How City Councils Transition to Virtual Platforms, Engage Constituents

Posting videos of city council meetings online has been commonplace pre-pandemic, but transitioning to an all-virtual platform introduces new challenges.

Some cities have preferred to continue holding physical meetings in their chambers, while complying with social distancing orders. Morganton, North Carolina, for example, filmed each city council member, seated six feet apart throughout the chamber. The public was able to submit comments via email, mail, or hand-delivered letter; but the city allowed residents to sign up to come to the city council one at a time, speak to the chamber, and then leave.

“We always broadcast our meetings live on our local government access channel,” said Ethan Smith, the city of Morganton’s public information officer. “But the biggest challenge was, how do you hold a meeting while still maintaining social distancing and following CDC recommendations and guidelines … but without limiting the public’s access to their government.”

Online tools – such as Bang the Table – enable municipalities to broadcast their events and public consultations, showcase experts, panels, and hold live interactive Q&A sessions.  Virtual town meetings can provide some distinct advantages, particularly with increased citizen involvement and feedback. Live Q&A is a good alternative to face-to-face engagement – allowing individuals to ask questions they might not be comfortable enough to pose during in-person events. Quick polls are fast and simple and provide instant feedback about a range of issues. A virtual forum  can replicate a face-to-face workshop with a panel of experts and ‘breakout tables’, providing attendees an opportunity to have small group discussions around a topic and then share back with the larger group.

It’s too early to say whether live-streamed remote meetings will be ongoing once lockdowns ease, but they will certainly remain as a viable option.

“My hope is that we’re creating new forms of citizen engagement and activism through this,” said Philadelphia councilmember Helen Gym. “I think more people are online paying attention.”

Remote meetings might also expand community input, by allowing “people who otherwise could not physically show up to testify at council sessions to do so.”