Join the Managing the Axe-Grinders Deep Dive Workshop at National APA conference!

This post is especially relevant to two groups of you readers:

  1. People who will be at the American Planning Association Conference in Phoenix this week, and
  2. People who don’t like ugly and unproductive public meetings.

I realize that there’s probably more of you in that second category than the first. Read on for more!

I have the wonderful opportunity to present a Deep Dive workshop on Tuesday morning, April 5, called

Manage the Ax-Grinders: Do Better Public Participation

 This is an expanded version of a training that I’ve done a few times before that draws from my years of experience running high-tension public meetings.  It’s based on a chapter in my 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).book cover
Here’s what we’ll be doing:

This Deep Dive will cover two related topics: how to manage public meetings to defuse confrontation and enable fair participation, and how to re-organize the public participation process, when feasible, to avoid problems and create a better experience in the first place.

Both sections of the workshop will use a combination of discussion, role-playing, and analysis to highlight how different meeting management strategies change the behavior and experience of participants.  

We’ll laugh, we’ll cry, depending on how good the role-players are, we might throw things…

OK, probably not that, but I guarantee you’ll laugh and have fun while you’re learning.  Unless you’re looking to be bored. In that case, you shouldn’t come.

The session will be at 9:30 and last until about noon.  Check the conference agenda for location.

If you’re not going to be there, but you think this might be useful for your organization, staff, members, or others, let me know.  It’s a lot of fun, and you will never dread a public meeting quite so much ever again!

To what end “Vision?”

Continuing yesterday’s commentary:

One of the complaints that design-oriented planners and urban designers sometimes raise is that planners are too process and legal-administration focused.  I documented a particularly strong case of that in this essay reflecting on the 2014 Congress for the New Urbanism, when the awards committee decided not to give an award in one category because none of the submissions were “visionary enough” (they also gave an award to a student “plan” that wiped out a large section of the Chicago Loop, which I suppose tells you the kind of “visionary” they were looking for…)

My concern is not that we are teaching planners (and ourselves) not to be visionaries — often we don’t live up to that, but the number of grand unbuilt designs that show up on old plan document shelves and archives all over the country would seem to indicate that the ability to create grand visions is not particularly lacking.  If we were truly spending too much time designing pablum, those shelves and files would be a lot thinner. 

My big concern is that we create visions based on the way we think people *should* behave, *should* react, *should* live.  And not enough based on understanding what people actually want, seek, prioritize, do.

If we’re honest, we have to admit that sometimes we don’t want to know what the public thinks or how the economic part of the situation works. The fact that the numbers don’t work or that people might have different ideas threatens makes it messy, uncomfortable.  Our visions might be opposed. And, to be very frank, we too often tell ourselves that the public or the money people don’t know  anything constructive to contribute — probably because we’ve had such lousy experience with the kinds of public meetings that, by their fundamental design, force people into a confrontational environment. 

My biggest concern these days isn’t that planners are going to be processors. My biggest concern is that the planning profession is going to repeat the damages of the 50s and 60s — instigating big projects on the basis of some idealized view of the world, while over-simplifying or ignoring what the people who live and work in a community know and understand. 

If I were to advise urban design professors, I would recommend that they spend some time analyzing the urban renewal projects of that era — not just the design and how it works or does not work, but also the process that led to that design. I wrote in detail about what I learned from just one such situation here.

Once you’ve done that, I don’t think you can approach physical planning with the same hubris. The eeriness of the similarities will get to you.

Design won’t fix it alone

Reprinted from the Wise Economy Workshop:
I like designers — urban designers, architects, landscape architect, even database and user experience designers.  I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and being befriended by and working with a whole lot of people who have that eye, that sense, that skill for making things look good and function.  As a very non-design-skilled person, I like to watch designers work: it’s a fascinating, mysterious thing to me, to create an image or a model of something out of thin air.  I can write all day, but I cannot do that.
But because I have spent so much of my life working with and watching design solutions unfold, I have reached a point where I can’t avoid saying this any longer:
Ladies and gentlemen, please stop thinking that you’re creating the Magic Solution to complex problems.  I’m especially looking at you, architects and urban designers and impassioned urbanist types.  Good design can help solve problems, but it does not do it alone.  And when you believe that — and worse yet, mislead the public into thinking your design solution will Fix That For Them– then you make it all the harder for all of us to actually solve the deeper issues: the ones that we cannot simply build our way out of.
Some of the designers that I have most admired are the people who work for a handful of downtown revitalization organizations across the country.  They get no CNU awards, they often don’t have letters after their names, and very few of them write books stuffed with glossy photos.
A lot of their job consists of drawing or Photoshopping a historically-correct facade onto an old building that has been altered – usually in ways that look awful, and are now decreasing the building’s value and that of those around them.  Their renderings are lovely, but they’re not High Art, or even particularly innovative.  Since they’re trying to return the building to something near its original character, there’s not a lot of room for out-of-the-box thinking.  Typically, their renderings are given to the owner of the building as a means of encouraging him or her to improve their property.
Here’s the important part: these designers don’t just draw something, dump it on the community or property owner, and expect Magic To Happen. The rendering is a door-opener for the conversation, the exploration of new possibilities, the collaboration. When this process works, it’s because the property owner comes to realize that there are options available to them beyond what they previously knew.  The drawing helps, but the drawing does not make that happen.

