As disruptive and destructive COVID-19 has been, the virus has also offered opportunities as well. Beside businesses that have either risen or fallen due to imposition of stay-at-home orders and the toll of critical, even fatal illness, there are lessons to be learned from our response to this challenge.
Among the most obvious are observations of human behavior that doesn’t always conform to best practices and consideration of others. While many have responded with a sense of community and caring, other reactions indicate a self-centered paradigm. Throughout this biological ordeal, some basic understandings have emerged. For instance, lack of personal and physical contact and collaboration can present substantial problems of socialization, integrity, ingenuity and interaction.
Schools have instituted “distance learning” through virtual classrooms, even those able to provide part-time in person instruction. The question of content and experience enters the equation since much of the same subject substance can be transmitted in the classroom and over the internet, but personal interaction is much harder to duplicate. Interactive software such as Zoom has increased access, but in a two-dimensional world, it cannot replace the atmosphere and exchanges that occur in face-to-face conversations. As teachers and students acclimate to the new educational environment, lesson plans and instructional techniques have developed that enhance the experience, but personal attention and classroom synergy is irreplaceable.
The same can be said for governmental meetings that encourage participation and response from board and council members as well as their constituents. Personal relationships that arise from physical proximity and off-stage interactions is missing. A screen image cannot replace this although there have been some improvements in the virtual process. Not only does physical proximity to council/board members give the public more empathy with them as fellow human beings, but it works in reverse as well.
Public officials must interact with those they represent in order to maintain a common bond as members of a diverse community that may have competing needs, wants and requirements. Unfortunately, as politicians move up the political ladder, representing larger populations – county, state, national – less of this dynamic occurs, resulting in isolation and decisions often skewed toward special, moneyed interests. To their credit, some politicians are using the same communication technology as students and teachers to stay in touch with constituents.
A visual timer for speakers is a welcome addition to oral communications. It provides a precise countdown, so when a hot topic arises that draws a multitude of comments, order and fairness can be maintained; each speaker is allotted a predetermined amount of time to present their thoughts. Rambling and duplicative arguments can be minimized through a tracking system that counts those in agreement and offers supplemental comments. It could be arranged for those in agreement with a speaker to signal this through a “thumbs up” and side comment. This may require a bit more preparation by speakers, but can properly define an argument, maximize its impact and minimize resistance of listening to the same comment over and over again.
An analogous process could be instituted for council/board members when they comment as well. If possible, set an outside time limit for each member with a visible time count for both speaker and audience. This would alert everyone – the speaker included – to long-winded, fatuous soliloquies that do little but burn precious minutes of everyone’s life. By the same method as an audience thumbs up or down approach, council/board members would have an instant and continuous constituent response to their comments.
As more innovative solutions to the challenges of distance learning and COVID-19 are tested and refined, continuation of their use in a post pandemic society can enhance and significantly improve our lives, including governmental systems. Let’s take this lemon and make lemonade.