Published: July 28, 2020

Many local governments found themselves abruptly thrust into the world of online meetings when state-level mandates to prevent the spread of coronavirus forced them to cancel in-person events. After several months’ experience, you might be reconsidering your initial choice. We have assembled a list of five things to consider when choosing an online meeting platform.

  1. How many people must your meeting accommodate?
  2. How will you control access to the meeting room?
  3. How will you capture public comment?
  4. What kinds of topics will you discuss, and what privacy or security tools should you have in place?
  5. Does one platform fulfill all your needs, or do you need several options?

Start your comparison shopping by reading recent reviews in tech or consumer publications (we list some well-known resources at the bottom of this post). Few aspects of technology have changed as swiftly over the past few months. Once you have a shortlist of platforms with the features you seek, discuss your options with your IT department and possibly ask for legal advice before making your final choice.

1. Can the platform accommodate the size of your meeting? A leadership team meeting with 10 members who know each other has different requirements than a community meeting that might draw 100 or more attendees, often strangers to the meeting host, to a large assembly hall. Bundled software, such as Skype for Business (part of Microsoft Office/Office 360) might accommodate the former, but not the latter.

2. How does the platform manage meeting access? In the early days of the pandemic lockdown, some open-entry meetings had to be shut down due to harassment by off-topic “bombers.” Many platforms beefed up their sign-in procedures with passwords and waiting rooms to ensure moderators could keep a closer eye on who attended their meetings. Meeting planners also learned to adjust permitted participation levels, allowing many to watch proceedings but limiting those able to address the meeting or present videos and computer screens.

3. When it’s appropriate, how will you capture public comment? Depending on the purpose and needs of your meeting, you might circulate information such as reports and budgets in advance through your website, and invite written comment from the public before the meeting. Comments about a topic discussed live during the meeting might be recorded by having attendees type in a chat thread, or by using a “raise hand” feature, which permits the moderator or chair to recognize speakers one at a time.

4. Does it offer sufficient privacy or security tools? Aside from the question of admitting attendees and allowing them to speak, meeting hosts might need to consider data privacy concerns. A discussion about patient care plans calls for different security controls than a town hall to discuss traffic impacts from a repaving project. Be sure you understand how the platform encrypts transmissions during your meeting and stores data, such as attendee logins or documents presented during the meeting, after the meeting concludes.

5. Should you choose multiple platforms for different purposes? Private meetings held with staff or colleagues might use meeting features embedded in software the organization already owns or subscribes to. Public meetings that might have multiple speakers, run longer than one hour, or accommodate 200 attendees need considerably more horsepower, with features and tools that free versions of popular programs lack. The upgrades might well be worth the cost, and annual plans might offer discounts that ease budgetary concerns.

After all, it looks like we’re going to be meeting remotely – at least some of the time – for many months to come.

Key resources

Consumer Reports: www.consumerreports.org/video-conferencing-services/guide-to-videoconference-services/

MRSC: mrsc.org/Home/Stay-Informed/MRSC-Insight/April-2020-1/Engaging-in-a-Pixelated-Public-Square.aspx

The New York Times Wirecutter blog: www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/reviews/best-video-conferencing-service/

PC Magazine: www.pcmag.com/picks/the-best-video-conferencing-software

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