What the Rise of Virtual Meetings has Taught Us About Civic Participation

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Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | The increased occurrence of virtual community meetings demonstrates how technology can be used to boost citizen engagement, transparency and trust.

If you go back a year and ask any city or county clerk if they thought they would be hosting virtual public meetings for most of 2020 and 2021, many would say that their municipality didn’t have the technology, training and citizen engagement culture to execute regular virtual meetings. Necessity, however, is the mother of invention—or in this case, digital transformation. 

The broad adoption of virtual public meetings may have been unexpected and rushed by a pandemic that blindsided the nation, but local governments have learned to embrace it and even thrive in the virtual meeting environment. And they are seeing huge gains in civic participation as a result.

Before the pandemic, even the best-intentioned citizens who wanted to participate in community decisions were often inhibited from doing so because of lack of time. Virtual meetings have shown that through technology we can eliminate time and distance barriers that prevent civic engagement. And this type of engagement isn’t limited to virtual meetings. Citizens are also:

  • Participating in online fitness classes offered by their local government. 
  • Registering for potentially life-saving vaccines. 
  • Signing up for alerts and notifications related to virus spread and vaccine availability.
  • Registering their pets and paying the associated fee online.

With such benefits as strengthened citizen trust, it is easy to understand why many local government leaders expect digital engagements like virtual meetings to transition from a stopgap measure to a permanent fixture. Especially as more communities install high-speed wireless infrastructure and citizens across ages and demographics invest in at least one Internet-enabled device, the barrier to digital access is decreasing.

Still, making services available online—and doing it quickly in response to Covid-19’s social distancing requirements—has not been without its challenges. To successfully lead virtual meetings, clerks and their peers have had to battle barriers related to Wi-Fi bandwidth, system training, caller muting strategies and even safeguard their meetings from so-called “Zoombombers.” 

However, citizens are adaptable, and they are recognizing and appreciating the effort that the public sector is taking to modernize its engagement offerings.

Despite such challenges, the response to contactless government has been overwhelmingly positive, and it’s opened new opportunities for local governments to increase transparency and grow citizen trust. As a software architect engineer working for a city in Utah said, “Municipalities have traditionally lagged behind the private sector. The pandemic is forcing local governments to make choices about where they need to go in a variety of aspects of their business models. They’re realizing that they have to provide citizens with the modern conveniences that people expect.”

Each opportunity for citizens to engage with their local government online—whether it be reporting a downed tree or watching a public meeting—is an opportunity to amplify citizen voices and ensure a community is shaped by all its members. And each engagement is an opportunity to multiply civic participation. Attending a virtual meeting can lead to participating on citizens’ Facebook pages, leading to one more volunteer at the annual community clean-up event and one more voter on Election Day. With such power and possibilities, the value of contactless government is more civic engagement that creates stronger, more connected communities.

Megan Asikainen is the solutions manager for CivicClerk. Before joining CivicPlus, she worked for over 12 years as a city clerk.

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