Phil Goldstein is a former web editor of the CDW family of tech magazines and a veteran technology journalist. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and their animals: a dog named Brenna and two cats, Grady and Princess.
Across the country, governments large and small have moved their official meetings online, with varying degrees of success. Government agencies have been forced to do so because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has shuttered many government buildings and halted large public gatherings.
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California issued an executive order March 12 to allow local legislative bodies to hold public meetings by teleconference because of the pandemic, but it requires the meetings to be “accessible telephonically or otherwise electronically to all members of the public.”
The Maryland Board of Public Works, which controls state spending, met in March via a video link, the first time such a meeting was conducted “in a virtual environment,” Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford told The Baltimore Sun.
However, some members of the public have found it difficult to access such meetings and have their concerns addressed by public officials, The San Diego Union-Tribune reports.
“There have been a range of responses — ranging from horrible to barely meets the letter of the law — but no one really seems to be coming up with a way that really gives people a voice,” Diane Nygaard, who lives in Oceanside, Calif., and often speaks to elected officials in the San Diego County area about environmental issues and other concerns, tells the newspaper.
Governments need to ensure that residents have equal access to such meetings, and that they are secure and easy to interface with, says Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute. The first task state and local governments need to address is whether their policies allow for remote meetings and if such meetings can meet legal requirements of open meetings laws.
“How do you ensure equal access?” Shark says. “How do you ensure that the democratic process is preserved?”
Best Practices for Online Government Meetings
A Maryland Board of Education meeting held remotely in March had to be halted because of a glitchy audio stream, the Sun reports.
Government agencies need to ensure that they have the capacity to hold livestreamed meetings, via video or audio, Shark says. That goes for both government officials and residents, many of whom may not have adequate broadband connections at home. Agencies can issue residents mobile Wi-Fi or cellular hotspots or direct them to come to a facility to access the meetings remotely, he notes.
Security is the fourth consideration Shark outlines for government agencies to address. As Business Insider and The Mercury News report, government agencies have had to contend with “Zoom-bombing” attacks, in which malicious actors hijack Zoom meetings. Zoom took measures earlier this month to address security concerns, in part by turning on passwords and waiting rooms for meetings by default for users on its free plan and those with a single license on its cheapest paid tier.
The Seattle City Council is among the government bodies that have taken official meetings online.
Agencies need to make sure security is preserved by following those kinds of steps, not giving out generic passwords to meetings and determining who can come into virtual meetings.
Training is also a key issue, both for staff and residents, Shark says. State and local government bodies should provide video tutorials for how to access virtual meetings and have IT support on hand to troubleshoot problems. Users are likely not as technologically sophisticated as IT staff or some government officials.
Agencies should also use their meeting platforms to poll the public on the user experience, according to Shark. And they need to be able to record and store the virtual meetings to comply with open records laws.
Government can’t close. A barbershop and a hair salon can close. A government can’t close.”
Executive Director, Public Technology Institute
“The bottom line is, people who are at home and most likely to be active are very appreciative to have this as an option,” Shark says. “Government can’t close. A barbershop and a hair salon can close. A government can’t close.”
Getting to a public meeting has never been that easy, even in normal times, Shark notes. Some are late at night or at other inconvenient times for residents. The best government agencies can do amid the pandemic is provide technology platforms that are easy to use and can be accessed via smartphones and tablets.
Ultimately, the pandemic has led to a recognition that local governments support hundreds of lines of business, whether that is authorizing building permits, letting residents pay bills and taxes or get marriage licenses, supplying health records or allowing a park to be built. “The things that government does are not ad hoc,” Shark says. “These are ongoing things that have to happen and often they are required by law.”