On workshops and public discussions and how to make them better

Earlier this week I posted a selection from Crowdsourcing Wisdom to LinkedIn, where I tend to duplicate post book passages or blog posts because they pick up a different cross-section of readers than on the blogs.

The selection I posted was a little bit of an odd choice for this book, since it appears in a section that could be summed up as

“even though you know this isn’t the best way to do it, sometimes you get stuck with a Town Hall type format…for whatever reason, you don’t have the option of re-formatting the meeting. When that happens, here are some tactics for making the experience more valuable and less miserable…”

I chose this section because, when I wrote about these strategies years ago, it clearly hit a nerve with a lot of readers and ended up as my most-read essay at the Wise Economy site for a very long time.  So I figured it might still have some strong relevance.

Given that the rest of the book focuses on collaborative small group-based methods for doing better public engagement than what you can typically get from even the best-run town hall meeting, I was both delighted and a little surprised when the feedback focused on how communities are using better methods.  In each case, however, I do think that some modifications to how these communities are doing public engagement would give them even better results.  So, since I wrote out some recommendations for them, I figured I’d share them with you.

One commentator described his community’s great experience with what I often call Open House meetings — events where you have stations with maps and information manned by staffers who answer questions and discuss verbally with the participants.  Here’s what he wrote:

Our jurisdiction has had success with walk-in workshops (instead of “we speak to you” formal meetings). There is no presentation or speaker’s podium. Citizens can come and go and participate as they please. These workshops are typically held late afternoon through early evening (2-3 hours in length), with topic tables pertaining to items of interest of the project under review (e.g. transportation, land use, environmental, infrastructure, etc.). Each table is staffed by a subject matter expert. Each table has graphics, charts, handouts, etc. and other useful information. The staff at each table ask citizens who walk by open-ended questions (e.g. “what do you think about the plan?” or “what issues or concerns to you have about this area?”), and capture their comments on a flip chart. Citizens can linger as long as they want and are free to ask in-depth questions as needed. We are really happy with the results of this method, and citizens appear to be much more engaged and participative.

And here’s my response, which mostly focuses on one of my big worries with this approach: how do you make reliable sense of what you’re hearing?

Excellent! It’s interesting that you pointed out how much more effective that kind of interaction is…The majority of this book is a how-to for doing meaningful public engagement — and the types of one-on-one interaction that you;re describing are central to that.[…]

My one concern with the open house – type format that you described — and I’ve used them a lot with much better results as well — is that we don’t always get as much _value_ out of the process as we should. If people walk in and have conversations with staff, that may leave both public and staff feeling good about the experience, but the key question is, what do you do with that input?

Too often, I see communities do workshops like that, have great conversations and everyone feels happy about it,but when it comes time to decide whether any revisions need to be made, the decision-makers have nothing to go on except for their own general impressions or a couple of colorful statements that stuck out in their head. Maybe there were some index cards provided where a few of the large number of people who came by wrote a few comments (that you can hopefully read). The feedback from those meetings, too often, does not get treated as a serious source of information that has the potential to make the plan better.

I usually recommend that communities that plan to do walk-in meetings or open house meetings complement the information stations and staff discussion with structured activities – something that is both relatively simple, interesting-looking enough to engage people’s attention, and designed to capture their feedback on paper. Sometimes I use simple feedback surveys, sometimes it’s giving them a made-up real-world scenario that relates to the plan’s decision points and asks them what they would do, sometimes, it’s a non-written-language method, like a verbal feedback station where someone is transcribing the notes or a map to mark up themselves.

Gathering the feedback in this way does three things. First, it means that you are not depending on staff’s recollection or general “feel” about the meeting, and you have a clear record of what was said. That way, if someone pointed out an issue that they know about because they live there, but staff did not know, you have a better chance of being able to address it. Second, since people are completing the same activities, you can compile the results. This means that you have something more digestible than the usual pages-long laundry list of random comments, and you can show the results visually through charts and graphs and the like, and that makes it easier and more reliable to use that information to make decisions.

The third benefit is that having clear documentation of the feedback helps build trust in the community. Not only did they get to have a pleasant conversation, but they can see that their feedback is less likely to be lost or forgotten. That sends a strong message: what you have to say matters. We’re not just listening and nodding, we really care what you think and we want your insight into what we should do.

