Two years after the nation first declared a state of emergency resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, very few aspects of American — and global — life remain untouched by the health crisis and related fallout. State leaders are dealing with new and challenging issues. State budgets are experiencing influxes of federal dollars, and policymakers are left to navigate uncharted waters.
It’s a given that the pandemic has changed state and local government — but in what ways? The Council of State Governments Chief Advancement Officer Maggie Mick was invited to sit down with C-Suite Blueprint Radio to discuss her take on these changes.
To gain additional perspectives, Mick reached out to the recipients of the 2021 CSG 20 Under 40 Leadership Award — young leaders in state government who show a willingness to work across the aisle on influential state policy — to ask how they felt things had changed.
Listen to Maggie Mick’s take on how the pandemic has changed state and local government here.
Below, read our editorial roundtable with state leaders for their take on the topic:
Rep. Jeremy Gray, Alabama
Rep. Sonya Harper, Illinois
Sen. Megan Hunt, Nebraska
Rep. London Lamar, Tennessee
Sen. Cory McCray, Maryland
Sen. T’Wina Nobles, Washington
Sen. Joe Nguyen, Washington
Rep.Tram Nguyen, Massachusetts
Rep. Ajay Pittman, Oklahoma
Rep. Jena Powell, Ohio
Sen. Emily Randall, Washington
In a couple of sentences, how have you changed the way you communicate with constituents and other stakeholders since the start of the pandemic?
Gray: Since the start of the pandemic, technology has played a significant part in communication, whether it’s heavily relying on social media for panel discussions, interviews, engaging constituents, or using Zoom, Google, and Microsoft Teams to have meetings and conferences.
I recently purchased a database that allows me to send more professional newsletters to constituents to ensure a constant flow of information and to ensure they know all the ways they can always reach out to me.
Harper: Since the pandemic started it seems like I communicate even more with constituents by phone, email and virtual meeting platforms. Digital newsletters are packed with even more information that helps to improve residents’ quality of lives and leads them to emergency resources they may need during this time.
Hunt: Virtual meetings have become a staple in my work life. During the Legislative session, I am in our state’s capital more than I am at home in the district I represent. Virtual meetings have allowed me to meet more frequently with my constituents back home, as well as engage with stakeholders from across the state. Virtual town halls, e-newsletters, uploading legislative debate to my YouTube channel, and an increased social media presence have all aided my constituents in staying up to date with the Legislative process.
Lamar: This pandemic has taken so much from us. My district and constituents have felt the weight of those losses. Personally, I have as well. Through the pandemic, I have chosen to share those vulnerable moments with constituents; to show them that they are not alone in these moments of hardships. I utilize social media and digital communications to over-communicate when I can’t meet in person.
McCray: We have increased our communications with video platforms for constituent meetings, school visits, and speaking at conferences. We have also increased postal mail distributions to ensure that the people we were not able to talk to by door-knocking in neighborhoods still understand that we are working for them. In the future, we will examine other avenues of communicating.
Nobles: Due to being elected during a pandemic. I’ve only experienced being a senator under these unique, remote circumstances. My main form of communication has solely been through online platforms. Although online is very different from the in-person experience, I try my hardest to empathize with my constituents and stakeholders — especially given the difficult circumstances resulting from the pandemic. Communication has always been an important aspect to me, therefore, I’m always attentive to how my constituents are being impacted by the pandemic, and how I can help aid them in solving their issues. There are rare occasions where racial discourse presents difficulties in communication, so I create boundaries for myself in order to maximize quality assistance and care for myself and my team. Nevertheless, I approach communication with empathy and express love and kindness to my community. I strive to be a supportive and understanding leader because my constituents are a priority to me.
J. Nguyen (WA): Interestingly, we’ve increased the volume of engagement with our constituents. Since there is no expectation to meet in person and a collective comfort to move online, we’ve actually been able to engage more constituents during the pandemic. This also means that during session, constituents don’t have to take off time to visit in person just to speak to legislators. We’ve been able to communicate more accessibly with more of our community.
T. Nguyen (MA): Of course we have gone virtual since the start of the pandemic, and we have communicated more than ever with constituents. We started sending a weekly e-newsletter to our constituents, full of information about resources available to them to help get through COVID. We have updated our website to include a page dedicated to resources and information on COVID. We’ve held virtual town halls and office hours to provide information and answer constituents’ questions.
