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Voices. Knowledge. Solutions.

Online Engagement Brings Local Government to the Residents

The pandemic led to many social distancing measures for city and town council meetings, with many councils pursuing their first-ever virtual meetings to keep local government accessible even when people were not gathering in person. 

From a wider perspective, though, the pandemic’s legacy for public meetings might be simply an acceleration of a trend that began even before 2020, with more cities offering ways for their residents to connect to what is going on with their local governing bodies. Web-based technologies are not simply allowing residents to see what’s happening at their local government meetings, they are fostering engagements and new connections between city government and its constituents. 

Goose Creek has now livestreamed its city council meetings for several years. 
Photo: City of Goose Creek. 

Livestreaming meetings in Goose Creek
The City of Goose Creek has been livestreaming its council meetings for more than three years now. 

“Once the meetings are over, that stream ends, the videos get uploaded, and people can go to our website and bring up [videos] of any of the council meetings,” said Frank Johnson, Goose Greek public information officer.

The city also disseminates the links to the videos to residents across the city’s social media platforms, encouraging more engagement.
“During the height of the pandemic, there were several months where we went to virtual meetings and, of course, we let everyone know how to watch it virtually,” said Johnson. “We encouraged people who wanted to submit questions to contact our city clerk and let her know if they wanted to make a comment or ask a question.”
Although in-person meetings resumed, the city still encourages the public to submit comments by email or mail, in addition to the in-person public comment period.

All of the livestreamed videos are embedded into and saved on the City of Goose Creek’s website using the software system Granicus. This allows residents to watch earlier meetings or revisit meetings they have already attended at any time, as well as view the agendas on the city’s website.

Since Goose Creek was already livestreaming its council meetings before the pandemic, switching to virtual meetings was much easier than for others. 

“I think our residents understood the situation,” said Johnson, adding that there was good participation at the virtual meetings. “We wanted to open it back up as soon as we could, to get the public here and to make it as accessible as possible.”

Even though many prefer in-person meetings, livestreaming can help with engagement. Johnson said that the number of people watching often depend on topics covered at the meeting. 

“Even if the numbers aren’t very high, I think it’s a healthy thing to have and for folks to be able to access — we want to be as transparent and open as possible,” he said. 

Using social media to leverage the visibility of the live streamed city council meetings, Johnson schedules reminder posts for the morning of the meetings to remind residents of the event. He includes a link to where users can watch the meetings live. In accordance with the SC Freedom of Information Act, the city preserves all the documents involved. Just as cities will retain agendas and minutes, staff will save the videos and the social media comments.
“Luckily, we haven’t had to do those virtual meetings again yet, but that’s always an option if we need them,” Johnson said.

During the early panemic-related shutdowns, Fort Mill used completely remote 
town council meetings. Photo: Town of Fort Mill.

Meeting alerts in Fort Mill 
Recorded and streamed council meetings are nothing short of the norm for the Town of Fort Mill. When the pandemic forced the municipality to switch to a virtual format, the town live streamed its meetings using GoToMeeting

“There were a lot of learning curves,” said Christopher Sardelli, public relations manager. 

The town offered the option of submitting comments ahead of time. Video of the meetings was available live, and then the town would post the recorded videos on its YouTube channel. 

Virtual meetings turned out better than anticipated, as they provided a great way for the public to engage, Sardelli said. But now that in-person meetings have resumed and the virtual component has phased out, the town still promotes the live meetings ahead of time and records them. All links to agendas, minutes and recorded council meetings are available on the town’s website. 

“We’ve actually seen a little bit fewer people live than there was virtually,” he said. “I think people enjoyed the convenience of being able to be where they were and still engage with us, and so there are a lot more people watching the recorded video later than there are people attending the live meetings.”

The town monitors all comments received on the recorded videos, as well as all social media posts. 

One feature that was in the planning stages before the pandemic was the town’s implementation of the Notify Me alerts system by CivicEngage

“They had a great platform,” Sardelli said. “It was actually in the works before COVID ever happened and so we ended up launching this website from our homes.” 

The Notify Me feature on the town’s website allows residents to sign up with an email address and select from a list of over 30 alerts to receive and the method in which they wish to receive them, including by email or text. 

“Notify Me was just a neat feature that we wanted for alerts, but it turned into a great tool,” Sardelli said. 

Charleston’s Public Meeting Engagement Portal has allowed greater resident 
involvement in the public meetings of city council as well as boards and commissions. 
Photo: City of Charleston.

Charleston’s Public Meeting Engagement Portal  
The City of Charleston is home to the second-oldest continuously-used council chambers in the nation. While these chambers are historic, the space proved to be too small for social distancing once the COVID-19 pandemic began. After the city began using virtual meetings, the Mayor’s Office of Innovation created a unique system to encourage public engagement digitally: a Public Meeting Engagement Portal. The platform allows residents to sign up to address public meetings, submit comments in advance, and see the previous comments and participant lists. It also allows for advanced engagement tracking and monitoring by city staff. The effort won the city one of the Municipal Association’s 2022 Achievement Awards.

“[The portal] was a good opportunity to give people another way to communicate with us,” said Tracy McKee, Chief Innovation Officer. “It really just started as us creating a way for people to submit comments for city council meetings so we could continue the business of the city.”

The portal has opened up a new world of public engagement for the municipal government. City council is on track this year to have six times the amount of participation compared to 2019, according to McKee. In 2019, the city council received a monthly average of about 27 comments in person. That monthly average is now in the hundreds. 

“It’s pretty significant,” she added.

The portal has worked so well to drive engagement that other committees and functions of the city started to take note and have started using it as well. So far, 19 committees are currently using the portal. 

As for tracking, a live dashboard provides updates every night with the number of engagements, including the number of people that have signed up to leave comments and the number that have signed up to speak. In compliance with the SC Freedom of Information Act, everything that is posted to or received via the portal is archived in a database format.
The plan is to share this knowledge with other municipalities throughout the state and nationwide. McKee noted that there are multiple ways of doing this, including by making some of the program code available. 

“Being able to provide citizens with a voice in a way that’s convenient for them is a big win, because they never really had that before the pandemic,” McKee said. 

As new innovations continue to evolve the traditional meeting format, web-based technologies have proven their effectiveness in raising public engagement with local governments.