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Business of Engineering

Virtual meetings are the rule rather than the exception

COVID-19 has forced virtual meetings to become the primary focus of interaction with co-workers and clients, which means an adjustment for many. It also represents an opportunity for companies.

By Annette Manz July 9, 2020
Courtesy: Keagan Gay, CFE Media and Technology

It’s no secret that the world around us is changing. Even before the current pandemic, we’ve seen a cultural shift pushing us to evolve the ways we conduct public engagement. We’re realizing that to effectively reach large audiences in today’s social climate we need to get creative. That means going virtual.

Identifying a new opportunity

While many of our clients were already exploring, if not using, online meeting and survey tools, COVID-19 has made virtual public engagement a necessity, rather than an option.

“Over the years, we have seen a steady transformation from in-person engagement to a blend of in-person and online techniques. Now, in response to the current pandemic, urban and transportation planners have eliminated in-person meetings altogether. As a result, agencies and planning firms alike are turning to online public engagement much more extensively,” said Mike Walsh, president and CEO at MetroQuest. “Planners are looking to maintain momentum and build community support for critical urban and transportation development projects.”

So, how do you get creative? How do you go virtual? How do you provide your public access and input to important decisions affecting cities, counties, and states? Thankfully, there are several new resources available that offer solutions to do just that. Thanks to companies like PublicInput.com and MetroQuest, agencies and consultants can keep moving important infrastructure projects forward during the pandemic and continue to better serve our communities beyond this crisis. At Dewberry, we have seen this trend ramping up from coast to coast.

Beth Smyre, a senior planner in our Raleigh, N.C., office, said: “Our offices across the country along with our counterparts have consistently experienced low participation at in-person public meetings, though not out of lack of interest in the projects. Our clients want more input from a broader segment of the public, and the public wants more options to be a part of the process.”

Online engagement opportunities, used in addition to traditional meetings and communication tools, increase the reach and effectiveness of the engagement process.

Joann Papageorgis, a department manager in our Parsippany, N.J., office shared her thoughts on online engagement meetings. “Virtual public meetings may be a necessity now, but moving forward they will not be considered a replacement, but an enhancement of our traditional public outreach best practices. The days of unexpectedly low public meeting turnout or survey responses will be dramatically improved with reliable, remote, and virtual meeting options. Virtual access will not be the exception, but the rule.”

Four benefits and five challenges of going virtual

Benefits

  1. Lower costs per participant as compared to most traditional in-person meetings
  2. Ability to capture all comments
  3. Ability to verify participants in attendance
  4. Reach larger, more targeted audiences.

Challenges

  1. Need for new technology
  2. Training for presenters
  3. Protection against meeting hijacking
  4. Staying ahead of legal implications by assuring access to all demographic groups
  5. Online meetings must be available for everyone to participate, which means participants must have access to the internet and either a computer or mobile device.

Taking advantage of available online tools

Online engagement is still in its early stages, but growing rapidly. As public engagement professionals, we must be prepared or we will be unable to provide our clients, communities, and stakeholders the level of service they need. Innovative online engagement tools include:

  • Dynamic online surveys
  • Virtual online town hall meeting
  • Text communication programs
  • Geo-targeted social outreach programs
  • Mapping and GIS integrations.

Combining these along with traditional engagement tools provides our clients with a deeper level of stakeholder input, making it easier for leaders to move forward with meaningful projects for their cities, counties, and states.

“The COVID-19 crisis is a wakeup call for our profession – if public engagement grinds to a halt because we can’t host public meetings, we’re clearly leaving out a large portion of the population by not providing equitable methods for participation,” stated Jay Dawkins, CEO and co-founder of PublicInput.com.


This article originally appeared on .  is a CFE Media content partner. 


Annette Manz
Author Bio: Annette Manz, public outreach manager, Dewberry