By now, most people are aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted the ways in which we adopt, use, and rely on technology. After being forced into a world of Zoom meetings, virtual schools, and online shopping, we’ve quickly grown accustomed to having the digital world at our fingertips. In fact, a study from Pew Research found that 90% of American adults say the internet has become essential or important during the pandemic, while an astounding 81% say they’ve used video conferencing since the pandemic’s onset, and 40% say they’ve used digital technology in new or different ways during that time.1
Does that mean technology is now our favorite way to engage with the world? Certainly not. But after 20 months tied to our devices, interacting through new applications, and learning how to adapt our lives, most of us now not only appreciate but also expect the flexibility that technology provides. One recent study, for example, found that almost 50% of American workers would take a pay cut if it meant they could keep working from home.2 And another survey found around 20% of school districts plan to continue online education post-pandemic due to high demand from students and parents.3
It seems the bell cannot be unrung in this regard, and organizations of all kinds—including local governments and municipalities—should take note.
Why single out governments and municipal organizations? The answer is relatively simple: In addition to COVID, numerous events over the past year and a half—from protests to trials to elections—have illuminated the need for greater involvement with governments at every level, and technology has proven to be a valuable asset in facilitating that involvement.
So how can you prepare to maintain this newfound momentum and meet citizens’ technological expectations?
To help answer that question, we’re highlighting five ways citizens now expect technology to continue fostering their civic engagement, along with some insight on practical solutions you can begin leveraging today.
#1: virtual meeting attendance options
After lockdowns prompted the necessity of virtual engagement, people soon realized they could still meaningfully engage with providers, from education to health to government, via video conferencing and live streams. And while virtual attendance is never cited as the most ideal or only solution for interaction, let’s be honest: we now expect the option to at least be offered—because we know it’s possible, and because we know it works.
In the realm of civic engagement, virtual options have proved equally valuable. Virtual council meetings have enabled government to remain transparent to citizens in a time of need. In advance of critical elections, virtual meetings were held for just about every local civic and political group as well, further fostering the expectation that citizens can and should be more involved, as virtual attendance eases limitations often caused by scheduling, transportation, and childcare needs.
How can you prepare?
- Come to terms with reality. Hybrid meeting options are becoming the norm, so if you haven’t already, put technology in place to support this offering.
- Look for an industry-savvy provider with an offering that easily enables civic meeting basics for both in-person and virtual attendees, such as comment submissions, requests to speak, hybrid council voting, and so on.
#2: Exemplary local government service and responsiveness
As so many businesses have struggled to remain viable over the last 18+ months, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing organizations wield customer service as a competitive weapon for our patronage and loyalty. We now expect the same from every interaction, including—or perhaps especially—from our government officials.
Fortunately, local governments have been doing a good job during the pandemic of working to maintain the trust of their constituents. One recent study from Deloitte found that the more local the government, in fact, the greater our trust in its abilities. But that’s not simply because of scale or proximity. In fact, the study shows that our strong trust in local governments is directly tied to our experiences with the digital services those governments have delivered during the pandemic. The easier and safer those online services are to use, and the faster they can help us accomplish what we need to do, the more likely we are to trust those governments.4
Clearly, using technology to improve both service and speed in citizens’ interactions with their city organizations is a solid way to boost their overall trust and engagement. Maintaining that positive digital experience will be key to moving forward as we emerge from the pandemic.
How can you prepare?
- We're already seeing how technology can help streamline communications with local government representatives and provide faster access to important public notices or documents. Constituents feel comfortable reaching out via online platforms to ask questions or make comments—so keep fostering that sense of comfort with easy-to-use technology.
- As more citizens continue to engage digitally, be ready to step it up even further. Anticipate new areas where residents might want to connect with you or provide feedback, and try to expand your technology platform to include as many service-oriented features as possible.
- The more you plan ahead for continued digital interactions, the better service you can provide with faster, more preemptive problem resolution.
#3: diverse representation in civic engagement
While advances in communication technology have been bringing a greater voice to marginalized populations for years, local governments haven’t always been able to hear the issues these populations wanted brought to light. That’s because in-person attendance at council and committee meetings often requires a level of flexibility that many citizens simply don’t have—including time off from work, ready transportation, and childcare.
The pandemic inadvertently changed things, however, when virtual meetings and online communication channels became the new norm. Numerous cities of all sizes have found an increased diversity among who is now actively engaging with local government—including a broader age range and diversity of income, education, and race.