What we often fail to do in urban design and planning in involve the people who should and need to be engaged in a collaborative search for the best solutions.  We hold meetings, even charrettes, but too often, we simply give them a presentation, let them ask questions, or even ask them what they want, like we would ask a kid what they want for their birthday.
We do that because we assume that they don’t want to do any more, or that they can’t contribute at any higher level than we would ask of a first grader.  And both of those assumptions are wrong.
Here is my increasingly big concern: that we blame the failure of planning or transportation improvements on short-sighted local government executives, or greedy developers, or NIMBYs.  We do that without ever turning the thought process around, and exploring how changing the way we engage people might change the rest of the equation.
My personal hypothesis: we don’t do that, and as a result we default to If You Build It They Will Come, because we don’t know how to design or manage a constructive collaborative process, rather than a lecture, a hearing, or a “what do you want for your birthday?” initiative.
And we don’t do that because no one ever taught us to.
We need to start learning from the extension agents, the dialogue and deliberation experts, even good school teachers, to fundamentally rework the role of community members in planning and governance. Planning and architecture and landscape architects – anyone who designs for civic or public use – should be learning how to do constructive public engagement activities, crowdsourced collaboration, more transparent work, how to pull the public into the process as their own type of subject matter experts on their own communities, similar to the way that we include economists or zoning specialists or other related professionals.
And this needs to be a central part, not only of undergraduate and graduate training, but continuing education as well.  We require professionals to learn law and ethics; should we not also require them to know how to work with the public constructively?
That’s not some Polyanna sentiment, based on an idealized belief that everyone is important.  It’s a very practical sentiment, based on experience:
When I have built collaboration with the community into the planning and design projects that I myself have managed over the years, tensions have dissipated and misunderstandings had faded, and plans that no one ever thought would get approved have had unanimous adoptions.
That’s happened more times than I can count.
And it’s not that the plans themselves were better, or the designs more innvative, or the pictures prettier, than the ones on the project that fell apart in a cloud of fear and anger.
It’s been because the community helped build the plan, which means that they owned and championed it..  And because they were embedded, we found solutions to problems that a team of blue ribbon outsiders would have missed. And we found those before the draft plan was printed.
Those plans succeeded because we recognized that the people of the community are experts on their own community, and we because we knew that we needed to employ their expertise, just as we employed our own.
So my challenge to my design friends is this, borrowing a bit from the inestimable LaurenEllen McCann:
Design with, not for. 
When you do that, you’ll get closer to designing real solutions.

Is the problem with public engagement…boredom?

 Here’s a recent comment from a colleague on a LinkedIn group:

Is “Boring!” the reason so many community engagement projects fail?

I’ve noticed that, when it comes to inviting a community to engage in plan-making, either almost everyone wants to come (because they are outraged about the plan) or almost no one wants to come – because sitting around in a council hall is the LAST thing they want to do with their precious evenings.

So…what are some engagement ideas that people might really break their schedules for? Or is “1 minute engagement”, via the internet, the answer?

I think we throw ourselves a red herring when we assume that we have to design and market public engagement as “fun” or “easy” or “quick” to get people to participate. The people we want to show up are not lacking for entertaiment options – most of us today carry constant access to games, music, things to read and watch and more on little screens in our pockets.  True, “fun” beats “miserable” or “painful,” and “easy” beats “a great way to  waste your evening,” but the experience we can offer hardly equals Game of Thrones or Call of Duty or cat videos.

