Is a More Accessible Local Government a More Representative One? The Effects of Online Meetings on Participation Within Overlapping Local Governments


Is a more accessible local government a more representative one? In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many local governments opted to host their public meetings—-at least in part—-virtually, a practice which many continued even after the worst of the pandemic subsided. Despite the theorized increase in accessibility, previous research has found limited effects on either participation or the diversity of participants following this shift to online format meetings; however, most of this work has only examined local participation in the vacuum of municipal governments. Policy issues often involve multiple overlapping local institutions, each with its own governing body and, importantly, each with its own opportunities for civic engagement. This paper attempts to expand our understanding of political participation within local politics by analyzing how changes brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic, namely in the form of online public meetings, shaped participation across three distinct yet overlapping local governments. To accomplish this, I first construct a novel dataset of public meeting minutes from 2018 until 2022 for county, municipal, and school board governments within the St. Louis region. I then extract public participation data from these minutes and combine them with existing political and demographic datasets to examine how participation in these meetings has changed following the switch to online meetings. I leverage both time-series and text analyses to investigate whether the shift to more accessible online meetings promotes healthy democratic participation or amplifies pre-existing inequities in local political participation. Importantly this paper adds to our understanding of how individuals navigate and participate within their interlocking spheres of local governments, an often overlooked component of American local politics.

Lucas D. Boschelli
Lucas D. Boschelli
Ph.D. Candidate

My research interests include distributed robotics, mobile computing and programmable matter.