The resulting expectation among constituents is that governments will continue to embrace—and even expand—the technology that amplifies previously underrepresented voices and offers multilingual options, and city officials should take note. Why? Because an improvement in civic engagement is always a win, for residents and for elected officials. And, of course, the more diverse the experiences that are being shared, the greater the potential for identifying and alleviating problems within the community. But this comes with a caveat: The more a government becomes aware of issues through feedback from citizens, the more accountable it becomes for addressing and responding to that feedback. Fortunately, technology can help in that regard as well.
How can you prepare?
- Live streaming is a critical tool that works two ways. Just as residents can share their own community experiences in real time, cities and municipal organizations should work to video stream as many government activities as possible, even beyond standard meetings. The more transparency you can provide to your residents, the more diverse an audience you can reach with your efforts, and the more trust you will gain.
- Don’t stop with virtual meetings and live streams. Further broaden your reach by leveraging technology that easily and intuitively expands residents’ access for everything from online inquiries to community notices, recreation activities, job openings, and more.
- Consider undertaking surveys to reveal underrepresented populations in your area and the types of technology that might help them become more involved. Remember that technology will document your accountability to these populations—so get ahead of the game by seeking out their input sooner rather than later.
#4: Connection with community
It goes without saying: Isolation and social distancing took a toll on everyone. We were already a world connected by technology platforms, but lockdowns localized our urge for connection. Suddenly, even a chat with neighbors on the street or in the coffee shop was cause for hesitation.
The pandemic made it abundantly clear: We need digital ways to simplify and enhance our relationships with fellow community members—not only out of a need for camaraderie, but to fill the void either where in-person gatherings aren’t feasible, or where we don’t have the ease and convenience of virtual connections. Add in the complexities of populations who already struggle to connect because of language or other barriers, and the imperative becomes even stronger.
This is an area where local governments should excel. After all, community engagement is the lifeblood of any city, and city workers are actively invested in improving outcomes for all residents.
How can you prepare?
- Provide easier ways for all citizens to connect with each other and with their city or government officials. Think beyond connectivity to issues like language and culture—like the city of Santa Ana, CA, did when they enabled a solution that combined both Google Translate and live Spanish interpreters to help reach a vastly underrepresented resident population.
- Social networks are good at basic interaction between people, but they’re often too broad or unmoderated, and sometimes leave out the ability to gather feedback or respond to pressing inquiries. Be sure you have technology that not only enables people to connect easily with local groups and activities, but that also helps you understand how and why your citizens are engaging.
#5: Accelerated solutions for your community
When the pandemic replaced many of our usual in-person experiences with digital substitutes, it also fueled our impatience. We quickly became hooked on technology that provides instant everything, from food deliveries to same-day online shopping. Bottom line: People don’t like to wait, especially when they know that the technology exists to speed things along.
The efficiency-related benefits of digital transformation across enterprises need not be lost on governments and city organizations. Speed and agility are within reach, and they’re expected by the community now. We’ve seen that our city officials can conduct business online, and we’ve seen that the community is ready and willing to engage in this way. Now we want to further the progress and find ways to gain faster resolution to the challenges brought up via online forums or meetings. In other words, we want to see a greater effort at streamlining processes—and a lot less red tape.
How can you prepare?
- Assess your processes and see how digital optimization will most impact your organization. Are you approaching your virtual or hybrid meeting solution from an end-to-end perspective? The right technology platform can integrate the entire meeting process, from agenda automation through minutes generation, so that discussion topics and action items can be resolved even faster.
- Technology doesn’t stop at the public meeting point. Look for ways to simplify steps and save time anywhere you’re used to being bogged down by paper or offline spreadsheets—like applications to fill committee positions, for example. Seek out a solution that tracks openings and manages the entire process, from announcing a vacancy through nominating and assessing applicants.
Clearly, there are numerous changes underway in how technology impacts civic engagement and in how we expect those changes to continue to evolve. It’s important to remember that the central purpose of government is to represent and work for the people—so have a plan that reassures people that your use of technology is as an amplification of their voices and a way to enhance their engagement, and not as a replacement for your in-person presence.
If anything, having the right technology in place will make all your in-person interactions more efficient. The pandemic has proved that technology used as a bridge will continue to greatly improve civic engagement, satisfying citizens while facilitating the work of government on their behalf.