A funny thing happened on the way to the public meeting…

1 04 2011

One thing I love about public participation is its sponteneity and encounters with the unexpected. I plan all scenarios imaginable for meeting facilitation, but the real fun comes with real people come through the door. We get to meet people in the course of their daily lives from all backgrounds and with all types of personalities.

I have also learned that in order to be effective in this work, you have to find humor in even the most tense and complex situations. Note that the humor needed to stay afloat is NOT at anyone’s expense and especially should not limit, label or otherwise degrade stakeholders. However, sometimes a simple mispelling (who hasn’t accidentially typed “pubic meeting” instead of “public”?) or delightful turn of phrase deserves attention to recognize the fun and humanity of citizen engagement.

Every project I’ve worked on has had some range of stories of shared experiences and memorable moments. For instance, there was the meeting where I “took the microphone away” from someone a little long-winded. Or the guy who was upset at staff taking photos to document the meeting. Or, in meeting with a group of property owners about potential impacts overhearing a mom and son discussing how it might impact their illegal crop.

Through the course of time, I feel like I have seen and heard it all! But how about you? What are some of the memorable stories and humorous moments from your P2 experiences?


Bored with boards at public meetings

23 02 2011

My greatest pet peeve about public meetings is an open house where someone attends but doesn’t speak to anyone. To me, this is a complete failure of public outreach and defeats the purpose of holding a meeting. What is the point of holding a meeting if you don’t take advantage of face-to-face discussion?

To avoid the silent attendee syndrome, I have shifted my public meeting philosophy to be less about boards and polished presentation and more about equipping staff to answer questions and engage people in conversation. I organized a public meeting this week with meeting materials comprised of five boards and two maps for an anticipated crowd of 100 people. These maps and graphics were tools for staff to refer to as speaking points or to help explain what is happening in the area.

I have planned public meetings in the past with umpteen boards with review after review and edit upon edit to get it just right. It is not fun to plan and I think it is not fun to attend a meeting where you take time to be in-person only to learn about a project from a series of display boards.

Here are my suggestions for effective presentation boards at public meetings:

–          Focus on visuals and graphics rather than text. Utilize boards to support sharing a message through conversation rather than relying on the board to tell the message.

–          Utilize the same images and messages in different formats. Content of handouts for take-home should match what is on display boards or in a PowerPoint presentation.

–           Print duplicate boards or maps if you anticipate a large crowd. Again, these are visual aids for staff. I like to plan meetings so that project representatives speak with small groups of people and answer their questions. Having duplicate boards allows several conversations to occur concurrently.

–          Prepare public meeting staff. Hold a pre-meeting to talk through information and anticipated questions. Let them know what visuals will be available to support their conversations.

Public meetings are about meeting people, introducing yourself and your project and hearing the questions and concerns of people who are affected by a project or decision. Interpersonal communication is still the most effective method to deliver difficult or complex information. So speak up!

Getting better comments

12 08 2010

So last week I indulged in the advice I would give people about writing comments. This week, I take a more realistic tact and expand on the notion that we as P2 practitioners can help facilitate getting better, more meaningful input.

Yes, the work we do in public participation ought to bring about quality input. Carefully thought-out public outreach will help achieve more carefully thought-out questions, comments and feedback from stakeholders. Here’s how:

1. Provide good information. The more stakeholders know about process and facts presented in an understandable and accessible way, the more relevant and informed comments will be.

2. Ask good questions. Comment forms often consist of a blank sheet of paper with space for name and contact information. Instead of always using this open-ended format, consider developing a set of questions that helps stakeholders think through relevant issues and share their views. Think of a questionnaire format as a miniature interview; be strategic about the order questions are asked and careful with the wording. Focus on key issues or specific types of information you need. You can still leave space for open-ended comments as part of the questionnaire.

3. Identify target audiences. In order to increase the number of thoughtful responses, think about who is impacted by or interested in the issue; seek to engage specific groups of stakeholders instead of waiting for them to find you. A stakeholder analysis should be part of your public participation plan and should identify stakeholder groups based on interests or demographics. Find ways to engage groups who already have some knowledge, interest or opinion of the matter at hand.

4. Build credibility by keeping commitments, displaying fairness and demonstrating how comments are used. An agency or project owner with a reputation for fairness over time will gain more meaningful iput. One step toward fairness is to proactively engage opposition groups as well as supporters. Demonstrate that you are looking for input from all points of view. Finally, if stakeholders see that their input was taken seriously and influenced a decision, they will be more apt to participate again.  All these things add up to building credibility and maintaining a degree of public confidence that can help facilitate a more meaningful exchange.

5. Leverage communication tools for transparency. Instead of asking for feedback at the eleventh hour, right before a decision is made, engage in a conversation with stakeholders early in the process. Not only is this good research and fact-finding, it allows stakeholders to grasp the public process, understand key factors and constraints and weigh in on issues when there is still time to influence a decision. 

What would you add to the list for getting better comments in public processes?

My story of two recent meetings

22 07 2010

I have planned and facilitated two neighborhood meetings with emotionally-sensitive topics in the past month. The first was a meeting with property owners entering the property acquisition process. The second was a meeting with adjacent property owners who are not being acquired now, but may be in the future. We intentionally set up two separate meetings because each group has different needs and issues; to try and tackle both at once was not going to be productive for either.

