How COVID-19 Is Remaking Citizen Engagement

Government Agencies Embrace Digital Tools, New Processes to Communicate With Stakeholders

Thomas Mullen
April 30, 2020

No matter their motto, all government entities now essentially exist under a single banner: In Zoom we trust.

Once the online meeting tool of choice for the slickest of tech companies, this now-ubiquitous online meeting platform has gone mainstream among the municipalities and regulatory agencies whose traditional method of stakeholder engagement -- the in-person meeting -- has been sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of course, Zoom is just one of the dozens of online tools that have gone from "nice-to-haves" to necessary for the regulators and administrators overseeing America's response to the coronavirus crisis.

From virtual meetings to expanded and video-conferenced public comment opportunities, regulatory agencies and state and local governments are digitally reframing constituent communications in ways that might have seemed unthinkable just a few months ago.

While bringing some unprecedentedly dark days, the coronavirus shutdown has also forced a much-needed digital acceleration for public agencies, which have tended to be behind their private-sector counterparts when it comes to embracing innovation, said Hollie Russon Gilman, a fellow at New America's Political Reform program.

"Amid tragedy, some municipal and state governments are seizing an opportunity to make up for lost time and embrace digital tools for the deep-but-distant civic engagement this moment demands," Gilman wrote in a blog post.

In government and beyond, COVID-19 is sweeping away artificial barriers to moving our lives online and undercutting long-held bureaucratic resistance to digital tools, Katherine Mangu-Ward wrote in Politico.

"Medicare allowing billing for telemedicine was a long-overdue change, for instance, as was revisiting HIPAA to permit more medical providers to use the same tools the rest of us use every day to communicate, such as Skype, Facetime and email," wrote Mangu Ward, the editor-in-chief of Reason magazine.

And while the motivation for this digital transition has been painful, the shift will ultimately benefit both agencies and citizens, said Benjamin Clark, an associate professor with the University of Oregon's school of planning, public policy and management.

"Many public meetings are far from inclusive in how they were traditionally carried out because so many people work non-typical hours or have family obligations that prevent them from participating," Clark told SmartComment. "The tech-based meetings may prove to be more inclusive... because you could participate in a public meeting from your kitchen with your kids running around in way you couldn't at city hall."

As anyone who has participated in an online meeting can tell you, of course, they are far from perfect. Besides the inevitable awkward blips, Clark said they also suffer from some of the same inclusion problems as in-person public engagements, primarily related to technology limitations among economically disadvantaged citizens.

However, Clark said he has studied technology-enabled public participation for the last decade and has consistently found that web- and mobile phone-based methods for citizen engagement are not creating systematic biases in who participates in outreach programs. And in his study of government bodies in his region, going online is also working for agency teams, Clark said.

"One of the things that many have indicated is that they are generally pleased with how well it is working -- Zoom-bombing aside," Clark said.

This perspective is seconded by the leadership of the California Department of Water Resources, which noted in a recent blog post that community member participation in meetings significantly increased when the agency gave them options to join via their cell phones or computers.

"We are hopeful that this may have the unexpected but welcome result of improving access and boosting participation," the blog post read.

In addition to improving communication channels between governing bodies and their citizens, digital tools also offer agencies the opportunity to better understand and respond to their constituents through richer levels of data and more effective means of analyzing it.

"The past few years, we've seen a huge leap forward in agencies and consultants replacing manual processes with software and other innovative approaches -- not just for engaging the public, but for managing the information they get from them," said Tim Mullen, Founder and CEO of SmartComment. "And once that happens, the genie is out of the bottle. There's simply no going back."

Whether this will prove true post-pandemic remains to be seen, of course. But many are hopeful that the observed benefits of governing and regulatory bodies engaging the public on their terms through digital tools will prove to be a point of no return.

"(N)ow is the time to make virtual civic engagement a part of the fabric of civic life in cities -- not just under lockdown, but always," Gilman wrote.