As online presence grows among local governments, officials express preference for in-person meetings

More than half of Michigan’s local officials say that moving government meetings online during the pandemic decreased the overall quality of such gatherings, according to a University of Michigan survey.

The finding comes from the spring 2021 wave of the Michigan Public Policy Survey (MPPS) conducted by the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP) at U-M’s Ford School of Public Policy, which first asked local leaders questions about online presence a decade ago.

The survey found a gap in online presence between larger urban jurisdictions, which tend to have more resources and staffing to devote to their websites, and are more likely to provide various high-tech online offerings, compared with smaller rural jurisdictions, which often have fewer resources and provide fewer services.

The disparity exists despite the overwhelming majority of those government entities having websites (81%), and conducting meetings using conferencing software (also 81%). For instance, 88% of urban jurisdictions allow online payments, compared with 31% of rural jurisdictions.

The biggest issue discouraging jurisdictions’ online presence is a lack of broadband and high-speed internet access (reported by 52% of local officials), which is especially true for more rural areas.

Other barriers include lack of technical expertise and insufficient funding, as well as concerns about cybersecurity and ransomware attacks.

"It’s important to keep focus on how many smaller communities around the state are significantly hindered from using the tools available online to keep their residents informed and engaged with their local government. It’s a problem that we must address,” said Debra Horner, senior program manager on the MPPS.

The report, Internet presence among Michigan local governments: websites, online services, and experience with virtual meetings , looked at the most common uses of local government websites: providing information for public meetings (90%), contacting local officials (86%), disseminating ordinances and regulations (77%), and other information about public services (74%), though fewer than half (46%) say they allow online payments (for taxes, fees, etc.), and just a third provide the ability to obtain permits or licenses or to request other services (35%).

"Having more services online has its upsides, creating more transparency and opportunities for citizen engagement with many local governments. And that has certainly been the case during the COVID lockdowns,” said Tom Ivacko, CLOSUP’s executive director. "Finding that balance of costs, security and access, as well as creating hybrid meeting formats, remain important issues for local governments.”

Respondents to the survey included county, city, village and township officials from 1,364 jurisdictions statewide.

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