A guide to Virtual Public Meetings during COVID-19

Assessing public engagement during coronavirus

It goes without saying that today we are in uncharted territory. For many of our agency partners, COVID-19 has created a challenging question: How can we keep public engagement processes on track if we can’t hold meetings?

The implications are serious. Postponing meetings means inevitable project delays, and putting critical state and federal dollars at risk. Before we act, we must first take a step back to understand where exactly we find ourselves – since many communities are in slightly different situations.

Assessing your organization’s virtual meeting needs starts with answering a few key questions:

  1. Would hosting your primary meeting participants (i.e. officials) in one room exceed gathering limitations?
  2. Do your meetings have more than one presenter or speaker?
  3. Do your meetings have a legally-mandated ‘public hearing’ component?
  4. Do you need to retain meeting comments for FOIA and public records compliance purposes?

If you answered “no” to all of these, you may be able to use consumer-oriented tools like YouTube Live to broadcast your scaled-down meetings.

For most organizations, though, these factors represent challenges that are hard to address with streaming services like YouTube and Facebook Live and off-the-shelf tools like GotoMeeting and Cisco WebEx. Important Note: Due to meeting hijackings, many IT departments are banning Zoom from being used altogether.

Keep reading to see the key differences between social media live streaming, conferencing tools, and interactive virtual meetings or schedule a 15-minute call for a brief overview.

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What about social media tools like Facebook Live?

Facebook Live and YouTube Live are powerful tools, and have a few things going for them:

  1. Resident familiarity. Unlike teleconferencing tools, these platforms are familiar and easy-to-use for residents of all ages and backgrounds.
  2. Unlimited participants. No limit is placed on how many viewers can attend.

But on their own, these platforms come with tradeoffs that make them a tough fit for public meetings.

  1. Limited to one presenter. Without advanced encoding and stream management tools, these formats are built to take one continuous stream of video from a single device. If you need to host multiple participants remotely, this is a deal breaker.
  2. Limited moderation and control over public comments. These platforms are built with unstructured, mostly-unmoderated comments at their core. If the comment box is your primary public comment option, this can open you up to vocal participants creating a toxic environment for civil dialog.
  3. Records concerns. Comments made by officials and the public in the context of a meeting are almost always considered public record. Because social media platforms allow users to edit and delete comments, you could be exposed to unwanted legal liabilities in the case of public information requests if you don’t have an automated way to retain these.
  4. Barriers for residents without broadband. Unlike conferencing tools, these services don’t provide a way for residents to listen along over the phone in cases of limited Internet access.

For these reasons, most organizations choose to avoid using Facebook Live and YouTube as a standalone virtual meetings solution.

What about off-the-shelf conferencing tools like GotoMeeting or WebEx?

Most organizations already have a license to conferencing tools like Cisco Webex, GotoMeeting, Skype, or Google Hangouts. These tools have proven invaluable during the COVID-19 crisis for internal coordination and have a lot going for them:

  1. Multiple presenters. This is a must if your core participants can’t convene.
  2. Phone audio options. Residents with limited internet access can still listen to the proceedings.

However, these tools also have significant drawbacks when it comes to public meetings.

  1. Limited numbers of participants. Most platforms come with a pre-set cap on participants, and shifting to a ‘webinar’ format often eliminates the option for participants to participate or add comments.
  2. Technological barriers to participation. Even if you’re in a tech-savvy community, there are still many residents who may not be comfortable downloading meeting software or navigating the interfaces these tools provide.
  3. Unstructured, unmoderated chat windows. Chat threads work well with a smaller number of participants, but can turn chaotic with increasing participants. A few negative or argumentative attendees can turn things toxic quickly.

Given these risks and the associated negative outcomes, these conferencing solution also are a poor fit for a public meetings solution.

A virtual meeting solution must:

  1. Support multiple remote presenters and participants
  2. Provide comment management, moderation, and retention
  3. Allow resident participation without a login, password, or download
  4. Provide access for residents with limited internet access
  5. Support an unlimited number of public participants

A true solution to the public engagement challenge starts to look like a combination of the benefits of live broadcast and meeting tools – with a focus on managing the inherent challenges associated with public comments.

Introducing the PublicInput.com Virtual Meetings Platform

Public-facing solutions

  • Unlimited online participants
  • No downloads or logins required
  • Phone participation options
  • Structured survey questions and private comment options
  • Online, text, or phone based commenting

Admin-facing solutions

  • Interactive meeting with audio and video streaming
  • Multiple presenters and screen sharing
  • Public comment feed with moderation options
  • Private chat feed for coordination and voting
  • Transcribed voice comments

Public participation database

  • Public meetings hub
  • Complete records retention across all interactions
  • Resident database to build profiles and resident segments
  • Built-in email, phone, and text messaging capabilities

How it works

Our team has been focused on integrating conferencing and live broadcast tools directly into the PublicInput.com platform. We’ve focused on three key integrations to bring together a complete virtual meetings solution.

  1. Embedding livestream Youtube and Facebook Live into a managed online engagement portal.
  2. Creating phone endpoints for projects and meetings.
  3. Creating a new WebEx integration to combine web-based viewing with multi-participant conferencing.
Youtube Logo

Live meeting integrations for Facebook Live and YouTube

In light of the key concerns we listed with these platforms, PublicInput.com has created deep integrations with both platforms to:

  1. Broadcast publicly on your engagement hub – no login required.
  2. Archive comments via API to retain all comments for records compliance.
  3. Provide structured questions, interactive maps, and FAQ modules.

WebEx integrations for interactive virtual public meetings

In light of the key concerns we listed with these platforms, PublicInput.com has created deep integrations with both platforms to:

  1. Multiple remote presenters and unlimited attendees
  2. Screen sharing for presentations
  3. Easy, no-login access for the general public
  4. Real-time comments and questions using the PublicInput.com engagement hub

Phone

Phone integrations to take phone-in public comments and questions

Even with robust online deployments like those seen with the WebEx integration, you still need a way to manage voice comments. We’ve seen organizations try to do this through conferencing tools, but managing a queue and preventing the public-chat issues we covered earlier has proven difficult.

To address this, we’ve created call in lines with meeting-specific codes for residents to call and record their comment or question. Staff receive a transcription of these in seconds, and can choose to play these in the meeting, or relay the questions to officials.

The beta version of this plays a voice-to-text prompt that is pre-populated by the admins, and we expect multi-lingual, pre-recorded prompts to be feasible within the next two weeks.

What does it cost to deploy a solution like this?

Normally we provide software on enterprise, multi-year contracts. Given the situation, we’re creating a no-commitment monthly plan for organizations available.  Get in touch with us for a quote. The tool includes:

  • Full access to the virtual meetings toolkit
  • Online engagement portal with subscriber signup and meeting listing
  • 5 admin seats for one department
  • Engagement templates to quickly deploy best practices

Organizations have the option to purchase credit packages for Email, Text, and Targeted Social communications on an as-needed basis.

To get started, schedule an onboarding call.  On the call we’ll create your account, schedule a training session, add administrators, and answer any questions.

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