Is Virtual Community Engagement a Win for Health Planners?

May 18th, 2021 | Viewpoint


As the project director of the Planning Community HIV/AIDS Technical Assistance and Training project (Planning CHATT), news of stay-at-home orders in March 2020 brought up a lot of questions. I wondered how Ryan White HIV planning councils would continue their work when most were required to meet in person. Given that their activities are legislatively mandated, would there be flexibility as people determined how to stay safe at home, work, and in the community? Would the councils be able to maintain essential community engagement? A year later we are still figuring some things out, but one is clear: the shift to virtual operations has its advantages, particularly for community engagement

The 52 Ryan White Part A HIV planning councils in metropolitan areas across the U.S. are charged with setting HIV-related service priorities for their jurisdictions and allocating funds to those services. Planning councils must reflect local demographics and include consumers—people with HIV who use Ryan White-funded services—as well as local Ryan White providers. Planning council meetings must be open to the public.

States and localities provided flexibility to meet virtually

State and local regulations govern how legislative bodies operate, including when and where they can meet, and the types of flexibility that are allowable in a declared emergency. There was a lot of anxiety as local planning council staff waited for emergency authorization to operate and meet virtually.

Localities should consider amending their in-person requirements to permanently allow full or partial virtual operations and meetings. This will allow planning councils to conduct business when it is imperative to consider emergency needs for people with HIV.  Planning councils can amend their bylaws to include provisions for emergency operations so that alternate procedures and processes can be implemented quickly during emergencies.

Some jurisdictions saw increased community engagement

In-person meetings can impede participation, especially in planning council jurisdictions that cover large geographic areas and/or cross state lines. Additionally, HIV is still heavily stigmatized, which can deter some people from attending in-person meetings because they are afraid of unintentional disclosure or future discrimination. 

Several planning councils found (and told us) that there are tremendous benefits in meeting and interacting virtually. They reported a greater geographic variety of participants and heard new perspectives on community HIV service needs. The ability to stream the meeting online also increased the participation of the general public, while also maintaining participants’ confidentiality. The virtual meeting option truly reflects the 1983 Denver Principles, including that people with HIV be “involved at every level of decision-making” and “be included in all AIDS forums with equal credibility as other participants, to share their own experiences and knowledge.” This is a tremendous opportunity to continue if it’s maintained.

The digital divide remains

Virtual participation has its challenges. For example, planning council members must review detailed policy and data documents that are easier to look at in print or on a large screen. Some members lack access to printers, full-size screens, and/or adequate internet connectivity, creating inequities. The Planning CHATT team closely monitored evolving federal policies and guidance focused on the use of grant funds to improve access, and reported updates to planning councils. Many planning councils used this information and put it into action using their resources to purchase devices and connect members. 

As many jurisdictions prepare to return to in-person operation, I encourage us all to acknowledge that virtual participation has increased community engagement, and work to incorporate these benefits into our “new normal.” We also need to address the remaining challenges, particularly the digital divide, to make the new forms of engagement accessible and equitable.

Written by Aisha Moore

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