COVID-19: Opportunity for better digital engagement

Activity on local government social channels is increasing under the coronavirus epidemic with engagements on official city accounts skyrocketing 160% in March


Residents are increasingly looking to local government social media channels for accurate information about their cities. Image: Pixabay

Many of today’s most prominent government leaders have really upped the ante when it comes to engaging with the public on social media. Officials like Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and San Francisco Mayor London Breed are proving that taking the digital plunge is well worth the investment.

Check out some of our favorite social media posts from governments around the country at the end of this article by Eyal Feder-Levy, CEO of civic analytics firm Zencity. We also share many of these on our own Facebook and Twitter pages, so be sure to follow for daily inspiration.

Local governments are at the frontlines of handling the COVID-19 crisis. They are tasked with creating and enforcing social distancing policies, supporting local business and people facing unemployment, managing health services, and above all, providing their residents with accurate and timely information.

That might explain why trust in these organizations is at an all time high; in a Gallup survey from fall 2018, 72% of Americans said they trusted their local governments either a “great deal” or a “fair amount.” That confidence is an invaluable asset in the fight against the coronavirus, as local government leaders are championing their communities’ interests, encouraging residents to practice social distancing (and other protective measures) for the sake of public health, and offering support and guidance for local businesses.

But local authorities can’t take the public’s faith for granted, particularly in times of crisis. To effectively manage their response to reopening in the wake of the pandemic and engage community members, governments must become great at communicating with people where they are, and in this current climate, that means getting Internet-savvy.


Finding ways to reach residents online is essential not least because amid social distancing and shelter-in-place regulations, people have been spending more time online. Case in point — the soaring use of social media, where citizens are increasingly turning to local government channels for information.

Analyzing more than 86 million social media data points from December through March in 75 cities and counties across the U.S., Zencity found that there were 27 million interactions in March, the month when coronavirus spiked in the U.S., compared to only 20 million interactions of online discourse across January and February. Mayors’ official accounts saw a 225% increase in engagement in March, while engagements with official city accounts skyrocketed 160% and discourse on city agency pages jumped 47%. Meanwhile, engagements with news outlets and independent tweets increased by only 25.9%.

But while the conversations on official city channels grew significantly, most COVID-19-related social media conversations still took place on non-city-owned channels (more than 74%).

This means that in order to really understand the mindset of their residents, the leaders of local government have to truly become digitally literate and follow those conversations.

Understanding these discussions can also equip officials with the insights they need to optimize their response to the pandemic. Ask:

  • Has there been an uptick in posts in which residents report coronavirus symptoms?
  • Is a certain area experiencing shortages of PPE?
  • Are people confused about local policy on businesses and schools reopening?

Armed with such information, officials and agencies can calibrate their communications and respond more efficiently to citizens’ concerns — steps that are vital to maintaining trust in local government during the crisis.


Although the future trajectory of the coronavirus remains uncertain, one thing that’s clear is that the crisis presents an opportunity for local governments to reimagine their operations and the provision of services through digital means in order to broaden and enrich their relationships with their constituents.

States like North Carolina, for example, have adjusted their open meetings laws to allow local governments to hold public meetings via teleconference, provided that members of the public can view them and submit comments. Such steps have the potential to expand citizens’ access to local decision makers and the decision-making process. Whereas residents once had to make the trip to City Hall to attend a town hall meeting, a no-go during times of social distancing and a challenge for many citizens even in periods of normalcy, it’s now possible for local governments to host virtual town halls where people can take their questions and concerns directly to their local elected representatives.

As they marshal their resources and summon their citizens to meet this unprecedented moment in history, local governments are riding a wave of public trust. But sustaining that wave will require effective digital engagement, citizen outreach and reimagined city services in the face of the new normal.

Now, with reopening in full effect across the nation while the number of COVID-19 cases has yet to decline, residents are turning to their city’s leaders as trusted and authoritative sources of information.

We know that the majority of citizens are continuing to raise, discuss and consume coronavirus-related topics online, whether it be on non-city owned or official city channels. Considering the data and the rise in misinformation and disinformation across non-city owned channels, the ability to easily monitor these channels in real-time, can quickly pinpoint residents’ needs and manage rumors. In these times of uncertainty, people are looking to their local governments for guidance and local governments should embrace technology as a means to not only maintain a relationship with their residents — but elevate it.

Next: 3 keys to launching digital communities that achieve citizen engagement

And a special shout out goes to the Los Angeles County Fire Department for this fantastic virtual tour for kids stuck at home:

Eyal Feder-Levy is an urban innovator with a passion for cities, future technology, social change and areas in which they converge. He is CEO & co-founder of ZenCity, an urban startup from Tel Aviv collecting and analyzing wide-scale citizen feedback in cities using advanced AI.