Community Interest in Local Government Meetings is Spiking

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By Tom Spengler

Over the past two months, municipal clerks, IT, and audio/video teams have done an incredible job quickly implementing virtual public meetings.  The average satisfaction for these meetings is 7.7 out of 10, which frankly is impressive, given time constraints and all of the other priorities.  At PrimeGov, we are very proud of the work we’ve done to help support many government agencies in making this shift successfully.  

However, as members of the public grow increasingly restless at home, we’re hearing from more agencies who are looking to effectively manage the increased attendance and comments from the public.  After several meetings with minimal public comments, clerk’s departments now struggle to sort through hundreds of emails from residents, tie them to an agenda item and then present them to the council.  In some cases, they are asked to read the emails during the meeting to make them part of the record.  This makes for a long meeting and the need to limit community input to one minute.

State and local government leaders are facing, what I believe, is the most difficult decision of their careers.  How and when do we reopen our local economies?  Federal and even state guidelines miss much of the nuance and special circumstances of each community.  Lives are at stake with any approach, with over 100,000 reported COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. and over 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance in the last ten weeks.  

Public outrage is spiking on both sides of the aisle.  Physical altercations are being reported in grocery stores, as some shoppers wear masks and others refuse.  Armed protests have been staged in states to protest shelter-in-place orders by governors and courts are weighing on the legality as well.  Our health officials are asking us to exercise extreme caution in reopening; LA County’s Department of Public Health is suggesting that some sort of shelter-in-place directive could continue through the end of July.  And, of course, there is the fear of the second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks during the next flu season.   

So, how do government leaders make decisions in this time of crisis?  We need to start by listening and taking in both quantifiable and qualitative data.  Santa Clara County recently surveyed 1,000 random members of their community to understand if they were more concerned about public health vs. the economy.  59% said they were more concerned with public health vs. 39% choosing the economy.  Of course, Santa Clara County is in the heart of Silicon Valley, and the tech economy is faring better than most. With that said, the survey also found that finances/unemployment was the top concern when asked about family, followed closely by Coronavirus.  In Michigan, a similar poll showed that 55% of community members are concerned with public health, whereas only 21.7% are concerned with their financial situation.  

In Huntington Beach’s most recent city council meeting, 157 community members showed up to speak to their elected officials.  27 of these community members showed up in person.  They were required to wait outside, wear a mask, have their temperature taken, and enter one at a time so they could speak at the council for one minute.  They were then followed by 130 virtual participants who joined the meeting and also had their chance to speak for one minute.  In total, the public comment period took almost three hours to complete.  

bloggraphic-3All of this leaves us wondering: is there a better way?  Over the past several months, business, schools, government agencies, and many other organizations have had to pivot to virtual operations.  The shift has been rapid and successful.  Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, put it this way: “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.”  I think this is generally true for local government.  However, in most cases, we simply replicated a real-world process into a digital process. 

The next step will be to rethink these processes with a digital perspective.

PrimeGov has also been part of this accelerating digital transformation with our virtual public meeting offering.  Having worked with clerks, IT, communications, and administrative departments for the last twenty years, we understand why modernization is not simple, including legal requirements, purchasing guidelines,  and a variety of technical requirements and limitations.  Two months ago, we launched a simple virtual meeting solution that allows you to easily:

  • Upload your existing agenda
  • Receive quantifiable citizen comments or allow them to register to speak by agenda item
  • Automatically send an agenda and supporting materials to voting members
  • Allow voting members to join Zoom meetings directly from an electronic version of the agenda
  • Run a meeting taking roll call, motions, and votes either electronically or by voice
  • Stream video of the meeting to the public via YouTube and Zoom 
  • Display a speaker timer and vote results to maintain an orderly meeting

Today at PrimeGov, we are committed to rethinking digital governance with a longer-term perspective.  This includes:

  •  New models for collecting and sharing community feedback around public meetings, which allows for timely and actionable feedback that is easier to digest and act upon.  
  •  Improving internal collaboration around agenda item creation for staff members working in a  virtual environment  
  • Rethinking static documents that have to be manually updated over time with dynamic documents that are connected to real-time data sources

If you're interested in being part of this transformation, we would love to have you join the conversation through one of our discussion groups.  

If you’d like to learn more about our existing solutions, please check out the class we provided for the International Municipal Clerks’ Association, a recording of Malibu’s meeting, and other helpful information here. You can also request a demo here.

Thank you again for keeping our cities and counties running and open to the public.

Best regards

- Tom Spengler, Executive Chairman @ PrimeGov.  Connect with me on LinkedIn and Twitter