The Town of View Royal serves the citizens, residents, businesses, and visitors of View Royal, a town with a population of 10,858 located in the Capital Regional District of Greater Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Webcasting Council meetings had been on the Town of View Royal’s radar for a while. Council requested the Council meeting webcasting project start in 2021. Then COVID-19 happened.
The Town of View Royal is deemed an essential service so remained operational throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, while other businesses were shutting their doors. Certain decisions at the Town of View Royal had to be made by Council; therefore, Council meetings had to occur.
The Town of View Royal immediately pivoted from their original plan. They moved to virtual meetings using Microsoft Teams to connect their Councillors working from home. They also registered a conference call number with Microsoft Teams for Councillors that were more comfortable phoning in.
This interim solution did not include live public participation. Instead, written comments were submitted via email or placed in the Town’s mail drop box.
One of the first decisions Council made was to have the Council meeting webcast project begin immediately. The Town of View Royal’s Director of Corporate Administration/Deputy Chief Administrative Officer, Sarah Jones was tasked to run with the project. Director of Finance, Dawn Christenson, was brought in to facilitate from an IT perspective.
The Town of View Royal was not interested in compromising quality, security, or functionality to get their Council webcasting up and running quickly. “I understood that Council wanted this done as soon as possible, but wanted it done right,” explained Dawn, after the decision was made to expedite the Council meeting webcast project.
The Town of View Royal began planning how to run Council meetings from inside Council Chambers as soon as the ministerial order stated its limitations on gatherings. The plan allowed for Councillors and some Town staff to attend in person. Other Town staff and guest presenters would join remotely. The public would view the live webcast and participate during specific engagement periods during the meeting.
The Town of View Royal was faced with a time crunch that posed considerable challenges for the Council webcasting project. The project was rife with technical infrastructure challenges; Council chamber did not have any camera equipment, and the Town also had to find a way to integrate Microsoft Teams with their existing audio system.
The Town of View Royal also did not have time to do a complete scan of every tool available on the market, but they wanted a permanent solution, and did not want to invest in a stop-gap solution that would have to be replaced.
The Town of View Royal does not have an internal IT department; instead, they contract some project work to Regroove Solutions, their trusted cloud and Microsoft Office 365 advisor.
The Town of View Royal was already using Microsoft Teams and paying for Office 365 since their transition to the Microsoft 365 cloud in 2019. Dawn was convinced from the start that Microsoft Teams could do what they needed.
Sarah produced a requirements list for Regroove to answer the question, “Can Microsoft Teams do this?”. Regroove conducted research on how Microsoft Teams could meet their requirements.
One key requirement came directly from Council. They insisted the solution must have some form of public participation. The public should be able to interact with Council in a meaningful way during official Council business. Allowing the public to watch Council meetings in real time, but wait to weigh in after the event wasn’t sufficient.
Dawn conducted a scan to see what other municipalities were doing to address similar issues. The municipalities that had been webcasting prior to COVID carried on with their broadcasts, which showed live video of what was happening in the room but most did not allow remote participation.
As View Royal approached other municipalities in the Capital Regional District for advice, they found that Zoom and Cisco WebEx were the primary tools used for municipal conferencing; however, finding a way to facilitate Council meetings would be an entirely different challenge. It would require perceptions to shift and minds to change. The general messaging from Chief Administrative Officers from other municipalities was that “There are real concerns that Microsoft Teams was not up to the task”. View Royal doesn’t have the infrastructure or experience in-house to use a tool like Zoom safely, securely, and in a controlled way.
Plus, the Town of View Royal was already paying for Office 365 which included Microsoft Teams video conferencing. At the time, the price per user for Zoom was comparable, and would have been an additional expense.
