BY TAYLOR BENNETT, COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT POLICY COORDINATOR, THE HUB
As the events of 2020 unfold, residents across the state are taking up important conversations with one another about staying engaged with their local governments – and representatives from local governments are taking up those same conversations about staying connected to their residents.
This July, we teamed up with the WV Municipal League to host two virtual community conversations on Staying Engaged in 2020 and Beyond: Strategies for Residents to Collaborate with their Local Governments (The demand was so great for the first event, we decided to host the same event a second time!)
At the event, we shared the results of a survey the WV Municipal League conducted with local governments across the state about engagement in this time, and we asked for feedback and ideas from residents who were in attendance.
Here is what we learned:
Local governments and residents alike have made shifts to manage the unique landscape of interacting under social distancing guidelines. The shifts that we’ve seen taking place are:
1 / Shifts in focus.
Community members identified that there is a general shift in focus to allow residents to address the personal and family concerns that have arisen as a result of coronavirus. This means that in many cases, participation with local governments and work on community projects has slowed down.
2 / Moving communications online.
The biggest shift for many local governments has been to move meeting access to online platforms such as zoom. And, while many residents have seen an uptick in the amount of email and social media communication from their local officials, many have also said that more communication would be welcome.
Here are the top challenges identified about continuing to engage with your local government while social distancing is a necessity:
1 / Lack of Broadband Access.
Across the board, community members identified broadband access as a barrier to continuing to provide ideas, concerns, and suggestions to their local elected officials. Since most of the shifts that local governments have made to engage residents during the pandemic have utilized internet-based platforms, this continues to be a challenge for those who would participate, but cannot because they don’t have access to the internet.
Similarly, local governments who don’t have access to adequate broadband may be canceling public meetings because there isn’t the capacity to bring meetings online.
2 / Lack of Communication from Local Government.
During our conversation, residents identified a desire for a greater amount of communication from their local government. Some noticed that as civic engagement has moved online, the process for making public comments has become confusing or even dropped off entirely. Community members also identified that although many local governments utilize social media to communicate, updates provided through facebook don’t feel like enough communication during this time of crisis. Even if the response to the pandemic itself is limited, residents are still interested in honest communication about what’s taking place.
While coronavirus, and the social distancing guidelines are changing how residents interact with their local governments, some unique opportunities are surfacing as well. Here are a few that we’ve noticed:
1 / Use the same internet platform across the state.
Community members spoke out about how difficult it is to keep up with the variety of web-based communications platforms that local governments and community action groups are using. It may be easier for residents to engage with the local government if they could learn one platform for meetings of their citizen boards, school board, city council, and county commission alike.
2 / Outreach from Local Government Officials.
When the going gets tough, and especially when the channels of communication that local elected officials usually rely on are no longer available, it can be difficult to maintain open lines of communication between residents and their local government. Despite that, local officials could look for innovative ways to continue to communicate. Residents are noticing that local and state level elected officials are more likely to join calls than they may have been to physically come to a meeting.