This article was written by Dana Healy, Executive Director of NineNorth. Connect with Dana by email or LinkedIn.
I was quoted in the Star Tribune about increased civic engagement around public government meetings. Its true, NineNorth saw a 20% increase in overall viewership throughout 2020. Some zoom-based meetings had to be held twice to accommodate the amount of people who wanted to attend. As a local government enthusiast, I have been so excited to see new participants in the local political arena. The pandemic has forced us to change our lives. COVID-19 has brought to light many issues in our community and governments, but it also has busted down long-time barriers to civic engagement in local politics. I’d like to highlight 4 barriers to public participation, and how COVID-19 has changed that.
Public meetings are typically held in a public space like a city hall. The easiest way to go to a public meeting is by car. 91% of Minnesotans have access to at least one care, but that leaves out 9% that don’t have that luxury. Public transportation is sometimes available but can be unreliable based on a reduced schedule. When transportation options are reduced, barriers are being placed for people to participate.
COVID-19 Change – Meetings migrating to online platforms has negated the need to physically drive to a physical space to participate. People who don’t have access to transportation can still participate.
2. First Shift
At NineNorth, the second Tuesday of the month at 7pm we lovingly call “Super Tuesday”. This is when all the public meetings happen. Evenings are accessible for people who have first shift jobs, which is 9am-5:30pm. These workers can typically leave work after their shift, eat some dinner, and head to a public meeting. Second and third shift workers will not be able to attend an in person public meeting at 7pm on a Tuesday. The necessity of being in person to participate at a public meeting is another barrier that second and third shift workers experience.
COVID-19 Change – COVID has put pressure on Cities encouraging different ways for public participation, like voicemail, email, or messaging platforms like Cassandar.
3. Public Speaking
Standing behind a podium and addressing a governing body is intimidating. For a person who is shy this experience is strong enough that it may stop them from participating in a public meeting.
COVID-19 Change – Through remote participation, people can participate from the comfort of their own home, with their camera off. This gives them the opportunity to comment during the meeting without the anxiety of public speaking.
As a mom of three, time has always been a finite commodity. Since the pandemic, I have seen wide open gaps in my calendar. Beyond that, we have become masters of multitasking. We can attend nonprofit fundraisers while folding laundry. We can also participate in a public meeting.
COVID-19 Change – The reduction of social events and activities have granted us more time. With this time, more people are getting active in local politics.
The COVID-19 Pandemic has brought to light many disparities in our community, but it has also given a more equitable playing field around public meeting participation.
We do need to note that to have access to remote public meetings, one must have a computer and broadband access. The pandemic has brought into focus the absolute need for universal broadband access to stay connected with the community. If you are interested in learning more about broadband access, check out our 2021 NineNorth Compass program series.
Connect with me on LinkedIn or my blog to share your insight into the future of public meetings.
Dana Healy is the Executive Director of NineNorth and the CEO of the North Suburban Communications Commission. She leads a team of Emmy-award winning professionals that serves cities, nonprofits and government agencies looking to connect and engage with their communities through digital media. Her guiding principle is, “Don’t make videos, make an impact.” She holds two master’s degrees she earned while working full-time. Her passion is discovering and planning effective communication strategies to help municipalities reach their target audience. She also holds a third degree black belt in Karate, which she only occasionally uses in business meetings.
Read more from Dana at the Amplify your City’s Voice: How Community Media Centers Can Help homepage.