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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