4 Problems with the Way Governments Communicate about Public Meetings

Last week, I shared my frustrations about how hard it is to find out about public meetings in my city. I was overwhelmed by how many people responded to the piece. Some shared similar concerns. Others offered their perspective on these challenges as government employees themselves. Today, I want to review this conversation about the surprising difficulty our towns face when it comes to the basic task of informing residents about public meetings, and talk about some concrete solutions based on everyone’s feedback. 

1. Requirements to publish public meeting notices in the local paper are very outdated.

One comment I received on my article pointed out that most cities have a legal requirement to notify residents about meetings via the local paper:

I am a City Planner. I get asked all the time how to find out about meetings. My first answer is: the state requires us to advertise our meetings in a paper of general circulation. If you want to know about any of our meetings go to that paper and look at the public notices. This is the boring answer out of civics class but it is the real answer.

My city government is required to post notices of public meetings in the local paper. That’s problematic because it’s in a section no one reads, in a typeface and format that screams “ignore this,” and most importantly it’s printed in a media format that is dying.

My first reaction to this (and the reaction of several other commenters) was that this requirement is hopelessly outdated. I have never subscribed to a daily local newspaper in my life for a combination of reasons: it’s expensive, I’ve moved a lot over the last few years (and mostly lived in urban apartments where it would be challenging to ensure that a paper actually got to me without being stolen or destroyed first) and I don’t want to waste all that paper when I can just read news online anyway. I suspect many people (and not just young people like me either) are in the same boat. We are long past the decades when every household took a daily paper on their doorstep each morning.

Perhaps different cities have requirements about posting their meeting information in the online version of the paper today, but even so, that creates a cost barrier; most local newspapers require a subscription to view more than a handful of articles online.

Other commenters chimed in about the myriad of problems with only requiring that public meetings be posted in local newspapers:

My city government is required to post notices of public meetings/hearings/etc. in the local paper. That's problematic because it's in a section no one reads, in a typeface and format that screams "ignore this," and most importantly it's printed in a media format that is dying (sorry, print journalists).

Someone else wrote:

For areas with weeklies, the time lag between notice and publication can be a problem. I also think it's presumptuous that people subscribe and access a daily newspaper. Our state/city has similar laws but I don't know what they do other than pro forma fulfill the publicity requirement.

2. Communicating in a variety of media is helpful, but it can also confuse people.

Another issue that came up is the conflict between wanting to advertise in as many formats as possible — so that the maximum amount of people see the notice — but also needing to control the information disseminated and make sure that residents have one central place to go where they know they’ll find accurate, up to date information. That’s a tough balance to strike. One commenter wrote:

It is a rough deal - and the Internet has honestly made it worse. There are now so many websites, including obsolete/unmaintained ones that are not taken down, social media accounts and abandoned social media accounts [and which social media accounts are active?], etc... It is a mess.

Public notices should be considered as part of your town’s overall communication strategy.

Another commenter offered something of a solution to this “mess”:

Our communications strategy is to drive traffic to the Village website so residents know that is our "single source of truth." We do our best to attach any PDFs of supporting documents as far ahead of time as is practical […] As others have said, there is no silver bullet, and some people simply may not receive a notification for one reason or another, but public notices should be considered as part of your town's overall communication strategy. If you advertise for it here one week and not there the next, your advertising becomes inconsistent. Besides the legal requirement to post in a newspaper, we try to limit the amount of places we post as to ensure that people know they are looking at the real thing.

3. Restrictions on government communication make this whole process harder.

Another commenter brought up the challenge of publicly communicating as a government employee with all sorts of ethics and representation concerns to be mindful of:

Government officials have their hands tied in so many ways when it comes to communications; it would be useful to be able to blast out information to a private email list, and post to a private website, without having to worry about restrictions like that.

There has to be a middle ground where communications are appropriately reviewed without being stalled or written in boring jargon that would be completely unintelligible to the average citizen.

I respect this concern (hey, I’ve worked for government too) and I understand the need to have a message that comes from a government entity be vetted before publication. But there has to be a middle ground where communications are appropriately reviewed without being stalled or written in boring jargon that would be completely unintelligible to the average citizen.

This communication problem is compounded by the fact that government agencies are so siloed they can’t seem to work together. So, even if every department is posting sufficient and clear notices about public meetings, they’re all probably doing it in different formats and, in order to learn about every one, you’d have to figure out each department’s format and subscribe to that, or check that individually every time you wanted to know about a meeting... Now we’re talking about spending quite a lot of time clicking around to different websites, visiting neighborhood bulletin boards and opening dozens of emails a day. That’s not helpful or realistic.

Additionally, the fact that notices are separated by government department can also make information inaccessible to the average person. For instance, if I’m concerned about pedestrian and bike safety, do I subscribe to the State Department of Transportation’s email list? Or should I follow the local Public Works Department on Facebook? Or are these issues handled by the Department of Neighborhood Services? Would the Zoning Board be involved at all? Is this happening at the County or City level…? All I want to do is stay informed about meetings related to biking and walking, and I’ve ended up deep in the bowels of a government website just to try and figure that out. It shouldn’t be that hard.

If city staff don’t believe their residents care about showing up at a meeting, they aren’t going to put much effort into advertising it.

4. Some people just don’t think residents want to be involved.

In reading the responses to my initial article, I sadly saw several people comment dismissingly about resident interest in actually offering input or attending a meeting. This attitude is undoubtedly contributing to the problem; if city staff don’t believe their residents care about showing up at a meeting, they aren’t going to put much effort into advertising it and they certainly won’t do anything beyond the minimum requirements.

What’s the result? A couple of angry people who have so much time on their hands that they can keep up with every convoluted notification and keep track of every meeting schedule show up to have their voices heard while the rest of us remain invisible.

A Simple Solution?

So here’s my simple idea: One central calendar for all public meetings in all departments of government — city and county. Government staff would be required to submit to this automated calendar at least a month in advance of meetings (or earlier, if possible) using a basic format that spelled out time, location, transportation access, who is hosting, what the meeting is about and why residents should come to share their input. Residents could subscribe to an automated weekly email digest of upcoming meetings, and, ideally, notifications would go out from the calendar on social media outlets as well.

I’m sure the first response from my friends who work in government is “we don’t have the money” and “we can’t get all these different departments to work together,” but with the advanced nature of automation and technology today, it really shouldn’t be that hard or expensive. (Stop making excuses!) If you need to designate one person to review submissions before they’re published, I think that’s a worthwhile investment or maybe it’s something an existing communications staffer would be able to manage.

This whole discussion is about an incredibly basic thing: Making sure residents know about public meetings that are being held so they can get information and provide their input. We haven’t even touched on the issue of how meetings are held: where and when, what sort of transportation is available, what sort of childcare is provided, etc. — all of which have a tremendous impact on the ability of residents to really participate in local decision-making. (Check out these two articles for more on that.) But I think if we can't even get the communication aspect right, we don't have any hope of getting the access, timing and location right.

One of the core tenets of a Strong Towns approach is that you can't build a strong city or town without strong citizens. Let's figure out how to keep those citizens informed about what's happening in their community so they can be part of making it better.

(Top photo source: wocintechchat.com)