As local governments work to connect with community members in a socially distant way, online meetings and public forums have become the new normal as in-person meetings have become impossible. Online messaging tools like email and social media have become a vital way community members get in touch with their elected officials, both before Covid-19 and after. As this online format has become necessary, it is important for elected officials and local government staff to realize the difference in effectiveness of online constituent messaging as opposed to traditional, in-person messaging. In a recent academic paper written by Kaiping Chen, Nathan Lee, and William Marble, they found that 47 online messages from community members to their elected officials were as influential as the same message from one in-person constituent. In other words, the people we elect to make and enforce laws at the local level are more affected by one person sitting in their office than 47 people sending them an email. This makes community engagement in the midst of Covid-19 critically important.
The issue with online messaging is that it makes it harder for elected officials to separate the wheat from the chaff. This leads officials to view some messages as issues that community members may not care about as deeply as something that would drive them to give up an evening and attend a city council meeting. While that option to attend a city council meeting may no longer exist in a Covid-19 world, that same stigma of online messages as a low-cost option may still exist for elected officials.
Another issue is that online messaging leads to an overload of information. Much like many of our inboxes seem to constantly fill up and we struggle to keep our heads above water, elected officials can drown in the constant barrage of emails from community members. Even if a community member has an urgent request of an elected official, it could get lost in the many emails that elected officials receive in a single day.
Local government leaders face a dilemma in a world where online messaging is the new requirement and may struggle to help community members effectively interact with elected officials. Fortunately, there are steps leaders can take that will make their messages feel more like normal and stand out in an online-only world.
First, on the city website, encourage community members to record their message to elected officials in a video or audio format instead of simply sending in a written email. Not only does it help elected officials place a face or voice to the name, it is much easier to convey the emotion of the message. We all have our qualms with the email format – and elected officials are no different.
Next, in order to help community members record their message in video or audio format, local government leaders should provide detailed instructions on how to use technology to do so. Many community members struggle with technology, especially in an age where we are more dependent on technology than ever. Providing instructions on how to record their message will help limit the barriers some may have.
Governments that have office phone numbers for elected officials can also encourage community members to use phone calls to communicate with elected officials. It may seem antiquated, but using the phone adds a personal touch to messages that emails don’t provide. It also creates additional buy-in to these messages and may help elected officials feel more invested in the stories that community members communicate over the phone.
Lastly, if possible to do so in a safe, socially distant way, it would be great to have a public workstation available to allow community members to record messages to public officials. This is obviously much more difficult due to the sanitization methods and support necessary to make possible, but would remove much of the equity and access concerns with the lack of computer and internet access for some community members.
For myriad reasons, 2020 has been a challenging year for local government leaders. One of these challenges was the required pivot to virtual city council meetings and the absence of in-person public input from community members.
After research has shown that online messages from community members to elected officials are less effective at getting a point across, it is important that local government leaders help community members use video or audio messages to make their messages more personal and impactful. We hope that these tips will help local government leaders empower their communities to make their messages heard in a difficult time.
For this year’s Diversity Dashboard, ELGL is partnering with CivicPulse, an organization that generates insights about local government through national surveys of local officials. This is the first in a series of articles that will highlight equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives and research from both organizations. We look forward to our partnership with CivicPulse and local government professionals across the nation as we work to make Diversity Dashboard even stronger.