‘Councillor, are you on mute?’ Most districts have held their first remote council meetings to agree new Standing Orders enabling us to – wait for it – hold remote council meetings.
While my own council has webcast meetings from its chamber for 10 years, orchestrating the participation of 51 councillors from their own kitchens, attics and camper vans is a different ball game.
Careful testing, training and concise technical instructions, coupled with a guide to online etiquette, culminated in a successful, if stressful, first virtual council meeting. Two months ago, I could never have imagined we’d be live streaming on YouTube.
In the early days of lockdown, we held telecon meetings to talk tactics on our response. Like the shift from radio to television, we moved to sound and vision on Zoom and MS Teams, a massive improvement. Zoom-bombing children, pets and Amazon deliveries are new occupational hazards but it is much easier to read people when you can see them, even if occasionally they are hanging upside down like a bat because they have inadvertently rotated their image.
The groundhog day of endless video conferences takes its toll though. What is missing is virtual watercooler moments, that informal face-to-face contact which punctuates our day with snippets of information and the spark of ideas to explore. Mental Health Awareness week focused our minds on restoring some of that social cement with online coffee mornings and virtual pub quizzes.
We’ve extended that thinking to engaging with our residents during the pandemic. Our community response has focused on phone calls to reduce loneliness as well as providing food. Addressing social isolation and mental health issues is as much a part of our emerging recovery plans as economic recovery.
We have a head start with the amazing community groups that have sprung up to reach out to the vulnerable. With many folk likely to have to remain in isolation for some time, we need to harness our online creativity to reach out and involve them. As place leaders we will ensure nobody is left behind as we shape our resilient communities of the future.
Kathy O’Leary is chief executive of Stroud DC