How to Hold a Virtual Town Hall
A practical framework to maintaining effective & inclusive town hall meetings during social distancing & beyond
This is the first resource in The Guide to Remote Community Engagement by What Works Cities. This collection of resources is designed to support cities that wish to create and maintain strong, institutionalized practices of community engagement during periods of remote working and in an increasingly digital world.
Town halls serve an important function: they allow City leaders to meet with their constituents, either to hear from the community on topics of interest or to discuss specific upcoming legislation or regulation. But as cities grapple with the spread of COVID-19, better strategies for maintaining and fostering meaningful community engagement while social distancing are urgently needed.
The advent of mandated remote meetings may be relatively new, but it’s clear that in an increasingly digital world, governments, businesses, and other organizations will need to explore different means of collaborating and communicating with each other. Some are speaking to the unique value-add of videoconferencing and remote collaboration over traditional meeting methods. With this in mind, cities can explore how to conduct remote town halls in the present to inform their own ideas on evolving digital strategies for the future.
Before the Meeting: Set participants up for success
Community meetings attract participants with different goals, interests, and roles in their communities. Some participants may be inexperienced with the chosen platform or software use for holding the meeting. To mitigate any confusion or frustration with unknown technology, cities should create a space to educate participants on how to use the chosen technology before the meeting begins.
This could come in the form of a quick, screen-sharing tutorial 30-minutes ahead of time, a conference phone call to answer questions, or any other form to explain or demonstrate the platform. Another option would be to offer a help desk, or a point of contact to hold responsibility for technical assistance on the platform. Dedicating the time beforehand, either in the form of a 20-minute tutorial or other kinds of guidance, can ensure the meeting itself runs as smoothly and seamlessly as possible! Indeed, if cities have chosen to work with one platform in particular, a large-scale public training on how to use it could be hugely beneficial to the community at large.
Additionally, when it comes to promoting the event, City staff should cast a wide net to ensure as many community members as possible are aware of the event. Don’t rely on a singular form of communication alone — leverage social media, community newsletters, flyers, listservs, and other methods for connecting with community members.
During the Meeting: Best practices for a productive community meeting
It’s time for the town hall to begin! Virtual town halls will be distinct from in-person events in a number of ways. Ensure there are enough available staff members as needed calling into the event, and consider simultaneously promoting on social media with live updates or surveys to reach an even wider audience.
Keep in mind some of these best practices to ensure a smooth, productive town hall
- Craft a clear, time-sensitive agenda — and share it ahead of time. Ensure that all organizers are in agreement on the goals of the meeting, and work together to build an agenda to distribute ahead of time. This is an important step to ensure things stay on track, as meetings, both in-person and remote, are prone to discussions diverting from the designated subject area. Keep everyone aligned on the purpose of the meeting by maintaining the meeting agenda at the forefront (perhaps by emailing registered participants ahead of time, or just pasting in any whiteboard/chat space). Don’t forget to communicate the standards of conduct to participants — it’s important to make sure all attendees are aligned on appropriate behavior in virtual City meetings.
- Choose a platform & test it out beforehand. There are a number of potential platforms with varying capabilities on which to hold a community meeting. Some contain features that may come in handy in facilitating a discussion among a number of participants, such as allowing the meeting hosts to control which participants are muted or allowing dial-in options for participation. It’s important to determine the necessary functions for an efficient meeting and choose a platform accordingly, the way the City of San Jose tested a number of platforms and their functionalities before deciding making a decision.
Dial-in options are an important consideration in order to ensure that people who do not have reliable access to the internet and/or videoconferencing can still participate.
- Manage attendance to ensure the meeting is safe and productive. Some web platforms are prone to hacking, troll invasions, and other issues that could stand to derail a community meeting. It’s important to manage attendance of these meetings as closely as possible. One strategy for doing so would be to mandate registration beforehand through Eventbrite or some other platform. Additionally, cities can choose to mute participants during any presentation pieces of the meeting, and assign a facilitator to unmute participants as they’re ready to contribute. By managing participation closely, facilitators can quickly eject troublemakers and keep the meeting on track. For example, the City of Cincinnati has capped remote meetings at 50 people in order to better manage them as their staff adjusts to new technology and remote meeting management. Based on demand, they are prepared to host multiple meetings on the same topic.
- Leave plenty of time for discussion. Community meetings are, above all else, a chance for community members to share thoughts, reactions, and collaborate with City leaders. This means that the majority of meeting time should be dedicated to hearing from as many community members as possible. Good facilitation is key here — facilitating well ensures people from a variety of backgrounds feel comfortable and ready to participate. Approaches to facilitation may vary depending on the chosen meeting platform, but for general best practices, check out these guides (here and here) to effective remote facilitation.
- Take notes & monitor chat spaces. While the majority of the discussion may happen through a conference call, depending on the platform, participants may have access to a chat function. If this is the case, monitor this space closely — people may share important points or reactions to the discussion. The City of Cincinnati, for instance, has a dedicated staff member monitoring the chat space. They also use Google Slides Q&A to post questions asked in the chat space to the screen of their presenting computer. Additionally, keep a close eye out for any hate speech or abusive language, and eject perpetrators quickly to ensure a safe space for all. To mitigate the risk of any problematic behavior on the call, organizers can set expectations ahead of time, directing participants on how to engage in a safe, inclusive way. Make it clear that deviation from these rules will result in removal from the meeting.
- Consider a co-occurring conversation on social media. Cities can reach broader audiences on the issues up for discussion in a town hall by creating a space for discussion on social media. Sharing meeting content in real-time on social media helps cities reach people who aren’t able to attend. Some residents without access to videoconferencing technology, or those without a strong enough internet connection stream video calls, will still be able to participate in the town hall through their phones. (Stay tuned for an upcoming resource on conducting co-occurring social media conversations.)
- Keep an accessibility mindset. Depending on specific city context, meeting organizers and facilitators may have to make certain adjustments or accommodations to ensure all participants are able to understand and participate in the meeting. This may mean conducting separate meetings in different languages, setting up translation services ahead of time, or including bilingual staff to act as translators for the group. For example, the City of Long Beach has made efforts to reach out to their Spanish-speaking community through a tele-town hall.
After the Meeting: Follow up & follow-through
Ultimately, community meetings serve as a platform for community members and local governments to work together. Therefore, it’s important for cities to take comments seriously and demonstrate this seriousness through action and follow through. This will also encourage more people to participate in future meetings. Some actions cities may take include publishing the meeting minutes and notes online, as well as describing what actions were taken in response.
Transitioning to remote community meetings won’t be without challenges. Create a space for participants to give feedback on the meeting itself: what went well? What could be improved? This could be done in several ways. One strategy would be to distribute a brief survey among participants. There are a number of survey templates to draw from; they can be customized to meet City-specific needs. Keep it brief to increase the response rate. Organizers could also leverage social media to gather thoughts and impressions from participants. Ultimately, cities should make a plan to incorporate this feedback into the design of future meetings, and ensure the commitment to listen and adapt based on feedback is understood by the community.
Have you held community meetings via telephone or video conferencing? Have you made use of these or other strategies, or have ideas on how local governments could improve their use of remote community meetings? We’d like to hear from you! Reach out to us at email@example.com
The Guide to Remote Community Engagement is written and compiled by Charlotte Carr, Becca Warner, Greg Jordan-Detamore, and Owen O’Malley.
What Works Cities is a national initiative that partners with cities as they tackle pressing community challenges and improve residents’ lives through data-driven decision making. Learn more about the program and how to get access to support, here.