The fieldwork for my PhD has consisted in part in watching and transcribing webcasts of council meetings. This was in the ‘before times’. Councillors like me up and down the country would put on their glad rags once a week or so, tip up at town halls up and do their thing.
Some of them would be filmed doing so and webcasts of meetings put up on council websites. Some recordings would be professionally produced using external platforms with nice little extras such as the relevant papers attached and easily referenced timings making it easy to watch the part of the meeting you were interested without having to wade through matters arising from the last one. Some of them were a little more homespun, filmed on phones and iPads, as one colleague put it, “local government styled by the The Blair Witch Project”.
Audiences for these would vary. Anecdotally, I was told officers would watch meetings in their respective councils to follow how their policy ideas were translated and received by councillors. Planning Committee meetings would get more hits from residents who were unable to attend in person but nevertheless wanted to know about their neighbour’s home extensions. One Chief Executive told me her mum watched and sent notes back on how her hair looked. And then there was me, collecting data with which to test my research questions.
All well and good. Then came the pandemic and lockdown and everyone went online. Whether it’s Zoom or Teams (other providers are available…) everyone from toddlers to great grannies logged on it seems. Quizzes were ubiquitous at the start and my family played some great drawing games (none of us will trouble Hockney). It’s not all been plain sailing though and we’ve all heard tales of Zooms gone wrong. Kids, dogs, nudity and those chat messages sent to all in error. I sat through one where someone, in response to a dull peroration on cycle paths, lifted their foot up and started to scratch it.
My rather niche research field has become a daily reality for most of us. I get regular messages along the lines of ‘you won’t want to miss this one….watch from 29 minutes in!”. I’ve been asked to comment on individual performance and style – “does my bookcase look big in this one?” – and I’ve taken part in virtual peer reviews and given feedback, online of course. I’ve been a participant myself of course and not just in council meetings. I’ve presented to an academic conference, chaired a meeting with a shadow minister interrupted by an ice-cream van outside her house and next month I’m monitoring elections in Bulgaria.
What has all this brought to my research? Well, put simply, meetings held online are a different matter to those held in person and publicly broadcast meetings something else again. Being at home, being alone in a room without colleagues to encourage, moderate or provoke can lead to unguarded moments. ‘Home truths’ are just that sometimes.
The organisation and direction of online meetings is a different process and the outcomes unpredictable. I recently watched two recent meetings in one authority, one calm, the other chaotic but the former was darker in tone and raised issues of bias and the chaos of the latter simply demonstrated a community at ease with itself and its challenges.
How we move on from here is a brave new world. Viewing figures are undoubtedly up and residents are getting more engaged. Hybrid meetings are now a reality. We all have new skills to learn and mute buttons to press. Watch this space….
Cllr. Bryony Rudkin is a PhD student at INLOGOV, Deputy Leader of Ipswich Borough Council and is a member of the UK delegation to the Congress of the Council of Europe. Bryony also works with councils around the country on behalf of the Local Government Association on sector-led improvement, carrying out peer reviews and delivering training and mentoring support.