Pittman: The pandemic of COVID-19 revealed several more pandemics within communities of color. Housing, unemployment, food insecurities, and one of the biggest things was the digital divide. I had to change the way I communicated due to the lack of access for residents in poverty and those who lost everything due to the pandemic. Therefore, I had to adapt to a new process of communicating with constituents such as robo-calls, texting campaigns and email blast, in order to promote the CDC recommendations for safety precautions, still give them legislative updates, and encourage them to vote during the 2020 election cycle.
Powell: At the beginning of COVID-19, we began doing what I called “Community Conversations” — online video town halls where people could listen in to me and guest experts discuss a variety of subjects. These also enabled a larger platform for me to hear from my constituents and receive valuable feedback which I then take back with me to the Statehouse to speak for my district.
Randall: Our team’s commitment to accessibility and transparency hasn’t changed. From day one of my time in office, we’ve stayed in touch with our community members through email, snail mail, phone, and Facebook, and as soon as the senate greenlighted the use of Instagram and Twitter, we launched those too. The pandemic only compelled us to get more creative with live-streaming platforms like Facebook Live, Zoom Webinars, and StreamYard, and ensure that — whether our neighbors are tuning in from a landline on the rural Key Peninsula, streaming to their smartphone while they catch the ferry from Southworth, or are tuning in on their computer from their living room in Bremerton — our community members have the tools they need to stay in touch.
How do you use platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams in your role as a state official? Do you hold Town Halls, policy discussions or meetings on the platforms? Did you utilize these technologies prior to the pandemic?
Gray: I use zoom and Microsoft Teams for caucus meetings, town halls, conferences, and even opportunities to join panels across the state and within my district. Before the pandemic, I relied heavily on meeting with folks in person; however, to do my part in slowing the spread of COVID-19, I ensure there is always an option to meet virtually.
Harper: I consistently use platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to hold meetings, town halls and all types of events. Whether I am meeting with a constituent, chairing a committee or even voting in session, I’ve had to use these platforms in order to continue my legislative and district work.
Hunt: I hold virtual town hall meetings via Zoom, in addition to using the platform for meetings, panel discussions, interviews, and hosting or attending a variety of virtual webinars and events. These platforms are new to me, having never utilized them prior to the pandemic, but now it is hard to imagine working and engaging with constituents without them.
Lamar: The global shift to Zoom and Microsoft Teams has exponentially expanded the possibilities for collaboration and engagement in policy and politics. Whether that be a young person stumbling onto a Zoom call about economic development in their community or existing organizations merging together to form a new coalition, the ease of virtual meetings have moved us to the next level in our political engagement. I did use virtual meetings to host town halls, meetings with state departments, community coalitions, and my Black History Month series!
McCray: No, I was not familiar with these platforms prior to the pandemic, but I have become very versed in using them. Electronic mediums have now become the default of reaching wider audiences because they provide quicker and greater access.
Nobles: As a state official, I use the various platforms to invite more of my constituents to participate in the legislative process. Staying connected with community allows me to adequately serve my constituents and ensure that their voices, concerns, and ideas are better represented at the legislature. I believe that the expanded use of technology has increased the access to legislators, therefore, I utilize it for virtual discussions with my colleagues and community stakeholder groups. Furthermore, I use it to educate my community members and to also connect with my team, in order to strategize plans for legislation. I think, most of all, it helps me as a newly elected senator, because I am able to gain visuals of people and build relationships because of the online platforms.
J. Nguyen (WA): We use a number of online platforms to host everything from constituent meetings, townhalls, policy discussion and just generally to communicate information out quickly. I used these tools prior to the pandemic and what was interesting was seeing the widespread adoption from colleagues who were hesitant about technology.
T. Nguyen (MA): We are on Zoom and Teams constantly. My office has convened stakeholders via Zoom many times to get their input and feedback on bills. We use Teams and Zoom for committee hearings, caucus meetings, meetings with constituents, advocates and more. We also use them for briefings, town halls, office hours and more. These platforms do make it easier to attend more meetings every day without the time and cost of transportation, not to mention the concern about spreading the virus. We used Zoom occasionally before the pandemic for meetings with experts and advocates from out of state, but Teams is completely new to us.
