Beyond Town Hall: Public Engagement in a Time of Crisis

City leaders are grappling with the unimaginable—the protection of their entire community from a threat the likes of which many of us have never seen.  Amid all this chaos, we continue to need robust, two-way communication with the public we serve, even if they cannot or should not meet with us in person. 

As you consider how to stay connected to your community, I recommend a few important considerations, for handling both the immediate crisis and even the long-term challenge of engaging your citizens:

  • Elected officials can, and should, continue to meet even with current guidelines, in order to ensure they keep government running smoothly. Invariably, city councils will need to approve significant expenditures, review current operations, assess whether new policies are needed, and the like.  It is probably safest for elected officials to conduct meetings remotely via videoconference, while complying with adjusted open meetings laws.  No matter what platform you may choose, allow ample time for testing and to ensure the meeting platform will align with the telecast and/or webcast you provide of your meetings.
  • Cities should also consider the best ways to include the public in their meetings, given that members of the public most likely cannot or should not come to City Hall. There are two considerations: making sure the public can watch the meeting, especially with the incorporation of virtual participation for elected officials; and making sure the public can participate by phone or Internet, without interfering with the regular business of the meeting.  Please reach out to me for help with this.
  • You should consider using every tool you can possibly imagine being in your toolbox to communicate with the public and to hear from the public. Examples include:
    • A phone extension at City Hall repurposed into a hotline (or the use of a 3-1-1 type service for that purpose);
    • An email address dedicated to answering questions ([email protected]) and checked by at least one dedicated member of staff;
    • Ongoing, daily communication with every media outlet that covers your city, either through a press conference, written media releases, or short interviews;
    • Disseminating text messages and receiving questions or feedback via text;
    • A website for the public to receive information and share feedback, provide and receive help from the city and the community at large;
    • Regular posts to Nextdoor to provide neighborhood-specific information on where to get resources or medical attention;
    • An “ask me anything” session on to answer frequently asked questions;
    • Consistent use of a #hashtag across all social media posts related to the crisis and coordination across multiple departments and staff to ensure consistency in messaging;
    • Messages and materials given to all of your community organizations for them to distribute to their members and followers; and
    • Messages within utility bills or other mailouts that the city regularly distributes.

I also want to discuss a resource you have at your disposal that you may not have thought of as much of an engagement tool.  Your city’s television station, the one dedicated to government access, may typically only air official meetings of your city council or boards and commissions.  You can also use the station to broadcast a live community update and conversation, with potential participation opportunities like a toll-free phone line, a text message number, and a #hashtag for social media posts.  When my firm and I have produced these meetings for local and county government, what might have been a lightly attended meeting turns into one attended by hundreds, if not more than 1,000.  I hope you will consider this tool and be in touch for help making it work for you.

Additionally, I would guess that many of your residents and constituents would like to volunteer in some way to help the community stay strong and recover.  One potential volunteer opportunity could be a “conversation corps.” In a short training, you can deputize volunteers as facilitators to meet (perhaps virtually or telephonically) with groups of family, friends, or members of an organization, to learn how things are going for them and collect feedback for you and your team.  It is difficult to reach an entire city, and this can help multiply your forces.

Finally, I want to say a word about just what kind of engagement may make sense during this time.  The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) has a “spectrum” of different ways that an agency may choose to engage, ranging from Inform, to Consult, to Involve, to Collaborate, and finally to Empower (as in a ballot measure where voters have the final say).  Much of your communication may center on the “Inform” level of the spectrum: conveying orders, sharing resources and updates, or assuring your community.  While all of that is critically necessary, your communities also want to share their perspective on the best way to help them.  I know time will often be of the essence for you in taking action, but I also know that it will be easier for your community to respond more quickly when you reach out to them, given the changes in the rhythms of their lives.

I wish you well in your arduous journey through this, together with your community.

Dr. Larry Schooler directs consensus building and community engagement for the consulting firm CD&P and is a senior fellow at the National Civic League. 

[email protected]
(512) 387-4876

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