Don’t let technical difficulties lose you the next election!
With the goldfish-like attention spans of internet users these days, it shouldn’t surprise you that you have less than 15 seconds to capture the average user’s attention when they land on your website.
But did you know that the average American spends over 10 hours a day online? Even more impressive are communities across the United States reporting over an 800% increase (pre-COVID-19 pandemic) in active participation since launching online engagement tools to supplement in-person public meetings. These online adaptations provide residents with alternative opportunities to review meeting documents and provide feedback before ever showing up at City Hall. Lakewood, Colorado, for example, specifically noted participation by persons aged 35-54 to be 10 times higher when online options were available. For those under the age of 35, participation was 100 times higher than previous in-person levels.
Local Government, Meet Video Calls
Over the past few years, local government has experienced a significant shift in the way public meetings are coordinated and conducted. Primarily due to public safety measures brought on during the COVID-19 pandemic (i.e. social distancing), electronic meetings present a real opportunity for local governments to increase their transparency, engage the public, and harmonize their actions with the desires of the community.
Capitalizing on this opportunity is simple: local government administrators should be as tech savvy as their middle school children (though admittedly, TikTok may not be the best way to send out public notices).
From Zoom to Facebook Live and YouTube, administrators have a plethora of meeting-enhancing tools at their fingertips. That said, we all know that a poorly facilitated online meeting is a frustrating experience (no one wants to spend 15 minutes watching the mayor try to unmute himself).
Tech-Tips For Public Interactions
To help you win the engagement battle in your community, here are a few tips and tricks we’ve learned about hosting meetings online:
- Ensure public access to the meeting. When the public notice is sent out, a meeting link needs to be attached along with instructions to the public so new users know how to access it. Double check the settings to make sure that anyone with the link can join the meeting. Also, it’s polite to shorten the URL of the meeting for people that only see a hard-copy of your notice (i.e. tinyurl.com).
- Use knowledgeable staff as your facilitators. Find a staff member who knows the video-conferencing software you intend to use like the back of their hands. Then ask this person to be the “IT” person for the meeting. They’ll be able to smooth out any wrinkles quickly and effectively. While this facilitator can be a member of the board/committee, we recommend using another person/assistant so that they can devote their full attention to monitoring (i.e. muting/unmuting disruptive noises, etc.). That way you can focus on bringing down the house with your rad presentation.
- Introduce the technology. Have the facilitator generate the meeting early and monitor it to make sure everyone interested has access to the link, is accepted into the virtual meeting room, and is moved up to a presenter position if they are expecting to speak. When the meeting starts, the facilitator should briefly (60 seconds or less) teach the public how to use the video-conferencing software so they can properly participate.
- Create a queue of public commenters. During a public hearing, an effective facilitator can save the committee a lot of time and chaos. They can put public comments in order by messaging each person privately to let them know when they are next and unmuting them when it is their turn. If time limits are set on public comment, the administrator may also cut people off or mute them if they go far over time. Also, participants need to be advised before the meeting starts that the comments will be monitored, and people making inappropriate comments will be rejected from the meeting.
- Be sure the meeting is being recorded! A video or audio recording should be made of the meeting, and it should be made public after the meeting is over to remain accessible under OPMA and the ADA. Many video-conferencing platforms automatically upload the recording, but you (or the meeting facilitator) will likely have to adjust the settings to make sure others can access it.
- Upgrade your internet. Nothing destroys a public meeting like a poor connection. Make sure that the room in which you hold meetings (ideally the whole building) has a strong and stable internet connection. If that means upgrading your internet service, do it sooner than later.
- Get a proper microphone. Just get one. Test it long before the actual meeting. The mic needs to be able to capture all of the comments in the room.
We hope these tips help you avoid any frustrating or embarrassing experiences holding public meetings online. No one gets through life these days without a single technology glitch, but pushing through the learning process and developing a well-practiced system for holding online meetings will undoubtedly expand your influence in the community.
Want To Learn More?
Check out our online training modules! Note: Rural Community Consultants is able to provide access to specific training modules free of charge courtesy of the Utah Office of the Property Rights Ombudsman.