If you haven’t reexamined your community engagement practices during COVID, you should! It’s not too late.

When it comes to community engagement practices, finding a balance between practical and effective can be difficult even under the best of circumstances. Throw a global health crisis into the mix and it becomes survival of the fittest. Even before COVID, community engagement in many localities had devolved into an inefficient process that was undesirable and in accessible for most residents. For more information on how community engagement efforts may fail, see our previous blog post here.

COVID forced communities to re-examine their community engagement practices. During the pandemic, there have been fewer opportunities for citizen engagement and even more strain was put on the already stressed statutory hearing process. COVID restrictions and concerns have made attending old-fashioned, town hall-style public meetings more difficult than ever before, but it doesn’t have to be this way. If we want to develop communities and a government we’re proud of, we’ve got to think beyond the one-stop-shop public hearings and amp up community engagement. So, how do we do that?

Make meetings and information more accessible.

 If the purpose of a public meeting is to bring information to the community and solicit feedback, that should include more than just meeting at town hall and posting information online.  Although COVID presented unique challenges, there are several strategies you can implement to make your meetings more accessible.

  • Broadcast your meetings.  If you’re not broadcasting your public meetings, you should be. With the prevalence of social media, broadcasting meetings is easier than ever before. YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram all have widely accessible streaming platforms, and are all great places to start. It can be as simple as logging into Facebook on your phone and going live. If local staff doesn’t feel comfortable with the technology side of things, you might try setting up an internship with a local high school or college student.
  • Try a “meeting in a box.”Meetings in a box allow folks to gather at convenient (and safe) times and locations (often the comfort of their homes) to learn about and share opinions about community plans, and projects in their communities. Residents are given a “meeting in a box,” a packet which contains everything they need to participate in the discussion on their own. This may include instructions sheets, discussion questions, worksheets, and the like. Boxes typically include virtual and paper-based components to engage citizens across a variety of mediums. These can be distributed in person, by email, at designated pick-up spots, or posted to your town website.
  • Meet people in the community. Take your meetings and information into the community and meet your residents where they are. Show your community that you are making an effort to get their input in a way that’s convenient for them. Set up kiosks at the farmer’s markets or host office hours in the park. Meet people where they are. Have information readily accessible and have staff and Town officials available to explain plans, solicit community feedback, and answer resident’s questions.

For more small changes on how to make your meetings more accessible see our previous blog post here.

Get citizen input earlier and throughout the process.

We didn’t need COVID to know that we need to provide more opportunities for residents to give meaningful feedback at every stage of the process. If public opinion matters, why wait until board meetings (which are often the final stage in the process) to find out what residents think? Relying on one public hearing puts a strain on already broken process and on residents. During the last year, we’ve spent more time at home thinking about what we really want our lives and communities to look like, and what is and isn’t working for us. We should be soliciting and incorporating these ideas earlier in and consistently throughout the decision-making process. For example, take meetings of the planning board, which traditionally do not have a public hearing requirement. But just because there isn’t a requirement, that doesn’t mean community engagement is any less important at an early stage.  In fact, this is a critical time for citizen feedback that is often overlooked.

Think about expanding and improving your community engagement as it relates to all of your public meetings – even those that are not statutorily required to be public. Make sure you’re engaging your citizens every step of the way.

How do I know if I’m doing enough to engage my community?

If you’re only aiming to engage your citizens at the required public hearings, you’re really treating engagement as just another checkbox on the list. And that’s likely exactly how it feels to your citizens. Many citizens who would otherwise gladly engage in the process may be unsure or unable to participate in public meetings – and these are the people you should be trying to reach out to. 

There’s no such thing as “enough” when it comes to community engagement, but we’ve included some questions to help you evaluate your community engagement practices.

Do your meetings include a virtual component?

  • If not, they should. There’s really no excuse for this in 2021!

If you are hosting a meeting with a virtual component, ask yourself:

  • Are the procedures for remote meetings easily accessible?
  • Can everyone hear? (This means the folks at home watching a live stream, and those on the phone too!)
  • Does everyone (even those at home) have easy access to the materials being presented?
  • Can everyone see the presentations being made in real-time?
  • Is serious effort being made to collect feedback from your citizens? And especially from those citizens who might not readily provide it themselves?

Are you actively engaging citizens outside of the public hearing requirements?

  • When you’re evaluating your community engagement practices, it shouldn’t stop with town board meetings. Be sure to include your citizen advisory boards too!

If you answered no to any of these questions, don’t fret! We’d love to talk more with you about easy ways you can improve your practices. And remember, practice makes perfect. For more information contact Ashley at ashley@shlawgroup.com.