The past two years have seen a significant expansion of virtual and hybrid council meetings to encourage social distancing and avoid the spread of COVID-19. Many localities have seen the benefits that hybrid meetings provide, including more opportunities for community participation, options for accessibility measures such as Closed Captioning, and increased flexibility for City Council members. However, studies have demonstrated that hybrid meetings do not fully address the “systemic skews in participation” that exist in civic engagement. Cities should work with their communities to identify and address additional barriers to participation regardless of the meeting format. The following best practices regarding hybrid meetings were developed through a research partnership between the NLC and the Harvard Law School Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.
Open meeting laws, or “sunshine laws”, have existed in all 50 states since 1976 and require that meetings at various levels of the government (local, state, and federal) are open to the public, along with government decisions and records. This requirement became more difficult due to the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing requirements, which led many states to temporarily expand their laws to allow hybrid or virtual meeting formats. The specific laws depend on the state- while some permanently expanded hybrid options, others only allow these formats to be used in a state of emergency. Cities should research open meeting or sunshine laws in their state before implementing any changes to their meeting formats.
Best Practices for Ensuring Meeting Accessibility:
Before the Meeting
Consider location and time of the meeting: Timing and location are very important considerations to encourage equitable access to civic engagement. Varying the location of meetings, including hosting in different districts, can improve access for residents who may not have easy access to city hall. Varying the times of meetings can also ensure that different groups are able to attend. People may have work or childcare responsibilities preventing them from attending during certain hours. Surveying the public on these issues is one way to determine when certain groups have responsibilities preventing them from participating in public meetings. Austin, Texas conducted a survey in 2015 and found that many members of the public preferred weekend meetings. Expanding the meeting schedule to have more meetings on the weekends may allow more members of the public to attend and share their thoughts.
Organize training and information sessions: Educating the public, and members of the city council, on how to use the software being utilized for virtual meetings is an important first step in ensuring accessibility. Training and information sessions can be a valuable tool to troubleshoot and address any questions the public may have. Posting informational videos on the locality’s website, and publicizing resources on social media, are helpful tools as well.
Provide step-by-step instructions for participation: Providing instructions on how and when to provide feedback during meetings can make it easier for people to participate. This may include clear instructions at the beginning of meetings, or information on the city website that details the variety of methods to send in their feedback.
Provide proper notice: Providing proper notice of a meeting is an important legal step, but how cities choose to provide notice can impact accessibility. Notices of public meetings can be posted in local newspapers, city hall bulletin boards or on their website. These notices should include existing legal requirements including time, objectives, subject, and agenda, as well as the following recommended information for hybrid meetings:
- Links and telephone numbers for participants to use
- Technical instructions for using the software platform
- Contact information for those that need assistance getting connected
- Accessibility options
Share meeting agenda and slides: The agenda and slides should be shared in an accessible format prior to the meeting in order to assist individuals with additional accessibility needs. Microsoft Word is one of the most accessible for screen readers, however, using “Save As” instead of “Export” to change a document to a PDF maintains many of the accessibility features included in Word. Documents should include alternative text for all images as well as clear language and legible fonts.
Provide accommodations by default: Providing accessibility accommodations by default makes it significantly easier for people to participate. This is in contrast to providing accommodations by request, which adds an additional level of complexity for participants and requires advanced notice. Possible accommodations include ensuring compatibility with screen reading software (all major hybrid meeting platforms include this, but do not work with screen sharing), live captioning, ASL, or live translation for communities with many non-English speakers. These accommodations can be expensive for cities, so when financial constraints exist, local governments should allow for accommodation requests as close to the beginning of the meeting as possible and make the request process as simple as possible.