Pittman: As a legislator, our state had access to communicate via electronic venues and platforms to share information internally and externally. Then we had to pivot to vote electronically for committee votes. We had to revamp and expand our capacity to communicate with constituents in various electronic platforms and social media. I hosted virtual workshops and updates called “Sunset Sundays” that took place on Sunday evenings about various topics hosted via Facebook live. We also would host evenings using StreamYard so we could pre-record information for our community and still add our personal branding information. G-Suite kept our team on track by giving us the ability to work on documents and spreadsheets in real time with each other. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter were platforms that we utilized along with radio for a variety of constituents who lack technology resources. Yes, some of these technology platforms we used prior to the pandemic but we learned how to use so many more as the market became flooded with a lot of different virtual platforms.
Powell: We utilize as many forms of communication as possible because at the end of the day it is all about representing the people of my district and ensuring that they know I am being their voice in Columbus. I utilized conference lines for some meetings prior to COVID-19 and continue to do so now.
Randall: Even pre-pandemic, developing and implementing a robust remote public testimony option in the committee I chair – Higher Education & Workforce Development – was a commitment of mine. Our committee pioneered this option and helped provide the model for remote public testimony in every other committee when the pandemic demanded that. We use a combination of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and livestreaming to Facebook and YouTube to make sure our legislative work is accessible and available to our neighbors.
Have you leaned on social media more or less to communicate with constituents during the pandemic?
Gray: I have always used social media as a platform to communicate with constituents, but these days I seem to be utilizing it more often than not. For me, it’s easier to respond via social media than by email. I’ve also started to give a legislative update on TikTok. My team and I are in the early stages of building my online presence on Tik Tok, but this platform is a great way to reach younger audiences.
Harper: I have definitely leaned on social media more to communicate with constituents.
Hunt: Social media has always been a primary way for me to connect with my constituents. I believe it is important to meet people where they are at and make accessing the legislature as easy as possible. Although my social media presence was strong before the pandemic, it has definitely increased in recent years.
Lamar: Coupling the pain from the pandemic with the heavy nature of politics, I find that folks are checking out. That is absolutely understandable and expected. To re-engage my constituents and all of my followers, I strive to center my communication around joy and action. Whether I’m using a viral Tik Tok sound like “Prepare to be sick of me!” or a Wix newsletter, my constituents receive action-oriented messages that spark joy! Plus, we spend so much time on social media, why not take advantage of that!
McCray: While I use social media to amplify conversations about subjects that I am working on and to educate my constituency, I still prefer not to communicate constituent issues through social media or digital messaging to ensure that my staff is looped in on conversations. My preferred method of communication for constituent issues continues to be email for confidentiality, record keeping, and streamlining coordination.
Nobles: Social media is an asset that I have always used, even prior to being elected as a senator. It is a sincere way for me to connect with my constituents, especially through polls, infographics, question/answer forms, videos and other creative arrangements.
J. Nguyen (WA): Much more, and for communicating updates and alerts beyond our activities in the office. There were some difficult moments where constituents needed information related to the pandemic and we found social media was helpful to disseminate public health information.
T. Nguyen (MA): Our social media was already active before the pandemic. We definitely use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to share useful information with our constituents. But we find that our e-newsletter reaches a larger, more targeted audience.
Pittman: We were connected with social media prior to the pandemic of COVID-19, and the additional variants, but we had to post more, share more resources, give more frequent updates and tutorials. We also measured the effectiveness of when to post and share for the maximum responses. So we communicate more now on social media but to a more targeted audience.
Powell: The same.
Randall: Our social media platforms have continued to be useful tools throughout the pandemic, whether we’re streaming a town hall live to Facebook, providing real-time bill updates on Twitter or hopping on to Instagram to provide a post-committee recap on reels. Not only are social media platforms a great way to stay transparent and accountable to our community members – these platforms have been an important tool for sharing helpful community resources, like vaccine and testing drives, food bank details and housing vouchers.
What other avenues of communication have increased for your or your office during the pandemic? Example: E-newsletters, texting, polling.
Gray: Currently, I send out monthly e-newsletters to engage with my constituents on what I have been accomplishing or issues I have been advocating for during the legislative session. I use this newsletter to also connect my constituents or donors to my social media pages or news article I’m featured in. During the pandemic, I sent out text messages to see if I could assist the citizens of District 83 with anything from food to medical services.
Harper: E-newsletters have definitely increased as well as the use of apps.
Hunt: My social media presence has expanded throughout the pandemic as I now use YouTube to archive important legislative debates and public hearings. These recordings offer my constituency an alternative way to stay engaged with the legislature, but from the safety of their own homes. In addition to formal legislative communication channels, I directly respond to constituent concerns via direct messages on a variety of my social media platforms, making it easy for my constituents to communicate with me. During the height of the pandemic, my office would send numerous e-newsletters with accurate health information, community resources, and state aid available. These newsletters served as a lifeline for many Nebraskans who were severely impacted by the pandemic.