In coordination with the project team, I spent a lot of time discussing the pros and cons of various formats. We spoke at length about what would make the best use of everyone’s time and how to make the meeting valuable to the people who attended. We focused on format and process before finalizing messaging and materials; proof that the media is the message; or in this case, the format is central to how we convey the message and how it is received.

We decided to use a table discussion format that allowed sharing information face-to-face with a small group and letting attendees’ questions drive the discussion.  This helped diffuse some of the emotion and allowed the group at the table to hear the answers to each other’s questions (especially since many people had the same questions). We provided handouts and maps at each table to support the discussion, but the strategy really depended on the table facilitators to answer questions openly, honestly and to the best of their knowledge.

Our team has developed a few mantras that have proven useful in planning for emotional contexts. One is “when you have bad news, see the whites of their eyes.” This reminds us of the need to treat each person individually and deliver information on a personal basis. The large group setting is risky because the audience can become just a sea of faces and project representatives can be viewed as Big Brother. The room set-up of presenter and audience implicitly creates an “us-them” tension. By talking around a table, we were setting up a space for conversation between people. We all act more humanely and treat each other with more respect at the conversation level.

The second guiding principle that led us to the table discussion format is transparency. In my experience, and in these situations the past month, people expressed appreciation that the project team was willing to meet with them, answer tough questions and hear their concerns. We did not prepare an elaborate presentation. We did not do a dog and pony show. We were not going to sugar-coat the difficult situation these property owners faced. People see right through that. Instead, we focused on being genuine, listening to people’s concerns and giving them the best information we had in order to equip them for the decisions to be made in coming months.

Finally, we prepared meeting staff for emotion. At a preparation meeting, we openly discussed how these property owners might feel and tried to see the project and meeting from their point of view. We discussed the need to listen and allow attendees’ time to vent. We also discussed the limits of what was acceptable and how we would support each other if a situation got out of control.

The two meetings went very well with very little eruption of emotion. People were civil, asked their tough questions and expressed their frustrations. Most attendees appeared to leave satisfied that they were heard and had more information than when they arrived. Our team agreed that keeping the conversation at the table-level was the right choice for the situation and both meetings were heralded a success!

Public Meeting Planning Tips: Choosing a Meeting Format

15 07 2010

A public meeting does not have to be an open house or a large group presentation with Q&A. In fact, your project and your public would be better served to carefully examine your options for meeting format in order to determine how to best facilitate the meeting. Different meeting formats are better suited for different meeting purposes.

 So how do you decide on a meeting format?

  1. Determine the meeting purpose. What do you expect people to get out of the meeting? Moreover, as a project team, what do you want out of the meeting? Is your purpose to inform? To gather input? To deliver difficult news? Consider your audience, message, and any action you may ask people to take. Can information be presented or comments received another way? Do you really need a meeting? Until you know the purpose in meeting, your planning will flounder.
  2. Evaluate prior history. What is your audience accustomed to? If the group is used to large group presentation with Q&A, what is the risk of changing it up? What is the potential that they spontaneously demand what they are used to doing? Additionally, consider what your team is comfortable with. This includes understanding the team’s capabilities; do you have a strong presenter? Or in the absence of a good presenter, how can information best be delivered?
  3. Think through scenarios. Imagine your meeting in various formats. What do you think would work and what problems would arise? Who would get the most out of it? Who would have difficulties? Go back to your meeting purpose. What format best achieves your purpose in a fair and equitable way?
  4. Imagine the worst-case scenario. As you gravitate to a particular meeting format, think through the potential risks of what could go wrong, be frustrating or be missed. Can those frustrations be mitigated or can you live with them for the positive benefits of the format you choose? What can be done to minimize frustrations, such as providing a brief orientation to the room at the sign-in table or including a clear purpose statement on a welcome board or handout?
  5. Be confident and committed to the format you choose. Know your rationale for selecting the meeting format and what it helps facilitate. An open house, for example, facilitates individual discussions whereas a large group presentation allows everyone to hear the same information at the same time. The meeting will be effective if the format supports your purpose.

Next week: My story of two recent meetings

Planning tips for public meetings

18 05 2010

Anyone who has planned a public meeting knows the care taken to find an appropriate location and develop a plan for how to set up the room. From way-finding signs and a greeting table to space to sit down to discuss questions and comments, the entire room set-up is designed to facilitate sharing information with participants and answering their questions.

I was reminded of the symbolic power of physical space when I read this article about the closing of the main doors to the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. The open doors represented the accessibility of justice to the American people. It sent a message that all are welcome to the judicial process. According to this essayist, closing the doors sends a troubling message. Sometimes decisions made for practical reasons have serious implications for public perceptions.

You may not be dealing with the likes of the Supreme Court, but your attention to careful planning of physical space for meetings makes a difference to the people you are engaging! Here are a few steps I take:

  • Visit the site, take pictures and draw a map
  • Have an on-site contact you know to call with any questions or concerns
  • Plan how the room will be set up, including what staff will be located where. This will help ensure that you are not over- or under-staffed as well as give each staff person a specific role and responsibility
  • Hold a prep meeting with staff to review the room set-up and responsibilities. Also review the format and content of the meeting so everyone knows the big picture purpose as well as the details being presented
  • Allow plenty of time for set-up as eager stakeholders often start showing up early

What tips do you have for effective meeting planning? Please comment with some “do’s” and “don’ts” for choosing locations and planning room set-up.