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  • Daniel G. Newman

New MapLight Report Highlights Civic Engagement Strategies for a Post-COVID World

In early 2020, amid surging COVID caseloads, high anxiety, and uncertainty across the country, local governments and democratic institutions faced a multitude of challenges. In addition to confronting critical decisions about public safety, how should they best engage the public in the absence of meeting in-person? How could they test, practice, and harness new digital tools to get feedback and buy-in about important government decisions? And how could they use the moment to usher-in a new era of public participation in civic life?

Today, as society continues to take stock of how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted our livelihoods and institutions, there’s a picture emerging about citizen participation in local government and how the lessons we learned during the pandemic can inform the future of civic engagement. In our new report, MapLight examines the profound effects of the pandemic on civic participation and local governance while recommending key steps for local governments to boost citizen participation in public life in the years ahead.

The report, Reaching Out: Civic Engagement Strategies for a Post-COVID World, is the result of interviews with more than a dozen local officials, community-based organizations, and government associations from across the country. The report also makes extensive use of literature about civic engagement, citing expert sources to create a resource for elected leaders, government agencies and workers, and citizens.

In the report, MapLight identifies four core areas to consider in relation to effective civic engagement in the post-pandemic world: internal preparation; external outreach; effectively holding space; and follow-up.

  • Internal Preparation: Effective preparation includes determining the extent of public involvement, identifying stakeholders, considering the needs and limitations of technology, and coordinating internal roles. Organizers should be thoughtful when making decisions about the agenda flow, and the extent and methods of citizen participation. Technology used for meetings must be tested to ensure its accessibility, security, and ease of use.

  • External Outreach: Successful external outreach means local governments should consider their intended audience, and the strengths and drawbacks of specific outreach methods. They should utilize multiple avenues to reach audiences, such as social media, email, text, and traditional media. For people lacking private internet access, officials should consider the options for public internet access and how to best educate community members on its availability.

  • Effectively Holding Space: Government officials must take proactive, transparent measures in setting meeting guidelines to ensure that all parties have an equitable opportunity to voice their opinions. That includes setting clear agendas; thoughtfully selecting meeting times; identifying potential speakers and setting time limits; and utilizing assistive technology for accessibility.

  • Follow-Up: Cultivating avenues for feedback is critical to establishing trust among stakeholders. Government officials should utilize various methods to reach out to participants after meetings, encourage continued participation by acknowledging input, and seek feedback to assess effectiveness. Governments should be proactive in seeking feedback, keep records available for public review, follow up internally, and actively challenge misinformation.

Based on interviews and a review of best practices, the MapLight report provides a clear list of best practices when using digital tools to advance citizen engagement in government, with recommendations about internet speed, accessibility, software usage, and internal role coordination.

The report also points out the challenges in overreliance on online tools and meetings — noting that more than 1 in 10 U.S. households don’t have an internet connection, according to the 2017-21 American Community Survey. The problem is especially acute in rural communities. A subsequent MapLight analysis found that only one urban county (Danville City, Va.) ranks among the 500 counties with the smallest percentage of internet-connected households.

As state and local governments take stock of their successes and challenges in civic engagement since the beginning of the pandemic, the report highlights the benefits of technology while cautioning against treating it as a silver bullet. Contact us to learn more about best practices for civic engagement or discuss questions about Reaching Out: Civic Engagement Strategies for a Post-Covid World.


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