A Pandemic Silver Lining: Public Meetings Have Become More Public

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Covid-19 forced governments to have all virtual gatherings. There are disadvantages, government leaders say, but a hybrid meeting model may be here to stay.

It’s difficult to imagine that there have been any silver linings surrounding the deadly Covid-19 pandemic. But there has been one that’s been seen as particularly valuable to people who are concerned with government transparency: Public meetings in which attendees can participate remotely.

Historically, public meetings have been conducted in person, and many state governments required that be the case. But when the pandemic hit, “there were a lot of orders suspending the public meetings laws and many state and municipal leagues lobbied the legislature to give them more leeway in holding meetings with people attending remotely,” says Dan Bevarly, executive director of New Democracy Partners, a nonprofit that advances reforms in democracy and trust in government.

Remote public gatherings, ranging from those for zoning to city council meetings, have become ubiquitous over the last couple of years. The advantages are manifold. For example, “there have always been many things that have kept people from participating in meetings,” says Graham Stone, co-founder of PublicInput, a company focused on providing equitable formats for communicating and participating in government.

“It’s difficult to go if you have young children who need care, for one,” says Stone. “And people with more than one job, or job times that don’t align with the meetings often have troubles attending. Even transportation can be a challenge, for people who have vision problems that mean they can’t drive in the evenings when the meetings are being held.”

As a result, although this is not universally true, entities are reporting that remote public meetings have helped them to draw larger crowds than they had prior. “Most folks have said to me we’re getting better attendance at our meetings than we ever had,” says Tom Hennick, public information officer for the Freedom of Information Commission in Connecticut. “One community in Connecticut used to have about 20 people at zoning meetings, and now they’re getting 60. Some of these new attendees didn’t have the energy to come home from work and then run out to a meeting.”

Adds Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government: “Remote meetings open up the possibility for more voices to be heard.” 

She recalls one particularly powerful, and even poignant instance in which that was the case. “In the 2021 legislative session, which was virtual,” she recalls, “they were debating a bill that had to do with staffing ratios in nursing homes. And a 35-to-40-year-old bedridden man who lives in a nursing facility testified from his bed on a bill that directly impacted him. That couldn’t have happened in a meeting that required that everyone be there in person.”

The Downsides of Remote Meetings

There are, of course, some disadvantages to remote meetings. For one thing, there are a number of places in the United States in which broadband service isn’t available to a number of people in a community, and that effectively mutes them from remote public meetings. Though this may be alleviated somewhat by money spent on broadband through the American Rescue Plan Act, it’s still an impediment in many places.

There also are natural advantages to normal human interactions that are difficult to simulate in virtual meetings. For many years, the two of us regularly attended meetings by conference calls for one of the organizations we worked for. The ability to call in allowed us to attend without traveling several hundred miles. But it also meant that we could rarely ever tell what the reactions were to comments we made. Had a joke gone over well? Or had it resulted in sour faces around the room?

Of course, that was before video was commonplace in meetings, but similar issues continue to exist. “When you’re in a room, it’s a chance to get to know the different people and their arguments. You can’t do that when each person is given permission to speak, one by one,” says Rhyne.

Over the course of the last number of months, as it has periodically appeared that the pandemic is less of a threat, particularly to people who have gotten their vaccines, there has been a growing debate over the values of hybrid meetings, in which some people attend in person and others participate from their homes or offices. 

Says Stephen Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties: “New York state seems to be settling on a hybrid approach, which I think is a good thing. While you don’t want people to be governing from Barbados, a hybrid affords people with extenuating circumstances the ability to participate.”

The transition from purely remote meetings to hybrid ones is not proving to be a simple one in many places, however, and some entities have decided to go back to all in-person meetings. Technological hiccups are one impediment.  

The effort to coordinate the use of cameras, microphones and other technology for a hybrid meeting can be a daunting task. “Hybrid meetings are difficult to produce technologically,” says Dawa Hitch, director of the communication and public engagement department in Asheville, North Carolina. “You need to make sure that everyone has a seamless experience. As a result, one major challenge to having hybrid meetings is staff capacity.” 

An additional nettlesome question raised by hybrid meetings is “how do you give equal consideration to people talking remotely and the people who are in the room?” asks Stone.

A growing number of entities are still debating whether to transition to hybrid meetings as a middle ground once remote meetings can transition to in-person ones. “I was speaking to a city council member a few weeks ago,” recalls Stone, “and he said he wasn’t so sure he wanted to keep up with that virtual or hybrid kind of thing. He said he missed people being able to grab someone after the meeting and talk to public figures some more.”

In Asheville, “I anticipate that when covid has abated, it is likely that formal council sessions will go to just in person meetings, just as it was before the pandemic,” says Hitch, “and sometime after that I’d expect there to be a discussion of the pros and cons of hybrids. It’s likely that we would start with community meetings, which could be used to test out the utility of hybrid for the council.” 

“It’s been a wild ride,” says Hitch. “It’s been hard and it doesn’t end here. We’ve been forced by the pandemic to think creatively about a whole number of topics, one of which is better ways to run meetings.”

Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.

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