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Random Selection: Starting the public meeting – what to look for and how to manage it

This is an excerpt from Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually do your community good (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come. If you like this, chances are you’ll find the whole thing useful.  Learn more about the book and how to get your own copy.

Before we start

We start with the public having come into the space, gotten the materials they needed at the Welcome Table, and taken a seat, either in the large-group seating area or at the small group tables, depending on how you’re set up.  At this point, they probably don’t know what they’re in for, but hopefully they have some sense that something different is in the works.  Some might start looking through the orientation handout you gave them, but most will talk to the people they came in with.

This is a good time to watch the participants and observe the sociology at work.  How do people seem to be sorting themselves?  Do participants seem to be sticking together by age, race, family group?  Are there any people or groups that look uneasy, angry, agitated?  Are there any who seem out of place or not welcomed by others?

Your goal at this point is not to intervene.  You’re doing what a good teacher does — trying to understand the context of the people you are going to be working with so that you can adjust your actions to best meet the needs of everyone in the room.

Don’t start late, since that’s an insult to the people who got there on time, but be reasonable.  If you know there are still people coming in from the parking lot or getting through the Welcome Station (a particular bottleneck if your legal staff insists that you have to get EverySinglePieceofInformationfromEveryone), then just take the mic at the time you were supposed to start and tell the people who are ready to go that there’s a few people on your way in, we’re going to hold on just a couple of minutes before we get started.

That’s not just a nicety, that’s also another little step in the process of communicating that you respect them and that you value their time and efforts.  But don’t start more than five minutes late, or you will blow that good will and raise doubts that anything you tell them can be trusted.

Welcome and Overview

You’re going to start with a welcome and an overview of the plan of action, just like you would at a conventional public meeting.  But you may wish to consider changing this up a little bit, both to focus the participants’ attention and to reinforce the kind of atmosphere you’re trying to create.  What exactly you do to tweak these expectations will depend on your specific context, but here are some possible ideas:

  • Instead of having the welcome delivered by an elected official or a department head, in some cases that welcome might be more meaningful coming from someone else. That could be a representative of the community where the meeting is being held, someone who personally cares about the outcomes (like a resident of the neighborhood), or someone else who is outside of the norm.

Make sure that the person who will do this job understands the need to encourage discussion and isn’t going to use the introduction to advance a particular opinion on the issues to be discussed.

  • The plan of action for the session should be not only spoken, but written into the handout and projected on a screen. You can, however, also ask the participants if anyone wants to recommend any edits to the proposed process.  That can be an important way to give ownership of the process to the participants, and again it demonstrates both not-business-as-usual and a desire for collaboration.  But, this isn’t a good idea in every situation.

If the group is very large, if tensions are strong or emotions are high, or if there are potentially contingents among the participants who might be looking for an opportunity to take over the meeting, then opening the agenda to editing could massively backfire.  In these cases, it’s better to go over the agenda with representatives of groups that might have particular needs beforehand.

You may also want to avoid this strategy if you are dealing with people who may have little experience with group discussions of that type, because that discussion could readily get bogged down in minutiae — and that can mean that you lose the attention and participation of people who are hard-pressed for time.  One way to manage that issue is to allocated a very short amount of time — less than five minutes — for discussion of the agenda, and only make changes for which there is clear consensus.  If it’s a matter of process, most people will be willing to accept someone else’s recommended changes, as long as they don’t appear to impact the fairness of the process.

In all cases, though, keep that introductory stuff quick.  Ideally, less than five minutes.

Orient to Information

The next thing on the agenda should also be done as quickly as you can.  Since it’s unlikely that the participants have studied your exhaustive documents online before they came, and since it’s also unlikely that they’ve done much more than glance at the packet you gave them at the Welcome Station, you need to orient them to the information in their hands.

Note that I said orient, not lecture.  Very few grown people want to have someone read out loud to them, especially when they’re extracting time from their busy lives to come to your meeting.

Your inclination will probably be to go through the whole thing, sharing all the interesting facts and minutiae that you have found out on the journey to this meeting.  Don’t do it.  As we discussed in the previous chapter, the point of this exercise isn’t to teach them everything that you know.  The point of this exercise is to give them enough information to orient them to the issues, to help them leverage their knowledge to be joined with yours, to know enough to ask the right questions.  Not all of it.

Focus your presentation on showing them what’s in their handout, and secondarily on why you are drawing this particular information to their attention.  It’s completely OK for you to speak to what you have learned and understand, but do it as objectively as possible – if a certain trend is a concern, explain why it’s a concern in very pragmatic terms.

Don’t assume that people know what you mean by sprawl, or where the city’s tax revenues come from, or that sewer pipes cost a lot of money.  When you talk about a potential impact, frame it in terms of quantifiable impacts — money that will have to be spent from a tight budget, loss of future revenue, etc.

Whenever possible, show them the math. Framing the information in terms of practical, quantifiable impacts defuses some of the emotion that people bring to community issues and forces them to use their rational mind.

Finally, make sure that they know that you are available to help them, answer more questions, etc. while they are working in their small groups.  Answering questions that arose from your presentation to people while they are in their small groups may be more effective – not only will it allow people to target their questions more specifically to the issues that they are trying to address in their small group work, but it lessens the risk of losing participants’ attention waiting through a Q&A session full of comments that they are not finding of interest.  And if you have high tensions in the group, an open Q&A may open the door to people who are just looking for a soapbox.

However, you also don’t want to risk a perception of not being transparent or not caring what people have to say.  If this is the case, you might want to put a period for whole group questions and answers in the agenda.  Keep that time frame short, and promise to answer any additional questions during the small group work.  And emphasize the fact that you’ve got something much more interesting and important for them to work on, and you want to make sure there’s plenty of time for that.

Sometimes we get uneasy about cutting off questions, and again, it depends a lot of the context.  But typically, you are on strong ground for keeping to a time frame if you keep coming back to the needs of the larger audience, not just the people who want to talk.  People who want to dominate the microphone might feel that their words are the Most Important Of All, but the rest of the crowd will be grateful – and much more likely to invest in the work – if you make clear that you value their time and their ideas, even if they don’t want to go to the mic.  And even if you’re the one who wants to be the center of the attention, you know what fair play looks like, and you know that you will look like a dork if you don’t.

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