I suspect that in most cases the competition we face is too pervasive to be solved by offering fun, let alone by promising a relatively low level of pain.  The people we are trying to engage face a ton of demands on their attention, both fun and not-fun, and they have too often concluded that the return on investment for their participation is not good enough. If you don’t legitimately believe that your participation will make a real difference in making a place you care about better (and it only takes a couple of lousy experiences to teach that lesson), then it’s not going to be worth whatever time and attention you’re asked to expend. If the public engagement activity is “fun,” you might get a second look and maybe a little dabbling just for sake of novelty, but novelty wears off far too fast to make a real difference

Instead of trying to make it “fun” or “easy,” we need to focus on making whatever involvement we are asking for, big or small, meaningful — real, constructive, concrete, producing something that they can see and understand will directly feed into future decision-making that will make their community better.

We need to do much more than amuse them or minimally-distract them: we need to give them a level of ownership, give them a meaningful opportunity to be part of the solution. When you do that, and you clearly communicate that this is the intent and follow up on overturning their negative expectations, then it’s amazing how much time and effort people you thought just didn’t care will actually invest. And how truly helpful, and insightful, and bettering, the particpation you get can be.
Additionally, there’s certainly no reason why “public engagement” should be limited to sitting around in a council chambers.  Teachers who do nothing but lecture have lousy student outcomes, no matter what the grade level — the ones that use projects and small group peer learning and role playing and the whole range of methods available are the ones that get better quality results.
We have got to learn to engage with — to leverage, really —  the whole range of ways that people learn and think and discover, so that not only do we get happier and more satisfied participants, but we get better quality information that makes communities and their decisions better.

Selection: Small Group Self-Organization

This selection comes from the second part of Crowdsourcing Wisdom, which walks step-by-step through a process for doing constructive, community-informing public engagement.  If this looks interesting, you will probably like the book as well.  Find out how to pick up your copy right here.

After the orientation, it’s time for the folks in the room to get their hands on the work.  Point them to the tables that match the numbers in their hands, and give them a few minutes to get situated.  You might have a few cases at this point of people who want to change their table assignments because of reasons like we discussed in the previous chapter.  It’s generally best to accommodate those with as little fuss as possible, as long as your previous observation of the participants doesn’t make you think that someone might be trying to game the system.  If you do think that’s going on, then you should not let them change — if you point out that everyone else has gone to the tables where they were assigned, and you make clear that the objective is to have as many different perspectives at each table as possible, even the most stubborn will probably have a hard time arguing against that.  But again, your goal is to reasonably protect the integrity of the process, not to be a hard-nose.  Be nice, be compassionate and be transparent.  It’s hard to argue against that.

Once the tables are situated, give out the instructions.  You should have one one-page set of instructions for each participant.  You can place them at the table seats before the session starts, or you can pass them out after people get situated, if you have enough passers and a small enough group of participants to allow that to happen smoothly and unobtrusively.  We’ll talk about writing the instructions in the next chapter.  When everyone has their instructions, you should read through them.  I know I said before that adults don’t generally like to be read to, but your instructions will be short and people remember what they read and hear at the same time better than if they read or hear it alone.  If you have participants who cannot read or cannot read English, make sure that an interpreter or another assistant is available to help.

The instructions should have two parts:

1. Step-by-step instructions for the activity (more on that in a minute).

2. A set of simple Small Group Ground Rules.  The goal here isn’t to be bossy, but it is to make sure that people understand what they’re doing and how they’re going to do it.  It also gives small group participants a tool to help hold their co-participants to account.  We’ll talk more about the Ground Rules in the next chapter, but in the meantime, realize that this is the point where you’re going to introduce them.  As we discussed with the Agenda above, you can also invite the participants to recommend additions to the Ground Rules if you feel that doing so would help the participants have ownership of it (and doesn’t risk throwing the whole event into turmoil.

Here’s an important point: the instructions should indicate that each step will have a time limit.  This is crucial for several reasons.  First, it makes clear to the participants that the value of their time is understood — and it gives them assurance that they will get out of here at a reasonable time.  Second, it forces participants to concentrate on completing the work at hand.  If you don’t have known time limits, it’s easy to wander off into debating side points, discussing shared interests, telling stories, etc.  All of which can be fine in and of themselves, and can be certainly important as a part of discussion, but if they’re uncontrolled they can derail a group from reaching its objectives before the participants have to go home. The time schedule also gives participants the power to rein in a particularly long-winded storyteller without having to look mean. Finally, a decent amount of psychological study indicates that humans actually do a better job of making decisions when we have to do so before a deadline.  It appears that we all need a little something to keep us on track. 

