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Virtual Engagement in Dane County

Virtual Engagement in Dane County

Following our May article on virtual community engagement resources, CARPC conducted a brief, informal survey to get an idea of what virtual engagement tools and practices have been employed by Dane County communities.

We received responses from 16 communities, over 90% of whom have conducted some form of virtual engagement since limitations on in-person gatherings began. Most of this engagement has been in the form of commission, board, or other regularly scheduled public meetings, as well as internal staff communications. About one third of responding communities have held virtual planning or municipal project meetings. A handful of respondents reported using virtual engagement methods for other purposes, including COVID-19 communications, education and training, and recreation activities such as virtual fitness and sidewalk chalk challenges.

The majority of respondents (80%) have relied on Zoom as their community’s video conferencing platform of choice. The Town of Dunn has been video conferencing through Google Meet (large-scale video conferencing software) and Google Duo (one-on-one video chat mobile app), two platforms that were not included in our original overview article. Other relatively popular communication platforms were email newsletters and listservs, community websites, and GoToMeeting. A small number of respondents have been using social media or text message services to communicate with the public. No one reported using specialized platforms like Konveio or Bang the Table.

Among the cited benefits of engaging virtually is the ability to continue with regular meeting schedules and maintain consistency and momentum during uncertain times. Some communities also report increased attendance and expanded reach with virtual meetings. The City of Madison, for example, estimates that approximately 20% of Zoom public meeting attendees have never attended a City public meeting in person. Virtual meetings also tend to be more concise, and some feel that they provide everyone the opportunity to be heard.

Most of the challenges reported by Dane County communities involve the technical and logistical aspects of virtual engagement. Providing adequate notification and instruction, addressing connectivity gaps and inequities, and meeting equipment needs are some of the main hurdles communities have had to address, particularly when first getting started. Respondents noted the inherent awkwardness of digital interactions, which many find to be less effective than in-person communication. Finding the right balance between security and accessibility can be an additional challenge, requiring some trial and error to determine the right combination of security features to enable.

It seems communities will have more time to build familiarity with virtual engagement tools as limits on in-person gatherings continue this summer. The following additional resources may be helpful to review open meetings requirements, streamline logistics, and refine virtual facilitation skills: