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This Connecticut Town Has Embraced the Hybrid Virtual Meeting

Middletown, Conn., leaders have decided the virtual meeting format adopted during the pandemic will remain — and incorporate AI. The new approach is offering residents unprecedented opportunity to engage in town business.

A person sitting in front of a laptop conducting a virtual meeting.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country in March 2020, many were forced to adopt a new way of holding meetings. While individuals adjusted to virtual meeting platforms in a more remote world, local governments were learning how to virtually host public meetings.

Now, legislators will decide whether virtual meetings are here to stay, and local governments are looking at trusted technologies as well as new hybrid solutions to serve a variety of constituents.

Middletown, Conn., is one local area that plans on keeping its meeting format partially virtual, with the goal of making meetings more inclusive. What’s more, Middletown’s meeting system utilizes artificial intelligence for greater efficiency.

As described by Mayor Ben Florsheim, the initial challenge in finding a virtual means of governing during 2020 resembled that of every government agency adapting to the new landscape. That is, Florsheim was looking for an effective way to advance city business during a critical time.

Bryan Skowera, director of information systems, explained that prior to the pandemic, there was no robust video conference tool in place for the city. Meanwhile, there was a technology scramble as businesses and agencies alike looked to shift processes to the digital space. Skowera described it as a resource contention fight, not only in terms of lack of bandwidth, but also in terms of sales personnel addressing the onboarding of thousands of agencies.

Fortunately, at this time, Cisco began offering 90-day full-enterprise trials. As Skowera indicated, despite the burden of responding to the changing nature of business, Cisco was responsive to Middletown and provided immediate access at no initial cost. Ultimately, the expenses that came with the new system would be funded through the city’s operating budget. Skowera also noted that the city’s planning made city employees well positioned for the shift to remote work, so Middletown avoided certain costs of establishing a secure virtual private network that some organizations faced.

Cisco’s trial offer led to the city adopting Webex and Webex Assistant for its new virtual meeting system. This platform has allowed for greater accessibility and public participation, said Skowera.

WebEx Assistant is the AI component of the system. The component offers a real-time closed captioning system that generates transcripts of meetings, according to Skowera. It can also make special notes about action items as it “hears” human speech. For example, if a motion is made or if someone says to highlight something for later, the tool can generate separate records to reflect what was said during the meeting. This feature allows transcripts to more accurately reflect what happened.

A hybrid format has been in place for Middletown meetings over the past month, and aside from when the city dealt with initial obstacles getting the hardware and software set up, participation has increased. Now, Florsheim says, people are supportive of the format because it is working.

Previously, many obstacles made it difficult for constituents to attend and voice their opinions, including the timing of meetings, traveling required to attend, lack of child care and weather.

“We realized we had sort of stumbled upon a way to increase participation,” stated Florsheim.

“One thing that distinguishes Middletown, though, when we approach this — it’s not the technology,” Skowera said. “It’s the philosophy of the elected officials, of Mayor Florsheim and the Common Council.”

Certain state legislative efforts are in line with Middletown’s decision to keep meetings partially virtual for accessibility. Two bills, House Bill 6448 and Senate Bill 183, would make all public meetings accessible through technology.

House Bill 6448 clarifies existing Freedom of Information Act laws for Connecticut, permitting hybrid or fully virtual meetings after the pandemic. As written, this bill would also require agencies to make the public aware of how they can participate virtually and to provide a physical location and equipment for citizens depending on how they would like to attend. Skowera noted that such provisions may be more difficult for smaller entities that have limited funding or infrastructure.

Senate Bill 183 similarly permits hybrid and virtual meetings after the pandemic and requires having a methodology for public participation. However, this bill doesn’t require the provision of a physical location or equipment to the public. The bill offers more flexibility, Skowera said.

Accessibility is a key factor in Middletown’s decision to maintain virtual conferencing tools. Skowera said the hybrid system allows for much greater capacity, as thousands could theoretically participate with the new platform. He recalled a public budget hearing from a few years ago during which hundreds of people waited to voice support for the Arts and Culture Office. Skowera emphasized that not everyone has the health, time or financial ability to participate in that way.

With the new system, one doesn’t need a smartphone to participate. People can call in with a flip phone or even a landline and raise their hand with the press of a button.

“You can still speak and be heard, be on the record,” Skowera explained. “Your voice transmits to the Common Council, to the mayor and to your fellow constituents — and without having to wait potentially three hours on a rainy day to walk into a building full of people to speak for five minutes on why something is important to you.”
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.