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Virtual Training – why didn’t we think of it earlier!?

Member development trainer Bethan Evans relives her experiences of switching from face-to-face to online training during lockdown and looks at how they may affect the physical/virtual divide post-pandemic.

Bethan EvansUntil earlier this year, one of the joys of running my own training business had been travelling to different council offices around the country – holding training events with elected members in their locality, enjoying meeting them in person and debating governance issues. Sessions dealing with standards, probity, officer/member relations etc worked really well with lots of interaction, group discussions, bouncing ideas around the room and honest talking between members and officers – it was impossible to think that training could be successfully delivered in any different way.

All that (like much else) stopped abruptly in March with lockdown. All my member development bookings were cancelled overnight, and it became clear that the days of packed council chambers/seminar rooms were over, certainly for a while.

Member development programmes were, fully understandably, not top of anyone’s agenda as local government tackled the COVID-19 pandemic. But slowly, over the last three or four months, we have moved to a new way of working which would have seemed extraordinary just recently.

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Local government, as it always does, has stepped up and adapted to new circumstances and training programmes for members were quickly back up and running in many authorities.

I spent lots of April and May watching Councils take their first steps in holding virtual meetings. We all held our breath as wifi connections failed, members didn’t mute themselves, unknown participants joined the meeting and dogs and children happily invaded our screens. We struggled with the etiquette of holding formal council meetings in this new way – was it ok for councillors to smoke or to sit in their pyjamas? (Answers – no and definitely not!).

Like colleagues across the country, I suddenly had to get to grips with Zoom, MS Teams, Google Meet, Lifesize, Go To Webinar etc and puzzled at the idiosyncrasies of each system.

Starting to deliver sessions on-line from my study (I had never previously worried about what was on the bookshelves behind me!) was initially pretty daunting. But once the technology was mastered, it became clear that training done in this way really could work well.

Many of the topics councils wanted to hear about during the lockdown (such as how to make effective decisions virtually, chairing virtual meetings and the roles of members and officers in the COVID-19 emergency) leant themselves to virtual learning, but as I have started to return to core subjects such as Standards and Conduct, Probity in Planning and Member/Officer Relationships, many councils want these as refreshers on-line for their members in the autumn term.

What seemed, initially, a temporary solution to delivering training during the crisis, has now become pretty established and we need to reflect on whether these new approaches are here to stay.

Training through a remote platform can undoubtedly offer real benefits. As with virtual council meetings, virtual training sessions are much easier to fit into delegates’ lives (recognising work and family commitments) than having to come into the council chamber, often involving half a day or an evening, even for a short training session. Reduction in travel is a significant issue for many, and a practical contribution to the climate change emergencies which many councils have declared.

For some participants, the more impersonal format of remote training sessions is attractive. Some feel better able to learn through this medium and feel less exposed to scrutiny from others or pressurised to express an opinion on issues. It may suit new members or those finding their feet in a new role.

The chat/message facilities on most on-line platforms is a fantastic tool for training. Encouraging delegates to post thoughts/comments/questions etc as we go through the session really helps to get “virtual” dialogue going. It is also an excellent permanent record of comments made through the session which (used appropriately and recognising confidentiality) can be a valuable source of material for officers to follow up – more personalised training, coaching for certain members, different member development topics?

Another excellent use for virtual training is to deliver one-to-one coaching or mentoring. We are all familiar with training sessions on certain topics (usually standards) being put on for all councillors in the hope that one particular councillor (who has provoked the need for a refresher session) will attend. Some councils are tackling that head on and suggesting personal sessions (less obvious when they are held on-line than in a room in the Council offices) for councillors. I have also delivered one-to-one coaching for councillors in e.g. chairing or public speaking skills and this works very well.

There are, though, clear challenges in delivering training on-line successfully. Even though most people have fast become skilled at working remotely, many remain unconfident with the technology or are stuck with dodgy wifi connections. In a short session, significant time can be lost dealing with tech problems and “I think you’re still on mute councillor” will be a phrase I live with for many years.

Also, judging reactions on screen can, as many chairs of cabinets/committees have found, be much harder than “reading the room” and picking up body language. Assessing how the session is going and if you are pitching the content at the right level is very difficult to judge.

This is particularly difficult if participants have turned their cameras off – are they listening avidly, or have they popped out for a walk or gone off to watch Tipping Point? And I have learned through experience that anything much longer than 1 ½ hours is too long to keep focus and attention.

Adopting a new approach has really made me think about why face-to-face sessions work, and what elements can and can’t be replicated on-line.

I ran my first “IRL” member training session for many months last week. We were all safely socially distanced in a large council chamber and it was wonderful to have that direct interaction with and between the members.

I realise that training events for elected members are often one of the few opportunities for councillors to meet each other (and officers) informally outside normal business. This is particularly true of cross party engagement. The coming together for a training session offers the chance to have open and honest discussion about challenging issues. This is really hard to replicate virtually.

Topics which encourage reflection and opinions will always, in my view, be best in a real life setting; the stimulation of ideas and responses needs physical presence and proximity to be most effective. Conversely, more fact based sessions where members are largely in “receive-mode” can be very efficiently delivered on-line.

I also feel that working with larger groups of participants is difficult on-line. I have run a number of successful virtual sessions with 35+ members, but it is challenging to ensure that everyone who wants to speak gets heard and the ground is covered fully.

So, do I think that remote training is here to stay? Definitely yes, because it offers efficient opportunities for development, it suits some topics well and a some people will always want it. But I do see it as part of a mixed portfolio of options which will also include face-to-face events.

When we are able to choose the best approach (rather than have it imposed by COVID-19 regulations) I think we will settle on a mixed economy of options. We will use face-to-face sessions for those topics requiring open and fluid discussion or where large numbers of members are coming together, and we will use virtual sessions for shorter training events where the topic lends itself to this approach or as an added option for members who prefer it.

Roll on a time when we have those choices again. In the meantime, I am heading back onto Zoom and getting to know different parts of the country through glimpses of city/scenery outside councillors’ windows.

Bethan Evans is a provider of training on governance topics to elected members and officers.


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