Pandemic shutdown has opened up civic participation

Boston councilors want to make online engagement permanent

WHEN IT COMES to civic engagement, a funny thing happened on the way to the pandemic shutdown. 

While all sorts of aspects of daily life ground to a halt as we hunkered down, as much as possible, at home, the in-person isolation seems to have produced a blossoming of civic connectedness. 

With hearings and other government proceedings suddenly all streamed online, City Hall itself may have been shut down, but following the workings of municipal government — and even offering public testimony on an issue — was suddenly open to anyone with an internet connection and an urge to be heard. 

Boston city councilors Lydia Edwards and Liz Breadon say we need to seize this civic silver lining of the pandemic by making permanent the ability of residents to take part remotely in hearings. They’re introducing an ordinance at today’s City Council meeting that would require just that. 

“The inaccessibility of most government meetings is a pre-pandemic inequity that we can’t go back to,” said Edwards. “As we come out of the pandemic, I’m focused on ensuring our city’s government is as transparent and accessible as possible. Permanently allowing residents to participate virtually would make it easier for a wider range of voices to be heard and bring our city’s government one step closer to the standards residents expect from us.” 

Meaghann Lucy, a Boston University graduate student in sociology, worked last year as a summer fellow in the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and was part of a team charged with examining Boston’s switch to remote civic engagement. 

Writing on the website of BU’s Initiative of Cities, a program launched under former Boston mayor Tom Menino, Lucy said there were fears that the transition would exacerbate the “digital divide” and prove frustrating for residents. 

“Instead,” she wrote, “as departments transitioned previously in-person public conversations, rallies, and meetings online, they saw more attendees—sometimes 3 times or 4 times as many as before COVID-19—and what appeared to be a more diverse group participating.”

The aim is not to replace in-person participation in a post-pandemic world, but to allow for what Lucy describes as a “blended” civic future that incorporates remote and in-person participation. 

Notwithstanding the observation of more robust and diverse participation in Boston civic life during this early experience with the shift, more widespread use of livestreaming technology in public proceedings will undoubtedly put a spotlight on the digital divide. 

The pandemic could reshape democracy for the better, writes Hollie Russon Gilman for the Washington-based think tank New America, but she points out that there are still more than 160 million Americans who don’t use the internet at broadband speeds, a population that is tilted toward racial minorities, the elderly, those in rural areas, low-income residents, and those with lower income and educational attainment levels.