying or sharing, and their access time-limited, to satisfy GDPR legislation.
Other features include a time tracker to keep the agenda moving, a secure voting system, and auto-transcription of the whole meeting. The Decisions app will even generate the minutes for you. The net result of the shift to digital is an average 30% reduction in the amount of time spent planning and coordinating meetings, and an increase in engagement of some 76%.
Despite the government’s dithering, the future seems clear – it’s “digital-first”, particularly for meeting preparation, whether or not those meetings are held in-person or as a hybrid of virtual and “real” attendance.
Town clerk Sally McClellan, who has been using Teams since 2018, recalls her council’s successful transition to digital: “Everyone thinks changing your system is a real headache, but it can be done in bite-sized chunks, including the training, which makes it easier for everyone. And our older members haven’t had any problems with it, despite some people’s assumptions, because it’s not about your age – it’s about your mindset and the training support you get.”
CloudyIT’s Meeting & Document Management Summit, supported by NALC, provided councils with advice and insights from expert speakers last month. NALC members can access the recording and exclusive offers at cloudyit.co.uk/summitoffers.
To help with onboarding new councillors next month, CloudyIT is offering councils FREE Microsoft Office 365 training from now until 30 September 2021, plus 15% off licensing for new customers, and half-price Decisions meeting-management software for the town and parish councils (or those with a precept up to £2m).