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Government Operations Via Web Conferencing: Serving Citizens During COVID-19 and Beyond

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Linda-Marie Sundstrom
June 17, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic caused many government employees to suddenly start working from home. For many, it was their first time utilizing web conference software such as Zoom, WebEx or MS Teams. They may have been given some basic technology help to get set up, but limited training was available since everything happened so fast. But are there other things we should consider in order to provide effective communication to the public, employees and other governmental agencies?

Prior to the pandemic, many of us in the public sector took the non-verbal messages of our environment for granted. For example, speaking at press conferences behind a dignified podium adorned with the agency seal, professional lighting, microphones set to optimal levels and flags in the background all added non-verbal messages of legitimacy. These are cues that have been honed and proven over time—cues that can be easily taken for granted. A department head in an office with a large desk, well-placed books, diplomas and ornate decor conveys competence. Courtrooms with judges set apart from the court, sitting high in ornate robes convey the non-verbal messages of authority and dignity. There are so many non-verbal cues around us that are easy to overlook or take for granted.

For many, the dignified executive surroundings of the professional workplace did not make it back to the house along with the laptop when we suddenly started working from home. We may have lost the more dignified surroundings as we delivered services from our kitchens and living rooms. In some cases, the less formal, non-verbal cues may have worked against our message or (even worse) distracted from the message itself.

Even though many government offices around the country are beginning to re-open, this may not be the end of government employees using web conference technology. Now that we have a chance to reflect on the past few months, what can we do better in the future?

Just like the press conference, courtroom or executive office, the web conference persona for government employees may be served by conveying messages with competence, dignity, compassion and authority.  Here are few items to consider:

Camera Angle:

The camera lens should be at eye level or slightly higher. Raise the laptop or external camera if necessary. A camera viewing the ceiling is not a good look. Also, position yourself close enough to the camera to fill most of the screen, leaving a little room above your head.

Lighting:

Position the main light source in front of you to light your face. Desk lamps will do. Move the lights around and adjust the brightness to avoid any harsh spots or shadows. Cover the lights with fabric if they are too bright. And remember that light bulbs have “color,” from yellowish to bright white. This will also affect how you look. Keep room lights behind you low and avoid any bright window glare behind you.

Audio:

Consider using an external USB mic if possible. If not, be sure to locate the built-in microphone in your laptop and avoid covering it with papers. If the audience cannot clearly understand you, the message will be lost. Remember the mic will pick up while you type on the keyboard. The sound can serve to distract from the main message.

Headsets:

Using a headset will cut down on feedback and echo from your microphone. If you are using earbuds or a headset with a wire, consider draping the cord behind you.

Camera:

Consider using a higher resolution camera rather than the one built into your laptop. This will provide a sharper, less-fuzzy picture.

Room Background:

Be aware of what is in the background while you deliver your messages. Think about what your surroundings would look like under traditional circumstances. Give thought and preparation to what is behind you and what non-verbal messages it is sending. Take time to “set the stage” for your online sessions. Vinyl photo backdrops can be effective but try to avoid the built-in green screen backgrounds featured on most platforms.

Eye Contact & Posture:

The “eyes” of the attendees are the camera lens, not their image on the screen. It is easy to look at other parts of the screen while talking, but it appears you are not making “eye contact” with the participants. Eye contact conveys honesty and integrity. Also, we know to sit up straight during in-person meetings, but we tend to be more casual online and can forget to observe the decorum of a meeting, which can also detract from the message.

If you have had success at creating professional online environments for your agency, or if your agency has implemented web conferencing guidelines, I would be interested in hearing from you. If you have any questions or would like more detailed information, please feel free to reach out to me as well.


Author: Dr. Linda-Marie Sundstrom is a former Fulbright Scholar who taught Public Administration in Ukraine at a university under the Office of the Ukrainian President. She worked for two decades in local government, and has taught in Masters of Public Administration Programs for nearly two decades. She is currently the MPA Program Director for California Baptist University in Southern California. Her e-mail is: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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