Lamar: As a young elected official, my office has always been committed to a diverse range of communication strategies. Not only do we use social media, but we also email our weekly e-newsletter, record weekly legislative wrap-up videos in our studio, op-eds in newspapers, and interviews on TV stations. Whether you have a limited amount of time, are a visual learner, or a reader, my office has a type of communication specifically for you!
McCray: We still continue to build our email list serve and it has grown significantly during the pandemic.
Nobles: Through my time of being elected, my office and I have increasingly utilized a few different avenues of communication including live streaming platforms and teleprompter apps. I also try to take advantage of arrangements that cater to audiences that need more assistance in communication, for example, I collaborate with organizations that use interpreters, closed captions, and sign language services for those who need it. Communication is a vital part of my job, therefore, I try to expand my horizons for the constituents who do not use the mainstream platforms.
J. Nguyen (WA): What’s interesting is that increasing communications could cause diminishing returns. So we didn’t do e-newsletters or texting, etc. In order to streamline, we would re-share helpful resources or information that many other offices and agencies were sending out.
T. Nguyen (MA): Our e-newsletter has been a very effective tool. And Zoom has helped us hold meetings with constituents at their request, without waiting for official office hours. We’ve had hundreds of constituents reach out to us regarding unemployment claims, for example, which happens to be one of our areas of expertise; it’s important to help them as soon as possible. Whether they reach out by phone or by email, we always get back to them. Our goal is to be accessible to our constituents whenever they need us.
Pittman: Yes, my legislative office was impacted due to the fact that we had to limit in-person visits and constituent meetings. There was not a clear path to ensuring safety when residents who live close were vaccinated or chose to wear masks. We created a newsletter, but quickly discovered the barriers to access the information. The solution was to increase smaller bits of information on social media posts, radio updates, print news, and texting.
Powell: My use of telephone town halls increased as well as my use of Facebook Live. We continued with our usual avenues of communication to constituents via email newsletters, local papers, phone calls, town halls, letters, etc.
Randall: We increased our use of SurveyMonkey surveys to gather community input in an organized and accessible way, and we increased the number of livestreams — to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter — we’d do per month.
Many state legislatures are meeting virtually as new variants lead to outbreaks or higher cases of infection. How has the increased use of technology impacted the legislative process? Do you think it has enhanced access to democracy or limited it?
Gray: In Alabama’s constitution, we must convene in person to take up the people’s business. Still, we have found other ways to keep citizens engaged due to the limitation on foot traffic at the Alabama Statehouse.
We now broadcast committee meetings and sessions for lobbyists and citizens. We also have an option of members voting from a Microsoft tablet if they want to be away from other members.
Lastly, all meetings about politics outside of voting on bills are conducted virtually if applicable. This reduces the travel component in many cases and creates a more efficient process.
Harper: Most of our legislative committees are still meeting virtually which helps us keeps things going while we can’t meet in person. The ability to meet virtually has drastically increased the amount of work we can get done at once with many members having to be in more than one committee at once depending on calendar and flow of a particular committee. At times I feel like a TV news producer again with several monitors in front me at once, all with different meetings going and of course my favorite spotlight to make sure I can be seen on camera. I think that virtual session and committees are good in helping us get the work done but there is a lot less contact with advocates and lobbyists and I do feel like we may be missing out on some voices at the table simply because they can’t get into a virtual room as easy as they can walk into a committee room.
Hunt: The Nebraska Legislature has been very resistant to upgrading its technology. During the height of the pandemic, no virtual accommodations were available to individuals testifying at our public hearings. Only this year has the Legislature adopted an online bill comment process. There has been a strong push from the public for our Legislature to expand its online access through virtual testimony options and by establishing a digital archive of legislative video coverage. In fact, a bill (LB 777) has been introduced this session to create a digital archive of legislative video coverage. Many of my colleagues have also called for the Legislature to adopt procedures to allow for a virtual convening of the Legislature in case of any outbreaks or emergencies, which has been met with silence.
Nebraska is home to our nation’s only Unicameral Legislature, where our second house is the citizens of Nebraska. During the height of the pandemic, and now, citizens’ access to our Legislature has been limited for those with health concerns as they are unable to testify in a safe manner with very limited precautions put in place by the Legislature. I have no doubt that, if the Legislature increased its use of virtual options, citizen participation would drastically increase. Living in a rural state, many Nebraskans have to drive for hours to reach the Capitol, with public hearings scheduled during the work day. Increasing our virtual presence will give greater access to working individuals, individuals with limited mobility and health concerns, parents, senior citizens, rural residents, and the youth of Nebraska.
