After the COVID-19 pandemic started, developers, municipal planners and officials quickly realized they needed to figure out a way to bring required community meetings online so that the pandemic wouldn’t completely halt all development.

Enter the Zoom public meeting.

Now, more than a year and a half into the pandemic, an adjustment that was originally intended as a temporary fix, is something that many are hoping continues, even as in-person meetings have started to resume. As The Boston Globe editorial board wrote in a headline earlier this year, “The pandemic taught us a better way to do business.” There are examples around the country, from Cambridge, MA to Minneapolis to Missoula, MT, showing how much virtual community meetings have reenergized citizens, bringing them back into the civic process.

In many communities throughout the country, virtual meeting attendance has outnumbered pre-pandemic attendance for in-person meetings. The convenience of logging in (or dialing in), going on mute, and multi-tasking has made it far easier for people to participate.

Additionally, virtual meetings have become a powerful tool for holding elected officials, boards, and commissions accountable – not just for their decisions, but also for their language, behavior, biases, and inability to show transparency and a welcoming environment to the public. Officials from England to New Hampshire to California have been exposed for improper comments and behavior during virtual meetings.

Some governing bodies have noticed and taken steps to try to make the change to virtual forums permanent.

We agree with those sentiments and are big supporters of virtual meetings. We even help to facilitate them for our customers. [For anyone who’s not a customer, check out our guide – How to Run Effective Community Meetings].

But we also acknowledge that virtual meetings alone won’t solve the problems of community engagement. While they’ve become a helpful part of the community engagement mix, they still have limitations, just as relying solely on in-person meetings do. Though the virtual format has led to increased attendance at public meetings, that hasn’t translated into more people sharing their opinions during public comment periods. That attendance uptick also hasn’t been at the levels where a large swath of the community is suddenly attending.

In a recent survey we conducted, the majority of respondents (60.22%) agreed that virtual community meetings are more convenient than traditional, in-person meetings and 57.17% said the virtual nature would make them more likely to attend. But despite this, only 36.22% of respondents reported that they’ve attended a virtual community meeting since the start of the pandemic.

Additionally:

  • Virtual meetings don’t solve the problem of requiring attendees to be available at a specific day and time, which often eliminates many people who can’t make that one and only time.
  • Typically they’re set up for English speakers only.
  • They’ve also unearthed a newer issue with community engagement – the digital divide. Some people aren’t as comfortable or familiar with technology, while others don’t have the necessary equipment to join a virtual meeting.

None of this is to say we don’t believe virtual meetings should be done. As we said earlier, we’re big proponents of them. We also aren’t saying that in-person meetings should be removed altogether.

The underlying point is that we shouldn’t be reliant on a single event to engage a community. Do a virtual meeting (or several!). Do an in-person meeting (or several!). But supplement those with an online platform such as coUrbanize where people can share feedback over a more prolonged period of time – and also do so anonymously. Offering several different options for feedback and opinions as part of your community engagement mix is the best way to gather a truly representative view of your community’s feelings.