Councils across NSW are in the process of reopening their public facilities. So, once again, they’re having to overcome novel challenges when it comes to managing COVID-19 risk in their communities. Disease spread, cleaning and logistics, to name a few.

Robert Humphries, Regional Risk Manager for Hunter and Metro, discusses what’s been happening in NSW over the last six months, how councils are collaborating to tackle these new challenges – and what the landscape ahead looks like.

Saying goodbye to in-person group meetings

The arrival of COVID-19 has meant saying a sad, temporary farewell to our regular face-to-face visits with councils. At Statewide HQ, we also quickly realised that our scheduled in-person ‘risk group’ meetings would not be possible for the foreseeable future.

As our Members know, these risk groups provide an invaluable opportunity to:

  • Bring all councils from the region into one space
  • Carve out time and space for formal learning, knowledge sharing and challenge resolution
  • Seek validation from peer councils before pushing an agenda forward within their own council

In a time of crisis, especially one which presents shared widespread challenges, there is a heightened need to network, exchange ideas and workshop issues. So we knew our regular group meetings were going to be more critical than ever – and that putting a stop to them was simply not an option.

And that meant we had to find a way to adapt in the era of social distancing.

Enter the Zoom meeting

In collaboration with our Members, we decided that we could conduct our regular meetings over Zoom.

Prior to COVID-19, we ran the risk group meetings every two months in the Hunter area, and quarterly for the Metro area. But given how rapidly the landscape was changing in those early days of the pandemic, we decided the frequency needed to increase to fortnightly across the board.

We also decided that, rather than have set meeting agendas like normal risk group meetings, the Zoom meetings should be more informal and organic. We’d just let the conversation unfold according to whatever challenges were most significant at the time.

Also, the meetings were never compulsory. We just invited people to ‘jump in’ if they were able to. And the turnout was still fantastic, with around 10-12 councils attending each meeting.

Challenges in the early days of restrictions

Councils were invited to share some of their experiences and challenges and receive feedback and input from their peers.

Essentially, we’d go around to each council in an informal manner and ask: “What’s been happening for you?”

During the lockdown phase, it was straightforward in most cases. We discussed the immediate challenges all employees faced.

Key topics initially included setting up home-offices, managing cyber-security and shutting down many council facilities, including playgrounds and outdoor exercise areas, in line with new NSW Health Guidelines.

However, the complexity of the conversations escalated in subsequent weeks with restrictions easing and public facilities reopening.

The challenges with ending lockdown

The reopening of each type of facility poses its own challenges.

For example, how do you reopen a hall with multiple bookings in one day, when it now needs to be cleaned meticulously between each use? And how do you prioritise which bookings get the space?

You also need to think about the number of people allowed in these indoor spaces at one time, what signage is required – and whether you need sneeze guards in certain areas.

When re-opening playgrounds, you need to determine whether additional cleaning is required or if user instructions via appropriate signage is sufficient.

Then you’ve got facilities such as libraries that attract an older class of people. These pose additional concerns because of the high risk to this demographic.

And there’s a myriad of challenges with returning staff safely to the workplace too. To address these, many councils are trying to marry up the NSW Health Guidelines against what’s practical and feasible.

What’s more, because the state government is sharing new information all the time, challenges are ongoing and constantly evolving.

Assurance you’re ready to reopen

Several councils are looking at reopening all their public facilities, while others acknowledge they’re not in that position yet.

Given the known factors for potential COVID-19 spread, all councils should undertake a due diligence process prior to re-opening facilities.

Some councils are also looking at getting COVID-Safe accreditation for their libraries and leisure facilities to further protect their communities.

Like a rubber stamp, this accreditation will give councils the confidence they need to reopen. And it tells the public: “We’ve done everything we possibly can to make it safe for you here”.

Are in-person risk groups on the table again?

Hopefully within the coming months, we may be able to meet in person again – but obviously, the situation is still uncertain.

In the Hunter area, the risk group meetings are normally held in rotation at different council offices in the area. However, for metro councils, we run these meetings in the Statewide head office in Barangaroo. There are still strict limits on how many people can be in our building, so logistically, we have to wait for these limits to change.

Thankfully however, we still have many options afforded to us through Zoom.

The new normal?

What the new normal may look like is anyone’s guess. But for the time being, the Metro and Hunter councils have decided that there is a role now for both formal and informal meetings. So we’ve decided to resume our formal risk group meetings, while still running the informal meetings as needed (both still over Zoom).

The informal meetings are ideal for casual networking and idea sharing – and for reinforcing a key ethos of the Mutual: councils being stronger together.

It’s wonderful that we have found a new way to facilitate collaboration among councils and drive them even closer to their shared goals.


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