Few aspects of municipal government evolve as dynamically as Citizen Engagement. While the core principles and foundations of democratic governance bind many processes and interaction formats to just gradual evolution, disruptive technology shifts have rapidly changed constituents’ expectations for how they engage with governing bodies.
In the “old days”, citizens interacted directly with municipal leaders primarily by attending meetings in person. Printed fliers and newspaper notices informed the public of upcoming council meetings and town halls. It was difficult for citizens to contact local government, as formal inquiries – such as requests to present at council – had to be sent by traditional mail. Not only was this slow, but it was also cumbersome to confirm whether such a request was ever received.
Many citizens still physically attend council meetings today, but technology has enabled many alternative or complementary means of engagement. Constituents can correspond electronically with government staff and leaders; video conferencing and live streaming enable remote participation or viewing; and online resources allow visitors to immediately access information of interest.
Expectations vs. Experience
The main portal for this engagement, of course, is your website or mobile app. However, simply having an online presence is no longer enough. Commercial websites such as online shopping portals have given citizens lofty expectations for ease of use, instant gratification, and convenience. And as the post-millennial generation of “digital natives” – those who grew up using modern technology such as the Internet – turns voting age, the pressure on you to meet these online expectations will only increase.
While government budgets may not allow municipal website functionality to match the private sector, a user-focused approach to your online citizen engagement experience is essential. Beyond making it easier and more pleasant for constituents to interact with your organization, empowering visitors with a self-serve approach takes considerable burden off public-facing staff. Each resource a citizen can find on his or her own is one less potentially-frustrated call a municipal representative must handle.
Valuable Elements of Electronic Engagement
While an overall user-friendly experience is the most important consideration when engaging citizens online, there are certain resources and functionality that bring particular value to your constituents when seamlessly integrated and accessible on your website.
1. Comprehensive meeting artefacts.
Agendas, minutes, presentations, post-meeting reports, recorded video, and supporting documents including maps and images should be easy to find and navigate, with links between related items providing intuitive access for visitors who want to dive deeper into topics of interest.
2. Webcasts tied to agenda and minute items.
Live webcasts and on-demand recorded meeting videos are key resources for citizens unable to attend proceedings in person, but are even more valuable when indexed and linked to the meeting’s agenda and minutes. Webcasting tools that automatically time-stamp and bookmark video as it is recorded make it easy to create information-rich and time-efficient viewer experiences, allowing viewers to jump directly to topics of interest.
3. Accessible content.
Making your content available online is only part of the engagement puzzle. Ensuring that it is equally accessible to all of your stakeholders, including those with disabilities, is just as important and often a legal requirement. Video closed captioning, text-to-speech functionality and automatic transcription are essential tools for accessibility, but close attention to details ranging from website tags to document formatting is also necessary. Careful header formatting and style selection helps avoid issues that can trip up screen reader software for the visually impaired. Also make sure all of your website images have alternative (“ALT”) text, and that your PDF files contain software-readable, searchable text rather than only unparsable scanned images.
4. Advanced integrated search.
Even the most interesting and accessible content has little value to citizens if they can’t easily find it. Advances in web search engines over the years have taken them far beyond simple keyword matching, with sophisticated heuristics to interpret the searcher’s intent and encompass synonymous or related terms. Your website visitors expect and deserve a similarly intuitive search experience spanning all available content, including web pages, meeting agendas and minutes, documents, and even transcriptions or closed captions of your archived videos.
5. Delegation requests and public submissions.
While the above functions all deliver information to your constituents, Citizen Engagement is a two-way street. Your website should allow the public to correspond with your organization without resorting to the “lowest common denominator” of sending an email. With just a handful of clicks, constituents should be able to submit a request to present to your council or school board, and attach supporting documents related to that particular matter. Similarly, citizens reporting an issue should be able to upload a picture and tag its location. Enabling public submissions through structured forms ensures all necessary information is included and provides the visitor instant confirmation that their correspondence has been received.
6. Public registration for notifications.
Keeping your citizens informed includes proactively notifying them of topics of interest, but electronic communications do have one disadvantage over “snail mail” – your constituents’ email and social media addresses aren’t automatically available to you. Allowing the public to register for electronic notifications through your website enables you to alert them to upcoming council and board meetings, town halls, new online resources, new webcast recordings and so forth. Even better, let citizens granularly specify which topics to be notified about – thus avoiding bombarding them with less interesting information – and log in to your website to view any sent notifications they missed.
7. Social media integration.
The popularity and immediacy of social media provides yet another useful means of proactively communicating with the public and engaging your community. Beyond the above notifications of updates on your website, integrating social media more closely with your website makes it easier for citizens to share and socialize content of interest while providing them with a window into their peers’ opinions on those matters.
The Future of Engagement
Not only will Citizen Engagement continue to evolve, but the nature of government and school board meetings themselves is expected to change dramatically in future generations. Rather than meetings being held in a physical location, “virtual” meetings will enable councilors, board members, and the public to participate remotely. More immersive than simply watching a live stream, advances in Virtual Reality will enable citizens to attend and interact with almost the same sensory and emotional engagement as being physically present.
The rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will make traditional website searches a thing of the past, responding quickly and accurately to natural-language queries with specific, research-saving answers. AI will also reduce the amount of effort you and your staff must perform to prepare and link content for your site, automatically making connections between materials and generating accessible versions on the fly.
For today, though, the task of optimizing Citizen Engagement is still on your shoulders. The above elements give you a solid starting point, and with the right tools are not hard to implement. Tight integration between your meeting management platform and your website can help you unlock the full potential of electronic engagement while minimizing the effort needed to make it a reality.