A second set of commentators are using even more sophisticated deliberative democracy techniques involving trained facilitators. I probably developed the methods that I did in part because I seldom have had access to a cadre of qualified facilitators, and I needed the participant groups to be able to operate more independently.  But even well-facilitated discussion methods can also get into trouble when it comes to making reliable sense out of what the communities tell the facilitators, because the collection of facilitated discussions creates a deluge of separate comments.

Here’s what I wrote:

It’s fascinating to me that both of you are talking about methods that I see communities use far too seldom — and the reason I wrote this book. The majority of this book focuses on my approach to using more deliberative, more directly engaging public involvement methods. I draw a lot from deliberative democracy strategies, which I mix with my own background in small group cooperative education.[…]

It sounds like the biggest difference between my main approach and yours is that I tend to put a lot of effort into structuring the activities that the small groups will be working on so that they can operate more independently (as a consultant, I’ve seldom had access to dozens of trained facilitators when I’m working with a community, especially a smaller community!)

So what I typically do is create a process that leads a small group of participants step by step through a process of analyzing an issue, identifying potential solutions, sorting priorities, etc. Whatever fits the situation. Combined with some simple ground rules for the group work, I find that I usually need just a few floating moderators/advisers to help groups stay on track, get unstuck, etc.

The other thing that I think is really helpful about the approach that makes up most of the book is that it results in organized written results. Rather than end up with a laundry list of comments that you then have to try to sort through, you’ve got a more manageable set of small group products — typically, written “worksheets” that give you more information and are easier to compile and make sense of.

But a big part of the reason why I wrote this book is because I see so _few_ communities using meaningful, deliberative methods, and clearly you’re both doing that. Thanks for giving me a dose of optimism!

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Managing Town Hall meetings so that everyone benefits (and relatively few are miserable)

This is a selection from the new book, Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a Guide to Doing Public Meetings that Actually Make Your Community Better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come). Learn more and get the book for yourself at https://crowdsourcingwisdombook.com/the-book/. Thanks.

As I said in the last chapter, I don’t think town hall-type meetings are effective because they’re so easily dominated by a few loud voices.  But there are ways to improve the experience and the value of the meeting — for both you and for the people who choose to attend.

Let’s walk through a few of the specific tactics I have used for making these meetings more meaningful and more productive:

Have a pre-meeting workshop where you use Crowdfunding Wisdom techniques to build the base of information that you will use during the formal meeting. Just because the rules specify that you have to do a formal meeting doesn’t mean that’s the only type of meeting you can do.  A workshop done before the formal meeting can have all sorts of benefits – it can provide an understanding of the concerns and priorities of a larger group of people, it can give you a measuring stick to help gauge whether a single speaker is actually representing a majority or just speaking for himself.

It can allow you to understand and demonstrate whether speakers at the formal meeting are significantly different in age, gender, race etc. from the larger population, and it can place a confrontational speaker in the position of having to respond to the input of a body of people who may have come to a different conclusion – without those people having to be there in person.

On a particularly confrontational issues, the pre-workshop may also result in some proportion of formal meeting attendees who are better informed, have better grappled with the information, and may be more deeply invested in the outcome than they would have been if only the formal meeting were held.  It’s even possible that the pre-meeting workshop can defuse a speaker who would otherwise be domineering or confrontational, because she has had to think more deeply about the issue, and debate it with her peers, than she normally would when approaching that microphone.

An outside moderator isn’t a bad idea.  As the outsider, I have a lot of aces up my sleeve.  Since I don’t know any more than the broad outline of any previous confrontations, I can plead innocence.  As an outsider, I don’t have any explicit stake in the ground, and I probably don’t have any history with any individual or group who may be inclined to get confrontational.  Although of course anyone can in theory say anything, no one has any sound reason to accuse me of bias, as long as I treat everyone involved fairly.

Chances are, if I watch the crowd closely before we start (just like with Crowdsourcing Wisdom, it’s a good idea to try to build some understanding of the people you’re going to be working with), I may be able to get a sense of who the person with an agenda may be—especially if they stick in a group, which is often the case.

Many times, staff may feel the need to point out to me people who have given them heartburn in the past.  If I had the same history with those people that the city staff has, I’m sure it would be very hard to not fixate on them.

But since I don’t have that baggage, and since I am going to be careful to spread the chance to participate as widely through the whole audience as possible, I have a better chance of a more fair process, and less risk of specifically ignoring or focusing on one person or another based on some history they have had with the agency.

The other benefit of being an outside moderator is that I can take a strong leadership role, because I don’t have to worry about offending anyone.

After all, when this is over, I am going home, people.   If I had been in the city I live in, with people I knew in the audience, I would have found myself in a very different situation.

Never let go of the microphone.  I almost never take public questions via a stand mic or podium in the front of the room.  That seems to bring out the worse “Look At Me,” reflex in people – and as we discussed before, it scares the hell out of way more people than we probably realize.  Again, two consequences that completely undermine what we’re trying to do.

I almost always go at it Phil Donohue-style.  I wade as deep into the audience as the cords will let me. I either hold the mic for speakers, or I repeat their questions over the sound system.

In addition to giving me an additional measure of control over the situation (more on that in a minute), doing it this way provides three additional benefits:

  1. Having someone moving around the room means that people will pay more attention than if you simply stick behind a podium. If you want people to engage in the discussion, you need them to be paying attention.  It’s the same reason why teachers walk between the desks in a classroom – it creates a modest level of uncertainty and unpredictability, and that makes you more inclined to pay attention.
  1. If someone is rambling – either because they’re nervous, or because they’re trying to dominate the time, or they’re just not an organized public speaker – it’s a lot easier to manage that situation if you’re face to face. You can gently interrupt with a clarifying question, or rephrase the question (especially useful if someone is going off on a tack that isn’t within the meeting’s purpose and you need to pull it back in), or grab hold of the germ of their comment and flip it back out to the rest of the audience to comment.
  1. Sound systems can be a real pain. The mic’s too far away from the speaker, no one can hear them. The mic is too close, and it squeals.  The sound is fuzzy and the person’s accent is hard to make out.  The result of all of these: no one is happy with the experience.

You of all people are the most likely to know what you need to do to make the sound as good as possible for everyone.  At least, you will after the first five minutes.  So it makes sense for you to have as much direct control as possible.  And you can always use “sorry, the sound system is pretty touchy” as a reason why you’re hanging on to the mic.

Just because someone puts their hand up doesn’t mean you need to call on them.   We have this assumption from our days in school that the first one with the hand up is the one that should get to show off his or her knowledge.  But we all know that teachers select who they will call on, and after a while the kid who knows all the answers doesn’t get called on anymore.

Teachers don’t do that to be mean to the smart kids.  They do it for the good of the whole class: only calling on that person wouldn’t do the rest of the students much good.

We don’t want to ignore people if we can help it, but a forum whose purpose is to help us understand the cross-section of public opinion is not going to fill that purpose if we play by those elementary school rules.

It is critical to cover the meeting space – both in terms of taking questions from all over the room, but also taking questions from people of different ages and genders and ethnic groups and any other divisions that you can pick up on.   When I manage these kinds of meetings, I am constantly tracking the characteristics of the people I have already talked to versus the people who have their hands up.   If I simply stick in the corner where the most hands went up, I will both turn off the rest of the crowd and prevent us from getting a useful picture of the full range of public opinion.

How to Do Public Meetings That Aren’t Miserable — and Actually Make Your Community Better

The International Economic Development Council’s ED Now ran anarticle last week that I wrote to explain why economic development people should be thinking about how to do public engagement more effectively — and why the ways we’ve been taught (or not taught) to “engage” the public so often end in anger and misery — for the public, and for you. It gives you a little introduction to theCrowdfunding Wisdom approach to public engagement, which is designed to give you more useful information and your residents and business owners a more positive and more constructive experience.

If you’re an IEDC member, you can check out the article here. For the rest of you, I’ll post an earlier draft here. If you want to learn more, check out the book atwww.CrowdsourcingWisdomBook.com.

— —

We have a problem with how we deal with the public. We have this problem in all types of government and community professions, but the more we find ourselves required to work with business owners and residents and community groups, the more this problem threatens to further impair our ability to help our communities.

The Problem

The methods, the assumptions that we rely on to figure out what people want their governments to do, to try to get them to understand why we’re building this or that, to get people involved in decisions the way we know we should…

They’re not working. Too often, the only response we get is a useless, ill-informed, sometimes crazy response. And on top of that, we fail to hear from the thousands who could very well know something crucial to developing useful plans, setting effective policy. And whose support we need to build political support for the hard decisions that our communities increasingly have to make.

Those people are not failing to participate because they don’t care about the places where they live. They’re not failing to participate because they don’t care what we do.

The International Economic Development Council’s ED Now ran an articlelast week that I wrote to explain why economic development people should be thinking about how to do public engagement more effectively — and why the ways we’ve been taught (or not taught) to “engage” the public so often end in anger and misery — for the public, and for you. It gives you a little introduction to the Crowdfunding Wisdom approach to public engagement, which is designed to give you more useful information and your residents and business owners a more positive and more constructive experience.

If you’re an IEDC member, you can check out the article here. For the rest of you, I’ll post an earlier draft here. If you want to learn more, check out the book atwww.CrowdsourcingWisdomBook.com.

— —

We have a problem with how we deal with the public. We have this problem in all types of government and community professions, but the more we find ourselves required to work with business owners and residents and community groups, the more this problem threatens to further impair our ability to help our communities.

The Problem

The methods, the assumptions that we rely on to figure out what people want their governments to do, to try to get them to understand why we’re building this or that, to get people involved in decisions the way we know we should…

They’re not working. Too often, the only response we get is a useless, ill-informed, sometimes crazy response. And on top of that, we fail to hear from the thousands who could very well know something crucial to developing useful plans, setting effective policy. And whose support we need to build political support for the hard decisions that our communities increasingly have to make.

Those people are not failing to participate because they don’t care about the places where they live. They’re not failing to participate because they don’t care what we do.

They’re failing to participate because the way we do these meetings gives them a pretty clear message that we don’t want them to have a meaningful role in the process.

What we really want, in the depth of our guts, in the place where the reasons why we went into this profession or ran for office or went on this committee still live, is to help make this community better. We want to make the right decisions, anticipate and address the issues that might affect the community in the future, use the money and people and other resources that the community has as wisely as we can.

And if we’re really honest, we often have to admit: we don’t know how to do that.

Ten or 30 or 40 years ago, our predecessors in these roles hired Experts — Big Deal Architects, Big Name Economic Development Types, Big Budget Think Tanks, people who offered Big and Easy Solutions.

As you might have noticed, a lot of those haven’t worked. When you look back on the projections, the visions, the promises, what they said and what came to pass very often don’t match up. And for many of us, the great challenge that faces us today consists of trying to fix or undo the damage that those Big Solutions caused.

As the era we live in becomes more and more unpredictable, as we start seeing ever so acutely how one issue in our community unexpectedly impacts another, as we realize that the future, whatever it will be, probably won’t be a simple linear extrapolation of past growth…

We come to realize that expertise based on the past has less and less relevance. Even major business publications are questioning the purpose, the most rudimentary value, of expert advising.[i] They’ve been lead down the wrong path a few times as well.

Private sector businesses, from the largest to the smallest, are increasingly turning to crowdsourcing to try to get a handle on the emerging issues, the disruptions and the out-of-left-field new ideas that have the potential to catapult them into a market lead (or, if they miss it, shatter them to bits). Crowdsourcing enables businesses to gather ideas, solutions, designs, sometimes even blueprints, from a wider range of people than they could every employ or contract on their own.

And even more surprisingly, businesses increasingly use the “crowd” to sift through the options and select the ones that will work best. Academic research[ii] has been demonstrating for a few years that the Crowd does these two steps better than the Experts, and that crowd-designed and crowd-selected results tend to perform better on a variety of measures than when experts design and select them.

Businesses have to work like fury to attract their Crowd. They put a huge amount of effort into reaching their Crowd, convincing their Crowd that it’s worth their time to participate, keeping their Crowd plugged in and participating. Their ability to provide value depends on their Crowd, and when you’re crowdsourcing for T-shirts or motorbikes, you’re competing for their attention with a lot of other shiny but not all that important products.

In our world, where we’re trying to make communities better, we’ve got a Crowd that’s eager and waiting for their chance to participate.

We already have what those businesses are spending so much money to build.

We just need to open the doors, to give them a way to participate, in a way that matters.

But just asking isn’t enough

If you’ve been around the block a few times, you know what happened the last time you asked residents what they wanted. I often compare the responses we get to the lists that my kids used to prepare for Santa Claus:

“I want a dollhouse… and a pony… and a rocket launcher… and a baby brother…and a unicorn…”

Kids eventually figure out that Santa Claus can’t actually deliver the way he promised, and that’s when they start questioning our whole system of magic-holiday-gift-givers.

