At open meetings, public boards should constantly ask themselves: “Who is not here? Who should be?” Vibrant community engagement provides public boards early grassroots feedback. Furthermore, robust communication harnesses the collective expertise of varied constituents, sometimes even shedding light on alternatives that the board had not considered. It enables citizen stakeholders’ voices to be heard throughout the process, preventing surprises, rancor and distrust. Public boards intent on boosting community engagement may be surprised to find that the sharpest tool in the shed is the technology that they use in the boardroom.
That technology does far more than host paperless meetings. With such software, a board can: communicate more effectively; reach constituents where they live; invite public scrutiny and increase curb appeal. Here’s how:
- Communicate more effectively. A study by the Pew Research Center found good communication to lie at the very heart of community engagement. “If people believe their local government shares information well,” the study finds, “they also feel good about their town and civic institutions.” Specifically, it finds that “[t]hose who are avid information consumers from news media and online sources are more likely to be involved and feel as if they can make a difference”.
Boardroom software technology makes frequent two-way communication possible between meetings. It brings a board the tools it needs to build a public-facing website – and not just any website. The website confers a board with many superpowers that traditional web-hosting services do not provide. These capabilities include streaming video, eliciting interactive input and storing information in a user-friendly way.
First, consider what online polls, surveys and feedback forms can do. An interested citizen can be put in touch with the organization after the meeting has ended, providing vital input and getting assurance that her voice is being heard. The time between meetings is not wasted as a dead zone of communications. It’s unimaginable that a citizen would object after an issue is settled that the board did not invite community views.
Some local governments are using their board software to draw citizens in as more active stakeholders. Many cities and counties were inspired by an experiment in one Chicago precinct. The local government posted on its website an interactive budget calculator. Any citizen can now enter figures and see their effect on the big picture – which makes them face the limits and trade-offs that the board itself cannot ignore.
Not only is contact more frequent and more inventive, but the sheer introduction of a supplementary format for communications makes a big difference. Looking ahead at future public interest initiatives, the IBM Center for the Business of Governance reports that “a combination of formats (face-to-face, survey, online, etc.) will be needed and one method does not replace another.” Online messages will never replace in-person public meetings, nor should they. They will, though, bring variety and volume to citizen outreach, which has been shown to prime the pump of citizen-board interaction.
- Reach constituents where they live. An online presence brings board business from the sleepy village that is Town Hall to the four-lane highway that is the internet. A Nielsen study found that the average American spends no less than 11 hours every day interacting with non-print media. How often do non-employees walk by public buildings and stop to peruse the postings?
Yet, meeting announcements, agendas, readings and minutes traditionally appear on public buildings. If they appeared online through board portal software, every citizen connected to the internet could easily find them. By simply clicking on links, any interested constituent could even do the background reading that the agenda references.
Online meeting materials draw in certain demographics who were once inadvertently shut out of the process of local government. The Illinois Association of School Boards found that, “to reach diverse voices, it may be necessary to engage people in various settings and through various methods”. When more people can easily find meeting times and topics, many of them will attend meetings as a result.
Other constituents will not be able to attend the public meeting itself. They, too, can stay involved through boardroom technology. As the best board portal software places videotaped footage of meetings at everyone’s disposal, social anxiety is no longer a bar to participation. Neither are physical handicaps. Because quality software is even ADA compliant, it can anticipate and accommodate myriad manual, cognitive and sensory deficits. The agenda, minutes, readings and footage can even reach citizens who simply find public meeting space to be intimidating. Such virtual attendees can contribute their voices through the multiple feedback mechanisms on the website.
- Invite public scrutiny. Journalists, academics and lawyers have historically researched public records with suspicion. They also have had to devote great time to poring through binders in the bowels of public buildings to find the materials that they needed. As the materials were not indexed, reading report after report could take days, weeks or even months.
Boardroom technology makes public records – maps, RFPs, laws, minutes, spreadsheets – fully searchable by keyword. The best board software makes it easy to put all public records in an online archive, where keyword-based meta-searches can find all instances of a letter sequence in a single search across all files and formats. By rolling out the red carpet to interrogators, local government becomes a gracious host rather than a hiding wrongdoer.
- Gain curb appeal. The shift to digital content gives civic affairs an image makeover. With his famous declaration that “the medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan showcased the fact that various technological media convey meaning every bit as much as the content of the texts that they contain. In the case of the internet, that implicit message is: “This is cool!”
The effect is increased meeting attendance. Early adopters of internet-based communication with constituents report that younger voters are showing up at public meetings in unprecedented numbers. Once a Buick sedan, local government has become a Mazda Miata.
In the end, community engagement must be a way of life. Building that way of life takes a concerted effort with the best tools possible. To break ground, public boards will find a secret weapon where they least expected it: boardroom technology.