By Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership assistant director, Pooja Bachani Di Giovanna and master's in public policy candidate and graduate assistant, Michael Huling
Social distancing and remote work have been synonymous with daily life for so long that it has become difficult to remember life as anything different. But there is hope; cities across California are finally beginning to move past the most restrictive pandemic measures and return to everyday life as much as possible. Though the immediate future with regard to COVID-19 is unclear, innovative public engagement strategies have proven effective and should remain whenever the pandemic is fully behind us.
Much has been made about the prospects of a “new normal,” particularly the balance between returning to familiar ways of life and maintaining COVID-induced changes that have proven to be preferable. For local leaders, the key challenge right now is maintaining a keen knowledge of their community landscape and awareness of changes in health guidelines. Specifically, being receptive to the needs and desires of residents by relying on consistent engagement strategies that have been vital throughout the pandemic era.
Virtual meetings and events became the norm seemingly overnight in 2020, allowing for more public participation in some cities due to the convenient accessibility. With the ability to return to traditional in-person meetings, many cities are unsure which option residents will gravitate toward.
In-Person, Virtual, or Both?
“We are seeing that reopening doesn’t just mean returning to everything as it was pre-COVID,” explained Grover Beach City Manager Matt Bronson. “Our council meetings have been virtual since spring 2020, with opportunities for the public to call in to participate and we’re curious how many people will attend meetings again when we resume in-person meetings.”
Undoubtedly, some residents will be excited to return to the in-person meetings that make them feel like they are actively involved in their community. For others, the virtual option allows them to be as engaged as they like without having to take more time out of their day than is preferred.
One possible compromise is to allow for both. That may mean some meetings are in-person while others are remote, but it could also be allowing call-in participation or virtual comments during in-person events. The most common methods that have emerged are online comment submissions, calling in via phone, or participating on Zoom or another video-based platform.
“In some communities like mine, the number of people engaging in our meetings or forums virtually has been lower than in person, though other communities reported a surge in the number of people participating virtually,” Bronson added. “As we shift back to being with each other again in person, I believe there will be a clamoring for a degree of in-person engagement once again to share connections and moments that are difficult to replicate virtually.”
Factors like internet connectivity and the success of virtual events will certainly affect public preferences, as cities that adjusted well to the online landscape are better suited to continue relying on it. While Bronson anticipates that his Grover Beach community will largely prefer returning to in-person events, other local leaders are expecting something a bit different. In Thousand Oaks, for instance, City Manager Andrew Powers believes that residents have been pleased with the city’s virtual engagement efforts throughout the pandemic.
“I think we are never going back [to exclusively in-person meetings]; there will always be a hybrid high-tech approach to citizen engagement,” said Powers. “Through the course of this year, we have seen 30 percent more public participation and that is a good thing—it’s people paying attention to what is going on.”
What Bronson and Powers both understand is that what makes sense for one city may not be ideal for another. The task for local officials is to understand their particular community landscape through effective engagement designed to build relationships with residents. For many places, however, it appears that virtual communication and events are likely to remain to some degree as the technological capacity allows for new and improved efforts.
Digital Boost for Democracy
In another example, in San Diego several civic organizations have come together to encourage the county’s various governmental institutions to incorporate a text notification system for residents looking to comment during public meetings. The proposal is called “Boost Democracy,” with the goal of allowing community members to be involved in meetings without taking several hours out of their day to only participate for a few minutes. San Diego Unified School District adapted the text system for their most recent meeting, with other local boards also considering doing so in the near future. This development will help increase public participation in local government, while also allowing officials to be better informed about the perspectives of their constituents.
As Grover Beach, Thousand Oaks, and San Diego continue to navigate post-pandemic governance and reopening, community members should feel empowered to play a role in the present and future of their communities. Policy begins with people and the increased participation will not only lead to informed decisions that advance the public good, but will also bring communities together as we return to normal—which is, after all, ours to define.
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