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COVID has Changed Public Engagement and Created New Opportunities for Equity & Access

By Kristin Withrow posted 09-15-2021 03:19 PM


By Hanna Stelmakhovych, Program Manager, Institute for Local Government


The world of public engagement has shifted dramatically since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Special districts adjusted their approach and embraced virtual participation and digital engagement. As a result, many local governments saw an increase in participation in public meetings and online engagement activities.

Virtual options allowed more residents and stakeholders to participate in meetings and workshops. Once community members were comfortable with the emerging technology, they noticed and appreciated the logistical benefits of signing on to virtual events. In many cases the demographics of public meeting participation shifted because of the ability for working parents, students and others to participate from the location of their choice, signaling an ongoing public commitment to staying involved when the environment is flexible.

Many special districts also experienced cost savings because of decreases in the travel and out of pocket costs typically associated with in-person events. 

Increased participation, decreased cost and reduced travel time are just some of the benefits of online engagement. As California begins to reopen, special districts have an opportunity to build on this virtual engagement momentum by offering a mix of online and in-person engagement activities that are aligned with needs of the demographics of their community. Below are some tips for achieving the right balance.


Understand Accessibility Levels and Minimize Barriers to Technology


To ensure equity and inclusivity -- and further expand engagement opportunities -- special districts should consider and address access barriers that limit engagement.

According to the 2015-2019 American Community Survey (ACS), 86.7 percent of households in California have a broadband internet subscription, but these numbers vary by community and demographics, with senior populations often having the lowest access.

When deciding on the right balance between in-person and online engagement, special districts need to consider all possible tools. For example, when promoting engagement opportunities, continue to utilize conventional communication methods for residents that do not have reliable internet access: mailers, radio, TV, door hangers, etc. 

“The use of virtual community coffees, video updates, online surveys, and virtual meetings helped our District connect with our community and increase community participation,” says Noelle Mattock, El Dorado Hills Community Services District Board President. “Traditional outreach like print and earned media help bridge the digital divide when addressing equity and inclusion.”

Understanding computer literacy skills and how your community connects to online events is another factor to consider. For example, if a workshop’s design includes breakout groups, voting, translation, closed captioning, etc., remember that navigating these technology features on a cell phone or tablet may be incredibly challenging. For highly interactive virtual meetings, laptops or desktops are likely the most suitable devices.

To achieve higher participation and more positive experiences for groups that meet regularly, such as steering committees, special districts could consider providing participants with enabling technology, like a basic laptop, if budgets allow. One option to consider reducing costs is to partner with a local library or nonprofit that may be able to purchase and/or lend the equipment to participants.

“After working through a variety of challenges, we eventually developed a program to allow resident members of our community steering committees to borrow laptops with cellular connectivity thereby giving them a way to meaningfully engage in our regular meetings,” says Jaime Holt, Chief Communications Officer at the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.


Provide Low Pressure Technology Training Sessions to Level the Playing Field


If participants do not find the engagement tool or meeting platform intuitive, they may be less likely to actively participate in virtual events. Consider providing low pressure training opportunities to guide participants through the features of the online platform.

The Institute for Local Government (ILG) has seen these kinds of trainings executed successfully with a variety of formats.

Community partners can offer one-on-one training sessions to individuals or families. District staff can host a training webinar providing a short tutorial or overview of the major functionality of the platform, or invite residents to test and troubleshoot the technology before the meeting. Publishing or re-printing a short “how-to” document is another relatively quick and easy solution to simplify the technology orientation process.


Consider Accommodations for Language & Other Needs 


Hands-on training opportunities may help minimize some barriers to participation, but don’t forget to provide language and other accommodations to make your virtual meetings accessible to all.

Nearly 44 percent of California residents speak a language other than English at home and nearly 6.5 million of these residents have limited English proficiency, according to the ACS. To plan and implement equitable and inclusive engagement, try to understand the language needs and capacities of your community.

While offering standard interpretation during the meetings is fantastic first step, if you want to deepen education and engagement, consider translating materials, surveys and chat comments. Mailing translated materials upon request and displaying side-by-side translation on the screen are other ways to accommodate language needs. Try to provide sign language interpretation and close captioning for hearing impaired residents and magnification and text-to-speech options for vision impaired participants.

Language is critical to engagement. Using accessible, easy-to-understand verbiage, terminology and materials can help residents feel connected to the process.

“While I understand conversational English well, professional translation and interpretation help me better comprehend complex policy concepts, terminology and cultural realities.  I feel more comfortable knowing that I share relevant comments and informed feedback,” reflects Alex Ilyushin, member of the Sacramento Slavic Community.

While hosting a separate event for other languages is an option, bringing people together with diverse cultural backgrounds has undeniable benefits including inclusivity, shared learning and building community connections.


Focus on Interactive and Authentic Engagement 


Interactive and engaging meetings can help keep participants focused. To achieve that, the design of your meeting should include a broad mix of presentations (lectures) and activities that create space for dialogue and active participation.

Whether online or in-person, a good rule of thumb is not to lecture for more than 10-15 minutes. Showing short videos, launching interactive polling and encouraging individuals to write in the chat box are some meeting design elements that will cater to a diversity of learning styles.

In both small and large group settings, try to create space for the audience to tell their stories. By sharing their lived experiences, participants can better connect with each other, find shared values and can see the issue at hand from different perspectives.

“Public meetings are a great way for community members to connect on a personal level with their fellow residents and special district staff or board. Creating opportunities for residents to share insights about their own personal experiences and goals will help build bridges and form lasting relationships,” says Erica L. Manuel, CEO & Executive Director
of ILG.

Special districts should also think about providing a variety of opportunities for participants to submit comments and questions. Some people prefer to speak at a microphone, others like to submit their comments in writing and still others may prefer anonymous polling to provide their input. The goal of both virtual and in-person meetings is to create positive and inclusive engagement experiences. Feedback structures should support that goal.


Expand Access While Managing Costs


Many local governments express concerns about the cost of these added services. But there are creative ways to reduce out of pocket expenses. For example, you might have multi-lingual staff members in your agency. Nonprofit and community-based organizations may also be able to provide translation or interpretation services and offer guidance. Community partners can be trusted advisors in this process and will appreciate the efforts made to increase access to a broader population.


Virtual Engagement is Here to Stay


Even after COVID restrictions are lifted, online participation will likely remain a popular due to its conveniences. “While I believe there is no substitution for in-person communication and participation, I foresee a continued role for well thought out virtual interactions so that more community members can participate and engage in their local governments,” comments Noelle Mattock.

Technology is evolving, and additional features are becoming available to increase accessibility and functionality. The next challenge will be exploring how to create fully engaging and simultaneous hybrid meetings that seamlessly interface with the in-person activities. And while challenges exist, every challenge comes in tandem with an opportunity. Public engagement brings exciting prospects for partnership with community organizations and residents, a chance to learn together and define inclusive engagement processes and equitable solutions in each unique community. 


The Institute for Local Government (ILG) is a nonprofit organization that has served and supported California’s local government leaders for over 65 years. As one of CSDA’s close affiliates we work with local agency staff and elected officials to help them build a strong foundation of good government – trust, accountability, responsiveness and transparency – and respond to emerging and emergent events. ILG provides education and training to local government leaders in the form of webinars, workshops, consulting services and written resources.