In the wake of the World Health Organization’s declaration of the novel coronavirus as a health pandemic, it became very real to many Americans that life, as we know it, would change. And the way business was done at the local level would change dramatically.
Businesses, churches, and schools were closing, and local leaders and municipal staff were examining the delivery of city services to determine how to interact with residents, whose lives were now in chaos.
However, in a fairly short time, cities adapted to this “new normal” adjusting to the idea of remote meetings and working from home. While some cities were better prepared than others for hosting regular virtual meeting connecting members remotely, the majority of cities were franticly exploring the new world of Zoom.
Many local leaders and their staff cobbled together a tenuous network to accommodate online meetings. Most cities found that there is a significant difference between one or two members attending a meeting remotely versus conducting an entire meeting virtually, with members, staff and the public logging in via phone, internet or a combination of the two.
During the first few months of stay-at-home orders, many meetings suffered from technology glitches. Frustrations grew as videos froze and barking dogs or crying babies could be heard in the backgrounds of presentations. The usually reliable Internet failed as millions of workers logged on from home and slowed down the system. The ability of the public to anonymously log into meetings which led to numerous instances of hateful attacks and off-color language to interrupt or cancel several meetings throughout the country.
The new “virtual governing” model clearly had some growing pains and local leaders were forced to adapt on a daily basis. Some mayors and council presidents reported a new problem. The decorum that was present during in-person meetings seemed to deteriorate during the “virtual” meetings.
Members who normally dressed up for Council meetings were seen on camera in t-shirts or jogging gear. One mayor reported that a member of the council attended the meetings while exercising and others have noted members eating dinner or surfing the Internet. Some members get up in the middle of the presentations and do not return until the end of the meeting. Even debates seem more heated since there is less peer pressure in the comfort of your home office or family room.
Tips for Reducing Tensions in Virtual Meetings
To get some insight on this issue, I reached out to a governing expert, Mike Conduff, an author of numerous books on governing and a workshop leader, who has helped many City Councils overcome conflict and disorder. Conduff, a former city manager and board member of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), blames these emerging problems on a lack of formal rules and procedures for “virtual meetings.”
Establish new rules and procedures for virtual setting
Conduff stated, “Most City Councils have established rules and procedures to govern conduct at meetings and unfortunately, the move to online or partial online meetings are not adequately addressed in most cities rules and procedures”. He recommends that councils work to revise and address concerns and formally adopt revisions to conduct at virtual council meetings.
Invest in proper technology
Technology concerns can also raise the heat in a meeting and cause frustrations among the members and the viewing public. Dealing with poor connections or garbled audio is a common complaint of citizens when viewing online meetings. City leaders need to invest in proper technology and equipment in order to deliver a product that can work for councilmembers, staff and the public.
Ensure staff is trained on new technology
Advances in technology have made acceptable video and audio platforms affordable but a key component is having a staff member who is capable of flawlessly operating whatever system the city chooses. Training for staff and members is also necessary to produce these virtual meetings. Having someone sitting in a room in front of a sunny window can make for a less than acceptable video, as well as sitting in front of a wall filled with distracting objects.
As leaders in our communities, we need to recognize that our citizens are undergoing one of the most stressful times in many of their lives. The pandemic has destroyed businesses, led to a loss of jobs, and forced school closings. Local government is increasingly the source of information and a stabilizing factor during these challenging times. Our interaction with citizens to connect with them in a way that provides the best information and guidance to assist them in their lives. While many of our meetings in the past have had sparse attendance, we are now accessible to our citizens through their computers and smartphones. This dramatic change necessitates our willingness to adapt to these new technologies.
Jim Hunt is an Author, Consultant and Thought Leader focused on local government. He is a managing partner at Bearing Advisors, LLC and host of the Amazing Cities and Towns Podcast. He is a former Mayor and Councilmember and a Past President of the National League of Cities. For more information, visit www.bearingadvisors.net or www.amazingcities.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org