For federal, state, and local government or civic groups, public engagement is critical. Whether the rationale is community building, collecting input, or even legally mandated, entities must find simple, equitable methods to engage citizens and other stakeholders – especially now during online meetings – in the business of governance.
Today, many government entities employ hybrid engagement strategies – bridging physical sessions with teleconferences, online meetings, and streaming. While this approach can create more opportunities for engagement, it also requires thoughtful planning and a careful balance between in-room and virtual participation. Are public access methods equitable – considering legal mandates, reasonable accommodations, language needs, access to technology? Will public access impede private governmental caucus required in a session? Of course, seamless integration and real-time support are also essentials during online meetings.
Having partnered with numerous government communicators to deliver citizen (and media and other types of public) engagement, we recommend three simple considerations for online meetings that work.
1. Plan your entry and exit paths
Identify all expected or potential stakeholders – agency staff, board, governmental officials, inter-agency representatives, press, lobbyists, public, etc. Then consider how you wish to group them, when each group should have access, and how each group should be permitted to engage. This will help you to select and configure your technology(ies) for segmented roles and time-delimited entry/exits, and determine what access information to share with each group. Planning is always important, perhaps more so if you’re required by law to publish access information in local publications and must consider print deadlines. With this preparation in place, you’ll be ready to promote your online meeting across various channels and with the right information for each stakeholder group.
2. Prepare for anything and everything
It’s essential to map out and communicate the agenda for your online meeting and any governing boundaries. If you limit public comments to two minutes, for example, communicating that fact is part one, managing to it is part two. If you are new to or updating an older hybrid public engagement model, schedule at least one rehearsal to test your proposed agenda and boundaries. Run through your introduction, speaker order, public participation, private sessions, etc. Test your planned boundaries – who will mute a verbose public commenter at that two-minute marker? A solid rehearsal can uncover opportunities to optimize your online meeting and will give your key internal stakeholders clear expectations and a sense of preparedness for your first live session.
3. Don’t try to do it all
Hybrid public engagement adds complexity compared to the in-person sessions of the past. Don’t set yourself up to manage both the session and its technologies, integrations, stakeholders, and logistics. Instead, designate a point person to care for the technology and logistics so that you can stay focused on the agenda and audiences. Choose a technically savvy internal partner or turn to a third-party expert for a seamless online meeting.
To sum up, for effective hybrid public engagement you must balance in-person and virtual participation. This will require clear audience identification, thoughtful planning for equitable engagement, seamless technology integration, and thorough preparation and testing. Entrusting a partner with the technology and logistics will help to ensure your hard work results in an efficient, engaging, and equitable online meeting.