- Lowell, Massachusetts has the second largest population of Cambodian Refugees in the United States. After beginning to provide summaries of city council meetings in Khmer (the official language of Cambodia0, the city saw an increase in engagement from the Cambodian Community. In January of 2022, Lowell elected the first Cambodian American mayor in the United States. City Councils should consider the specific needs of their constituents, including what languages are spoken, when determining accessibility measures. (SOURCE)
- Denver, Colorado has utilized hybrid meeting platforms to increase accessibility. They automatically provide English/Spanish interpretation using their online platform and can simultaneously interpret into multiple languages if requested. At one meeting, Denver provided translation into 5 different languages. Denver has seen a significant increase in participation since beginning to use hybrid meetings. (Harvard Law School Team Interview)
During the Meeting
Turn camera on while speaking: Having remote participants turn their cameras on while speaking or while participating in a conversation can improve the quality of the meeting and ensure that remote participants are given the same consideration as in-person participants.
Include a view of in-person participants with a second camera: Providing a view of in-person participants can help remote participants feel more involved in the conversation. This may mean having a second camera set up in the room that includes a view of where the public is sitting. While not always possible given financial constraints, this is one way to improve the experience for remote participants. Providing an “off-camera” area can help address privacy concerns for individuals who do not wish to be on camera.
Assign staff to moderate Q&A and chat: Members of the council or presenters will likely be too busy to monitor the chat for questions, so assigning a member of staff to monitor and moderate discussion in the chat or Q&A can help ensure that remote participants’ voices are heard. This individual can also provide support in the case of technical difficulties.
Include all remote participants in activities: When conducting meetings focused on gathering public input, cities may find it helpful to split into groups and have smaller discussions. If any such activities take place, it is important to include remote participants as well. Using the “breakout room” feature on the video platform can allow these participants to have their own smaller discussions.
Record meeting: Public meetings should be recorded to allow members of the public who are unable to attend to participate after the fact. These meetings often contain important information about local events or issues, and recording can ensure that everyone is able to keep up to date.
Announce accessibility features and share resources at the beginning: Accessibility features should be shared at the beginning, including how members of the public can access those resources. The location of the agenda, meeting slides, and any additional materials should be shared at the beginning and sent in the chat, if possible, to provide easy access.
Describe slides, images and videos: For participants who need visual accommodation, or those dialing in and unable to see the screen, care should be taken to improve understanding. The title of any slides should be read, and any images or videos included in the presentation should be verbally described by the speaker.
Provide opportunities for public comments: Participants should have opportunities to provide comments or ask questions during the meetings. Various alternative means to provide comments can encourage participation- options include through the city website, comments in-person, over the telephone, or video conference platform.
The “chat” function on hybrid meeting platforms can allow broader participation for the public but brings additional challenges in relation to public records requirements. The “webinar” mode can be used to disable the chat or only provide a “questions and answers” feature, which may decrease the burden on local governments. Any questions that are asked or answered in the chat should be read aloud as well for those with visual impairments, as most accessibility software do not read out comments in the chat.
Denver, Colorado has taken significant steps to improve public participation in its Hybrid City Council meetings. Their city website has a user-friendly interface that clearly directs community members to where they can provide public input, contact the city council, and attend city council meetings via Zoom. In order to streamline the public comment process, they require signups in advance either over the phone or on the website. The city has two staff members that monitor the hybrid meeting and coordinate the public comments. Denver has seen a significant increase in public participation since they have expanded and improved their hybrid meetings. (Harvard Law School Team Interview)
Address technology challenges: At least one member of city staff should be available and on-call during meetings to support IT issues for the public. Technology challenges are commonplace but running trials of the technology before the meeting can address some of these challenges and ensure a smooth meeting.
After the Meeting
Post recordings in easy-to-find locations: Post the recording and any relevant materials in an easy-to-find location, such as the city’s website or on an official YouTube account. Providing information about how the public can provide comments after the fact may be helpful in tandem with the video, in case people who were unable to attend in person want to provide feedback.
Discuss the needs of the community: Cities should engage with communities to make sure that their accommodation needs are met at future meetings. This could take the format of a drop box (in person or on the city website) or focus groups to discuss accessibility.
Civic engagement is a vital aspect of local democracy, and cities should work with their constituents to improve access. Learn more about best practices regarding virtual or hybrid meetings, by reading the suggested articles below.