Top 5 Hot Takes from a Capital Insider

Learn how our government looks and operates in the virtual world

Written by: Spencer Cook

When I joined the Acuitas team as a legislative assistant in mid-March, I was not anticipating the major and unprecedented impact COVID-19 would have (I don’t think anyone did). Not just in the business and government world, but in all aspects of our daily lives. Online meetings and teleconferencing have replaced traditional in-person meetings due to social distancing guidelines and have quickly become the “new normal”.  Even public bodies such as legislative committees, state government boards, and state departments have transitioned to virtual meetings. The following are some observations I have made from my experience with this “new normal”:

1.  People are starting to adjust to teleconferencing technologies

When the COVID-19 outbreak first hit the U.S. and Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer released her “Stay Home Stay Safe” order and social distancing guidelines, there was a lot of uncertainty in how business would continue to be conducted and how societal norms would change. Many businesses had not fully utilized or explored their teleconferencing options because they had never been a necessity before.  In the early stages of transitioning to video meetings, I noticed that many people struggled with it initially.  People had trouble joining the meeting, did not realize they were muted, accidentally disrupted the meeting because they were unmuted, there was background noise, audio issues, etc.  But now, about a month and a half after that initial transition, I think people are starting to get used to these new technologies and I am seeing much less issues. 

2. How a legislative committee meeting looks during the pandemic:

On May 6, I covered the House Judiciary Committee and things definitely looked different than pre-COVID-19. The representatives were sitting a couple chairs apart, all of them wearing masks.  To my surprise, the meeting went relatively smoothly despite the circumstances.  The majority of the testimony was given via Zoom, and surprisingly there were very few technical issues.  Members of the public also testified via Zoom, with a few individuals deciding to testify in person. Overall it was encouraging to see the meeting run smoothly and with a good amount of public participation as well.

3. Compliance with the Open Meetings Act

One of the difficulties with public bodies transitioning to virtual meetings is trying to comply with the Open Meetings Act.  The Act sets forth regulations for public meetings that include notification, public participation, rules for holding closed meetings, and the legal requirements for meeting minutes.  Since not every member of the public has access to Zoom or other teleconferencing technology, it can be difficult to stay in compliance with this Act in hosting virtual meetings.  But so far from what I have seen, public bodies have done a good job of soliciting public participation in meetings, and people still have the opportunity to attend legislative committee meetings in person and testify while adhering to social distancing guidelines.

4. Data security issues with Zoom and other applications

One major concern with the exponential growth of these new applications is their level of security. There have been some security and privacy issues raised, specifically with Zoom. For one, it was relatively easy for troublemakers to “Zoom bomb” meetings. Anyone with the meeting ID and/or password could join a meeting, leading to some concerns. There were also concerns over Zoom’s privacy policy – which initially seemed like Zoom could do whatever it wanted with user’s private data. Despite this, Zoom is generally safe to use in most cases. Zoom actively and quickly addressed some of the security issues that were raised in the last couple weeks, although it is still advisable to require a password for participants if you are hosting a Zoom meeting.

5. Implications for the future

Are virtual meetings and video conferencing the future of work?  Possibly.  With so many people now using and becoming adept in these technologies, it is hard to ignore the utility of them. However, I do not think in-person meetings in office settings will disappear – as forming in-person connections are still very important – but we will certainly see more use of video conferencing permanently going forward.

Ongoing Efforts

The Michigan House of Representatives recently released their protocols to comply with social distancing guidelines and routine health screenings, while also being able to hold committee meetings. A summary of their protocols is below.

Health Screenings – Each person will receive a health screening upon entering the House Office Building and Capitol Building and will be required to pass the screening before gaining access to a meeting.

Preventative Measures – In addition to following social distancing guidelines, the following preventative measures are being taken.

  • Maintain 6ft distance inside meeting rooms and in elevators (reduce occupancy)
  • Everyone is encouraged to wear face coverings for the duration of the committee meetings.
  • Disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer are available for individuals testifying.
  • Hand sanitizing stations are located outside committee rooms.
  • Committee rooms are cleaned and sanitized after each committee meeting.

Committee Meeting Participation – Overflow viewing rooms may be available to individuals who are unable to enter due to capacity limitations. Committee meetings will be live-streamed via House Television and remote testimony may be an option through Zoom or other video conferencing technology.

A full description of the protocols is available here.