In less than a fortnight, COVID-19 has forced us to move many aspects of our lives online — which stands in direct contrast to how a lot of public engagement work is typically conducted. Two municipal leaders recently joined the eDemocracy Webinar Series to provide guidance on how local governments can engage with their citizens during these trying times.
Joan Botkin, Communications Manager at Okotoks, Alberta, and Andrea Reimer, former Vancouver City Councillor, joined Ethelo Founder and CEO John Richardson for a discussion about challenges that municipal governments are facing and best practices for online engagement.
“These times are tough for everyone, but particularly tough for people in positions of authority who are trying to hold their communities together,” Reimer said. “We need to think about continuity and what we can keep going over the longer term we’ll be in social distancing, and about how to hit the ground running once this passes.”
One of the biggest concerns among local government officials right now is how to hold public hearings as required by law. Reimer said social distancing provides an opportunity for municipalities to re-evaluate processes that were put into place when our lives looked very different than they do today.
“We have a public hearing process that was developed in the 19th century that was built for 19th-century lifestyles,” Reimer said. “It’s not accessible to people living modern lifestyles. We can’t guarantee access to the process right now for anyone under age 45 who does not have time to sit around at a meeting and wait for their voice to be heard.”
Okotoks has been using Ethelo for online public engagement for several years. Most recently, the town took on the challenge of completely rewriting a Municipal Development Plan that hadn’t been updated since 1996. The key for Botkin was to do it in a way that allowed residents to have input while envisioning their community's future. Botkin talked about how the town has built a reputation as a leader in community engagement over the past few years.
“Everyone gets surveyed to death, so you have to try and find innovative ways that will engage the community and give meaning to them,” Botkin said. “Ethelo allows the community to talk to itself, and people feel more valued as part of the process. You can reach them in the places they’re comfortable in.”
Okotoks was happy with the results Ethelo provided and continued to use it to build continuity and familiarity among residents. Botkin said that though there are a wide array of choices available when it comes to online engagement, she finds it important to choose something and stick with it.
“Every time they go back, the learning curve flattens a little,” Botkin said.
Moving forward, Ethelo and eDemocracy Solutions will continue to work with local governments to meet their needs during COVID-19 and beyond. For more from Botkin and Reimer, watch the webinar recording.
Want to learn more about how to move your in-person engagements online? Curious to see what mix of tools can be used? Wondering how you can make sure your engagements are accessible to all? Trying to determine what satisfies legal requirements while ensuring that people feel seen, heard, and well represented? We’ll be addressing all of this and more in our upcoming eDemocracy Webinar, which will be held on Wednesday, April 15, at 11a PST. Register to save your spot via the form below.