UNITEd We Stood: How to Get the Most from a Local Government Digital Conference

Inbal Naveh Safir

Inbal Naveh Safir

Director of Strategy & Communications

Icma wrap up featured image

Co-Author: Assaf Frances

7 Takeaways from this year’s Biggest City/County Manager Conference – ICMA UNITE


COVID-19 has determined a new normal, and conferences certainly haven’t been exempt. For many city/county managers and urban geeks (like us, over at the Zencity team), a yearly professional highlight is the Annual International City Managers Association (ICMA) Conference. This year, ICMA rose to the occasion to host its first annual digital conference – UNITE. Over 4,000 local government leaders and their partners from all over the world tuned in. Here are our key takeaways of how local gov aficionados can make the most of future local government-centered digital events. 

1. OOO: Plan for a digital or virtual conference the same way you always have and treat it like you’re OOO (Out of Office)


Joining a conference online shouldn’t mean spending less time planning or attending, it just means that you might have to work a little harder to prevent the day-to-day from taking priority. To do this, study the online agenda, plan which sessions to attend, and block your calendar to OOO. Treat the conference like you’ve actually gotten on the plane and keep reminding yourself to take the mental journey out-of-town and into the convention center

2. Throw a (Socially Distanced) Party


We’re not kidding. Find the best (and safest) recipe for you to enjoy the conference with colleagues – from your office, city, county, state, or however COVID-19 allows. We heard from our city manager friends in Billings, Montana that they actually used UNITE as an excuse for a state-wide city manager retreat! So get together and attend other virtual conferences in good company, if that’s an option.

3. Maximize on Interactive Opportunities


Virtual experiences certainly make networking more challenging. In remote work, many of us miss out on watercooler talk, and mingling during coffee breaks is hard to replace – but, good conference organizers are creating incredible networking events online. Prioritizing these kinds of interactive opportunities is a must for meeting new folks and old friends. Some examples we’ve seen pop up at UNITE and elsewhere include:

  • Roundtable discussions where the audience is often engaged as opposed to just watching a session of speakers.
  • Trivia and other LIVE online games (where cool prizes are usually included too!)
  • Concerts, cocktails and other fun shenanigans – which are the new networking norm. These types of sessions aren’t trivial because they are often the main built-in channels for organized networking, so hone in on your cocktail-making skills or simply grab a beer from the fridge.

4. Schedule Meetings in Advance


Back to networking. Interactive events definitely help (see takeaway #3) but let’s be real: you’re not as likely to casually bump into someone online, especially not that town manager or county administrator you were hoping to ask about x, y, or z. Conferences provide a perfect mindset for reaching out to those who you haven’t been in touch with in a while and want to re-connect with, or to new professionals. Most digital conferences now offer in-app meeting options. We have yet to find one that overcomes the awkwardness of using yet another digital tool, but simply emailing that person in relation to a conference you’re both attending can be a great conversation starter.

5. Take Advantage of Session Recordings but Don’t Forget to Attend the Q&A


Did you know that many conference sessions are actually pre-recorded and aren’t live? This means that sessions become a long term resource and that you can “attend” multiple sessions as opposed to just picking one live session. Enjoy this, but don’t forget to leverage one of the most valuable parts of a session – the Q&A. Look at conference topics and speakers based on who you want to meet – you can always listen later but you can’t always connect with speakers outside of the Q&A the way you might have been able to in person (unless you took takeaway #4 to heart!)

6. Grab Virtual Swag & Immerse Yourself in Side Content


Exhibit halls are oftentimes the playgrounds of conferences – with puppies to pet, collectibles to grab for the kids at home (shout out to all those from last year’s ICMA Annual Conference who took home one – or ten – Zencity bears from Nashville!), and unlimited laser pens. Exhibitors are investing a ton in trying to get you to their virtual booths – don’t miss out! There is both a lot to learn – including a plethora of extra resources and case studies from cities, counties and their partners from across the country, and a lot of fun to be had. 

7. Walk Away (from your screen) Inspired and With Extra Knowledge


This one speaks for itself. Remember – conferences are professional development opportunities. Don’t let the pandemic ruin this for you. Take mental or actual notes as you would in a regular conference and communicate key points back to your team at home. Here are a few of our lessons-learned about the big challenges ahead of local governments:

  1. Crisis management is no longer ad hoc. It’s the new day-to-day of local government management, thanks to COVID-19. Chris Lagerbloom, Fort Lauderdale’s City Manager, succinctly pointed out this change: unlike other crises, COVID has no start or end date, it just keeps on going. Hear about how Chris is using data to manage one crisis after the other – hurricanes, water shortages, sewage burst, and more – all in the backdrop of the ongoing crisis of the Coronavirus in his UNITE session.
  2. The equity lens is sharper than ever. Racial equity was part-and-parcel of so many of the sessions that took place during UNITE, highlighting the immense power and responsibility local government leaders have in changing unjust realities. From pushing for more equitable resource allocation; to rethinking public space and access to mobility; to cross-community communication; the list of ways in which local government leaders can affect change has no limit, and as UNITE made clear, is most certainly top-of-mind.
  3. Law enforcement agencies are becoming more attentive but the burden is on city and county managers. In many – but not all – places in the country, community relations with their police departments are strained and the burden of regaining the public’s trust in local PDs is falling on the shoulders of City and County Managers. In parallel, local government leaders are tasked with building better police forces – and this means improving police officers’ images to attract quality men and women. Balancing between these two tasks is no easy feat, and local government leaders are coming together to share and learn from each other how to do it best.
  4. Reopening is a 2 steps forward, 1 step back shuffle. Local governments that have taken too-quick-to-reopen approaches described how rolling back might be tougher than you think. Looking forward, the general conclusion seems to be that a slowly-but-surely approach is a safer bet. On that note, supporting your reopening and recovery efforts with data is key to knowing if that next step will push you forward or end up driving you back.
  5. Transparent and participatory budgeting will become more prevalent. Budget shortfalls have hit local governments hard during a time when residents’ interest in their city’s finances is on the rise (mainly due to police defunding conversations). Local government leaders are rising to the occasion and seeking ways to increase transparency and facilitate more conversations around budget with their communities. Getting residents informed and involved in the budget allocation process has already helped managers identify pain points and gaps, and is where many more community leaders are heading.

With countless online local-gov conferences planned for the near future, we all need to adapt in order to maximize these experiences. Learning from what worked (and also from what didn’t) in other local governments will always be a key part of attending these conferences in our efforts to better serve our residents and the places we live in. This October, We’re also planning on virtually attending VMLELGL’s Oktoberfest, and Smart Cities Connect. If you intend on being there or hosting your own local virtual gathering, we’d love to connect