We are a smaller municipality. We are not wealthy, and our residents are tax-level conscious. It would be “shame on me” to spend more money to buy something new when we were able to do it economically with software we already own.Dawn Christenson, Director of Finance, Town of View Royal
Regroove developed a testing plan to provide confirmation that their research was accurate. Their plan included a variety of real-life Council meeting scenarios to identify what parts of Microsoft Teams Live worked well and what parts needed refinement. Testing was performed in Council chambers with full on audio integration and mock public participation through meeting chat and audio conferencing. It also included simulations of remote video screen-sharing from meeting presenters that were not physically in the Council Chambers room.
Microsoft Teams Live Events handles the real time webcasting of the audio and video of Council meetings in the Town of View Royal’s Council chambers.
The public access the meeting via a weblink that allows them to open the Live Event in their internet browser or through the Microsoft Teams – that they can install on any device.
Members of the public can participate when the Mayor opens public engagement periods at set times during the meeting.
During public engagement periods, the public can phone in from any landline or cellphone using the conference call phone number and ID. The producer of the Council meeting immediately mutes public callers’ microphones to optimize audio quality and reduce audio echo or feedback. Participants can then unmute their microphones and speak directly to Council in real time when called upon.
The producer also assists with muting attendees during public participation periods, if they contribute inappropriate or abusive content. If they continue to ignore the Mayor’s requests to stop or change their behaviour, the producer can remove them from the meeting.
Meeting attendees have additional platforms to contribute feedback or commentary if they do not wish to call in to the meeting. The Microsoft Teams Live Event chat feature is used to share text messages. This area is moderated to ensure that only appropriate questions will be read aloud. The meeting chat also creates an audit trail of interactions with a downloadable Question and Answer report and a downloadable Attendance report.
Regroove worked with View Royal to brainstorm workarounds and solutions to functionality gaps. For instance, Vimeo was adopted to store the video recordings of Council meetings. Microsoft Stream, which is available as part of the Office 365 license package, is only available for internally shared files, and at the time of the project, did not allow recordings to be shared publicly.
Regroove comes up with creative solutions for things that I hadn’t already thought of. Even though municipal government is not the only type of business they work with, they worked to interpret and understand our requirements so they could come up with creative solutioning that actually fits our needs.Dawn Christenson, Director of Finance, Town of View Royal
Outcome and Benefits
The Town of View Royal’s first live webcast Council meeting took place on July 7, 2020. It went well, with 18 public attendees at its highest point. Prior to the pandemic, View Royal typically saw three to five public attendees on a given night, unless there was a controversial item on agenda (which may draw a larger audience).
Another area where the new Council meetings system provides value is the ability for people to watch a recorded webcast if they cannot attend a meeting in real time. The initial webcast from the Town of View Royal’s first virtual Council meeting has 48 unique views to date (August 2020).
People can share feedback after a meeting has concluded using the online Contact Request Intake Form or simply email the Mayor or the appropriate department directly using the addresses listed on their website.
Regroove continues to work with View Royal to address challenges as they arise. For example, they implemented a pre-registration system for guest presenters who want to interact with Council. Presenters fill out an electronic form to submit their request. An automated system emails them meeting links and a PDF with instructions for how to join. Two calendar reminders are also generated and sent, one including a rehearsal session to pre-test their technology in advance of the meeting.
Another proactive initiative Regroove assisted with was the creation of a SharePoint site to document the Council webcasting solution from end to end. The site acts like a living document that is continuously updated whenever a change to the webcasting solution is made. Dawn is pleased that the person following her will not have to start from scratch to learn the system.
It’s a living document that exists for everyone, for evermore. That is a credit to Sean [at Regroove] to push me to make it a higher priority and put it parallel to implementation.Dawn Christenson, Director of Finance, Town of View Royal
The site includes links to Microsoft Planner, that allow the production team to access several checklists containing repetitive tasks that need to be completed to prepare and ensure each event is run consistently. The template can be copied to create new checklists for each event so staff can stay on top of the small things that could easily be overlooked.
This solution was built using:
- Microsoft Teams
- Microsoft Teams Live Events
- SharePoint Online