Using Paperless Meeting Technology to Engage With the Community

Lena Eisenstein
6 min read
Paperless meeting technology saves trees, streamlines meetings and simplifies meeting preparation. Early adopters of the technology, though, are discovering that its benefits extend well beyond administrative ease and environmental protection. Creative use of paperless meeting software is creating a sense of community caring and belonging that reaches populations once disengaged from civic affairs.

The National League of Cities has examined the public engagement efforts of 14 US communities. They found a new 'frontier spirit' energizing localities across the country. Many of the cities with groundbreaking initiatives have used paperless meeting software to create online portals. On these portals, they build public-facing websites that establish widespread buy-in to city projects. The same software that makes paperless meetings possible accounts for this newfound vibrancy in community engagement. It gives the government and citizens new and powerful tools to create 'civic fusion.'

Tool 1: Make agendas, minutes and video footage truly accessible to all.

Open meeting laws keep local government from operating like a speakeasy with a secret password. For tapping into the energy of the community, though, it sets the bar low. Dutifully posting meeting agendas and minutes outside Town Hall may get the message out to a conscientious Mr. Rogers or a devoted Leslie Knope type, but they are hardly typical Americans. Detroit and a growing roster of cities say they've found a way to add a 'cool factor' that is drastically increasing buy-in from once-dormant sectors of the community.

The same agenda and meeting minutes can now appear online, where the average American spends a whopping 10 hours a day, according to a Nielsen study. Digital announcements are proving so much more compelling than traditional communication vehicles that Detroit planners are now speaking of a 'Wild, Wired West of community engagement.'

The change has brought in populations traditionally disinterested in stodgy civic affairs. Younger adults are showing up in droves, bringing with them social networks and can-do energy. Philadelphia's successful transformation into a tech hub showcases what the resulting synergies can accomplish. There, civic institutions and civic entrepreneurs broke out of their silos to work toward shared goals.

Even a video of public meetings can appear online alongside the meeting minutes. As a result, more people can experience the meeting itself. Social anxiety, even agoraphobia, keeps many concerned constituents away from public meetings. Health conditions that render people non-ambulatory no longer block them from seeing what happened at a public meeting.

Other barriers to participation also fall away with the right technology. If the software provides a platform that is fully ADA compliant, all of the records and readings from the event become easy to access for anyone with a limiting cognitive, sensory or manual condition. Translation into multiple languages now opens doors to recent immigrant communities without disrupting the meeting itself. Austin, TX found that it had low participation rates from its Hispanic community; online translation tools did the trick. What's more, a record of success with online community-building strengthens applications for federal grants that extend broadband access to low-income communities.

Tool 2: Create interactive dialogue with citizens between meetings.

Online feedback mechanisms solicit contributions from constituents. In this way, the Town of Hampton, VA reached new heights in public participation for its I-Value program. Town officials were deciding how to allocate resources for city services. Instant polling online elicited input from 400 to 500 people in the community about core community services. Buy-in was so great that the city got 60% to 70% approval for a set of service cuts and tax increases that they had to implement. Similarly, Decatur, GA included 1,500 residents in its planning process with an online forum that was open to all of the populations in the city.

Tool 3: Empower citizens with the information they need to contribute more.

Attendance is not engagement. Consider how you feel at meetings for which you've 'done the reading' ' compared to the at-sea sensation you have at meetings where you don't know the new acronyms being tossed around, you're not sure if you're asking questions that the reading already addressed and you stay silent to hide your ignorance. Which meeting benefits more from your questions and ideas?

Online links to referenced materials make it a breeze for every citizen to summon readings referenced in the agenda with a single keystroke. Top paperless meeting software even hosts an online archive of legislation, articles, reports, maps, spreadsheets ' whatever is needed. The agenda itself can then include direct links to each item that it mentions. The right software even makes those materials searchable by keyword.

Tool 4: Create integrated open records with unprecedented ease of access.

Speaking Seussically, 'But that is not all! Oh no, that is not all.' Open records, too, get a dramatic facelift with the right software; it provides online space for not just agenda attachments, but the complete copious records of government. All of these open records can also be made searchable. (The best such software doesn't charge extra as reams of data from three-ring binders are digitized.)

Tool 5: Facilitate participatory democracy between meetings.

Imaginative applications of online open data are redefining civic engagement. Consider the overwhelming success of cities that have achieved problem-solving collaborations between local citizens and public employees:
  • In Philadelphia, an 'Open Data Race' challenged entrepreneurs in the city to contribute Geographic Information System (GIS) maps, which it combined on the government-run portal with Police Department crime records, call information from the 311 system and geographical information from the Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority. Another contest ensued: It offered a nominal award to whomever devised the best app using all of these public data sets. Citizens themselves chose the winner after viewing all of the entries online.

This creative collaboration was the brainchild of the town's CIO, Adel W. Ebeid. At Philly Tech Week in 2012, the mayor signed an executive order committing to the public portal in 2012. Amazed at the results, the city created the position of Chief Data Officer. In a sign of things to come, Philadelphia also established a Data Governance Advisory Board.
  • The 49th Ward in Chicago used its online platform to bolster a door-to-door campaign to include citizens in participatory budget deliberations. Each citizen could vote on how to prioritize spending on local infrastructure ' assisted by online budget simulators that showed the effects of allocating dollars to one project or another.

Alderman Joe Moore reports unprecedented levels of engagement: 'The Ward has 58,000 people,' he reports, 'but the meeting junkies are the same 200. Overwhelmingly, the people involved in this process are new people and that has just been terrific to see.' Moore vastly increased his own margin of victory in the subsequent election, and now the entire City of Chicago is considering online participatory budgeting ' as is New York City.
  • Austin, TX had $1.3 million to invest in increasing public engagement for comprehensive planning. They funded the projects receiving the most votes from citizens until the money was exhausted. Combining GIS mapping software with the software for providing a secure online portal (the same software used for paperless meetings), they made it possible for constituents to envision what the city as a whole would look like 30 years in the future under different planning proposals.

Citizens enthusiastically responded to this dynamic and empowering process. Officials report that the project was 'also very useful at keeping the buzz going and making sure that Imagine Austin didn't feel like a dry city process.' Over 25,000 constituents participated.
Citizen engagement is reaching dizzying new heights with the digital revolution. Cities leading the way harness the many tools of paperless meeting software to reach constituents where they live, make government information open to all, and generate interactive participation every day of the week.