Adults who respond to a civic invitation to identify their “vision” or give their “recommendations” often don’t know that what they’re offering is at the same level of realism as that baby brother or unicorn. If you don’t know the ins and outs of zoning regs and state enabling regulations and nonprofit funding sources, you’re not going to know that what you’re asking for isn’t feasible. And the way we community leaders handle those uninformed requests looks a whole lot like how we as parents handle Santa Claus questions: we sidestep, we hem and haw, we make empty promises to “see what happens,” and then… we fail to deliver, with no comment.

If we want to meaningfully engage the power and potential of our people, we need to give them a channel. We need to enable, empower them to do much more than spout ill-informed NIMBYisms or buy into knee-jerk cause-effect assumptions. We need to

  • Draw on the unique knowledge, perspective and expertise of everyone we can get,
  • Get them reasonably up-to-speed on the issues, and
  • Engage them — get their hands deeply into — the search for solutions… solutions that are realistic and address the complexities and ambiguities of real community life.

We often shy away from that, because we don’t trust the public. We’re afraid they’ll say something crazy, they’ll have different ideas, that they won’t Get It. But chances are, there’s something we’re not Getting, either. The crucial, and too often missing piece, is that we have to create a structure in which constructive collaboration between us and them can happen.

How to CrowdSource Wisdom

Every Crowdsourcing Wisdom event works a little differently, and the details of how you fit the process to the people cannot be overlooked. But here is the basic structure:

  1. Meeting attendees work together in small groups. Whenever possible, it’s good to make the groups random so that people are less likely to be working with people who are exactly the same as they are.
  2. Establish some basic rules of engagement — guidance as to treat each other, how to make decisions, how to resolve disputes, and so on. Basic rules of engagement give everybody some confidence that they will be able to participate, and have a fair chance to be heard — and it gives them the power to stand up if someone is trying to hog all the attention.
  3. The group has a specific activity that they need to complete together. This is more complex than “do you like this design or not?” The group activity might have to do with analyzing the factors behind an issue, designing a potential solution to a thorny problem, or setting priorities for future programs. Each group does its work together on a large paper that walks them through the process.
  4. The groups work largely independently. My big work was on the front end — planning the activities, preparing the materials, setting up the groups and framing the rules. Once the activity is underway, I focus on monitoring, sensing emerging issues, fine-tuning and redirecting if a group gets lost in the weeds or can’t seem to come to a conclusion.
  5. The group shares its work with the rest of the participants, so that everyone gets to understand what the other groups did.
  6. Everyone has an opportunity for individual response. This might involve “voting” for their top priorities across all of the groups’ solutions, or allocating “money” to indicate where they think the majority of the effort should go.
  7. The results of the meeting are clear for everyone to see. Since everything was done on paper, there’s no question about whether some staffer with an agenda accurately reported the results, or took a colorful quote out of context, or mis-interpreted a minority position as The Conclusion.

The Results

I learned to use methods like this during my early career as a middle school teacher, and I’ve used Crowdsourcing Wisdom methods in dozens of communities and with thousands of people over the last 20 years. And this is what I consistently find:

  • The people who participate feel like they’ve been asked to do something worthwhile. They feel like the participation has been worth the time and effort they invested.
  • The officials and staff feel like they have gained useful information. They have a clear picture of what the community values, where its priorities, lie, what it should focus on.
  • Officials, staff and participants feel like they have been part of a positive experience. They’ve built relationships with people, they’ve been able to focus on positives instead of just complaining, and they feel like they might actually have some power to help make their community better.
  • Even just one Crowdsourcing Wisdom event seems to start to overcome all those decades of bad public meeting experience. Suddenly, attending a public meeting doesn’t look like such a bad idea.

Learn more about Crowdsourcing Wisdom at http://crowdfundingwisdombook.com

[i] Ron Ashkenas, “Change Management Needs to Change.” Harvard Business Review, April 16, 2013. https://hbr.org/2013/04/change-management-needs-to-cha.

[ii] Brad Power, “Improve Decision-Making with Help from the Crowd.” Harvard Business Review, April 8, 2014. https://hbr.org/2014/04/improve-decision-making-with-help-from-the-crowd/.