Pandemic boosted public's interest in government, city officials say

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Whether it’s because homebound people are desperate for guidance in an open-ended emergency or they’ve simply exhausted their Netflix queues, some government officials have found themselves surprised by the sudden popularity of virtual meetings and news conferences.

San Francisco’s virtual public meetings, which include everything from Mayor London Breed’s press conferences to full gatherings of its Board of Supervisors, are regularly attracting hundreds of participants, according to data shared by the city. Breed’s small-business webinars are also averaging around 3,000 viewers, officials said.

“[Public meetings] are very important to our government, to our democracy, to our transparency of government services,” said San Francisco Chief Information Officer Linda Gerull. “It’s very important that our public retain the ability to know what government is doing,”But we are seeing an increase in civic engagement. We’re seeing more people participate in meetings.”

Many of San Francisco’s meetings were already streamed and hosted online before the pandemic by SFGovTV, the local government’s broadcasting outlet, but Gerull said those meetings didn’t permit remote participation. After Breed issued a shelter-in-place order March 16, Gerull said her office deployed a combination of Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex software that within seven days had all city meetings running online, complete with features to mute and unmute viewers and allow residents to phone in.

“Residents are able to watch the virtual meetings and also residents are able to give input and comments on individual agenda items just as if they were in person,” Gerull said. “This is done in real time and does not require participants to send questions in advance.”

In an email to StateScoop, Jack Chin, SFGovTV’s executive producer, estimated that the increased interest in government can be attributed to a variety of factors, including the public’s concern with the pandemic’s economic effects. Agenda items and presentations related to businesses are the most popular, he noted. (More than 4 million Californians have filed for unemployment since mid-March.)

Even conferences traditionally attended solely by news outlets are garnering interest from the public. In Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s biggest press conferences before the pandemic attracted 30 attendees. But Durkan adviser Anthony Derrick said the virtual press conferences the mayor now holds have triple the participants.

“But on virtual press conferences we’re seeing anywhere up to 90 attendees in our audience, which is pretty high,” Derrick said. “Looking at the log-ins, it doesn’t seem to be all press, which I think is one advantage of having online press conferences is that people who have the link can attend.”

According to the Seattle Channel, the city’s government-access cable station, public meetings are now attracting between 70 and 100 concurrent viewers compared to between 20 and 40 viewers before the pandemic.

“We have also been conducting virtual town halls with the mayor on Skype Broadcast,” Derrick said. “The first of those town halls had around 230 attendees which is definitely higher than in-person attendance at most town halls.”

State governments, too, have also recorded vastly higher viewing numbers for their official COVID-19 pronouncements. During a webinar Tuesday, Ohio CIO Ervan Rodgers said Gov. Mike DeWine’s daily briefings have become appointment viewing for Buckeye State residents.

“Every day at 2 p.m. we have ‘Wine with DeWine’,” Rodgers said, referring to the unofficial title Ohioans have given DeWine’s appearances. “We’ve gone from having 500 on a max day for our Ohio Channel” — the state government’s official news service — “now we’re hosting anywhere from 250,000 on upward from a viewer perspective.”

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civic engagement, Linda Gerull, public meetings, San Francisco, Seattle, virtual meetings
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