Lamar: The Tennessee General Assembly has not been virtual. We have been working in person since March 2020. Fortunately, for our constituents, that means that our processes have stayed the same. I do think that the increased participation that we are seeing from constituents is correlated with the pandemic. Our constituents have had more time to explore the General Assembly’s systems and structure and understand how we operate so that they can get involved.
McCray: During the shutdown and after our society began to gradually reopen, members of the legislature were and still are relegated to holding virtual meetings. That took a bit of adjustment because there is shared synergy between people when they come together in the same room to brainstorm and problem-solve. Electronic communications puts distance between people. It changes the way people relate and some of the connection between people can get lost. However, I work with great people on my team and in the legislature, so we always cooperate and find ways to power through anything to accomplish our goals.
Overall, I think that meeting virtually has definitely enhanced our democracy, but I frequently think about how the pandemic exposed the inequities and disparities in many urban and rural jurisdictions regarding broadband access, access to devices, and internet connectivity. This is one example of a blaring social justice and equity issue in Maryland that has been present for decades but exacerbated during the pandemic. There are services and opportunities that are simply not optional to a good quality of life that, for the investment of human lives, need to be available to everyone regardless of socioeconomic status or the jurisdiction in which you live. When vital services and opportunities shifted online such as education, telehealth, and telework to name a few, it is disappointing and greatly concerning when I think about the thousands of people who continue to be completely shut out. Thousands of constituents are incredibly inconvenienced because they either have to travel a distance for access to the internet and to use devices or they go without. The legislature and the Baltimore City Senate Delegation continues to work for the benefit of all our constituents. We will not stop to close gaps on disparities and inequities in Maryland.
Nobles: Being a new senator, many of the stakeholders and lobbyists have not been able to meet me in person, but there has been more access to the democratic process. We’re able to be more thoughtful about who has access to the legislature and the legislative process. Groups no longer need to take all day off work to come to Olympia and speak to their legislators. Advocates represent more of the people they are advocating for around the state. We’ve also had increased participation in testimony by expanding remote testimony options. As a state senator that has only experienced a remote legislative cycle, I am aware that of the benefits that technology has provided us in remaining and becoming better connected with our communities. Though I sincerely hope we recover from the pandemic, I hope we take some of these useful technological resources into future sessions and interactions.
J. Nguyen (WA): Remote session is much more accessible for the average constituent. In fact, we had record numbers of individuals who testified in committee. I think going forward we would need a hybrid model where legislators would still conduct business in person but also allow for remote engagement for those who can’t take the day to visit the capital.
T. Nguyen (MA): I think that virtual meetings have made the legislative process more accessible to a broader range of people. The Massachusetts Statehouse has made all of our hearings and formal sessions available online. The public can pre-register to testify at hearings and can tune in without driving through traffic and paying a fortune for parking. As a result, we’ve had a lot of public engagement in our committee hearings. We’ve had teenagers and people with disabilities easily logging on to give testimony. When more people participate, that’s good for democracy.
Pittman: In Oklahoma, the legislative process was slightly hindered during the first wave of the pandemic. We developed a virtual voting system for the remainder of legislative session in 2020. However, that option has not been continued throughout the rest of the pandemic, which I believe limited access and created barriers for members and staff, especially those who have preexisting conditions or lived with vulnerable populations. We have learned that we can accomplish more through the use of technology, due to that we see a spike in broadband legislation throughout the country for those who lack the resources. As our country adapts and evolves our legislative process must keep growing with the ever-changing climate to give opportunities for those who would like to serve.
Powell: Increased use of technology has enabled more people in our community to find out what is happening, to know how we vote and to have additional ways of communicating with us.
Randall: When we broadened our remote public testimony options in 2021, we found that participation in the public testimony process tripled over 2020. This year, we’re on track to beat our 2021 records, as more folks from every corner of our state have gotten even more comfortable with lending their voice to the legislative process from wherever they are — on a lunch break at work, riding in the car on their way to school, from the comfort of their home while they provide childcare. Though I look forward to opportunities to be with our neighbors and colleagues at the legislature in person again, I’m committed to keeping the tools that we’ve developed over the last two years for remote participation in the legislative process.