In general, it’s best to indicate an amount of time that will be allotted for each activity, other than a specific time on the clock.  Chances are you will be off of a military schedule by this point, anyways, so clock times would be wrong.  Also, you want to maintain a little flexibility to give a step in the process a little more time if people seem to need it, or to move on more quickly than planned if it looks like everyone did it a little faster than expected.  Most people aren’t going to be watching a stopwatch (other than you), so they probably won’t notice that you stretched it a little. And they’ll probably appreciate the flexibility.

In many cases, you may find it helpful to have two additional steps: asking the group to select a recorder and a reporter.  Experienced small group participants may not need to be told this step or may be able to sort it out on the fly, but if your participants are new to this experience, it will probably be helpful to have them do this before they get busy.  The Recorder will write down the group’s responses, while the Reporter will lead the group in presenting its work to the rest of the participants. 

In general, even groups of strangers should be able to do this by consensus — usually someone who is comfortable with writing or speaking will volunteer.  But there are some power dynamic issues with these roles that you should be thinking about.  Being the Recorder gives you a certain amount of extra influence over the results, since you end up shaping how the results get presented, but the act of trying to interpret what someone else said into writing can sometimes prevent a person from participating as much in the conversation.  And a lot of times, women end up volunteering for the Reporter role — I don’t know whether that’s a gender role thing or because they may assume that they have better handwriting than the men or what.  But I see that happen a lot.  If the only woman at a table ends up as the Recorder, you may wish to gently intervene and see if you can get someone else to take that role.  A couple of strategies that I have used successfully in the past: making a joke about Mary Tyler Moore (look it up — it will make sense to older people); needling someone at the table that I know is an architect or designer and as a result probably has good handwriting into taking the job.  This requires a deft touch, the ability to keep it light and some sense of how far you can tweak this specific set of participants, which you may not have if these people are completely new to you.  If you do not feel that you can shift this power dynamic successfully, then keep an eye on this group during the work session.  You might need to ask specific questions of Ms. Recorder to get her engaged in the process — or she might turn out be able to hold her own just fine.  If it seems like she can’t fully participate while also serving as Recorder, you can also send an assistant over to serve as her secretary.  Just be kind and transparent and say that you want to make sure that she can fully participate and not miss out on participating because of having to do the writing part.  Make sure that the assistant knows to take her cues from the Recorder.

In many situations, I see a disproportionate number of men (especially older men) volunteering to be the Reporter.  While you might argue that this job has less power than the Recorder who’s creating the written record, some people might use this position to skew the presentation of the group’s work to their own interests.  We’ll talk about how to manage that shortly.  If you think that you might have some dominating types who will volunteer to be the Reporter, you can also just ask the groups to select a Recorder at this point and wait to ask them to select a reporter until closer to the end.  By that time, the participants may have figured out if one of them is likely to be more interested in blowing his own horn than in representing the work of the group. 

After you’re done with instructions, let them get to work! 


What you learn from a first grader about public engagement

This is a selection from the book, Crowdsourcing Wisdom: A Guide to Doing Public Engagement that Actually Makes Your Community Better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come.  Last week I posted a selection from the first chapter, which highlighted all the ways that our conventional public engagement methods often intimidate, frighten and basically push most people away from participating.  

This section comes from Chapter 3, and it follows a description of a first grade classroom that drove home to me how important structure, predictability and being set up to succeed are for people large and small.  This section outlines some of what we can learn about how people want to participate.

You can read more selections and get the book for print, Kindle, Ebook or PDF at   Please note that the PDF link isn’t set up to work outside of the US yet – I discovered that recently and am working on fixing it.  In the meantime, if you want a PDF copy and you’re someplace other than the US, please send me a note at  


We’re going to unpack what we might learn about how to do effective public engagement from how good teachers work in future chapters, but for a moment, think about what the first graders learned from this classroom, beyond the reading and writing and math and all:

  • I know what I need to do to be successful.
  • I know what’s going to happen next.
  • I know how to do the work that’s in front of me
  • I know that this activity (which I might or might not like) isn’t going to last forever
  • I know that I’ll get to do something different soon
  • I know that I can do it right.

First graders have a whole lot more faith in their teachers than most adults have in their local government.  And what we ask of adults can (and should) be a whole lot more challenging than what we ask of first graders.

But that first grade classroom shows us a few fundamental things about what people, big or small, want out of group experiences – especially when they take the time to participate in a group activity that is supposed to result in something beneficial:

  • Ground rules and fairness
  • A predictable pattern of events
  • The ability to put their skills and their brains to good use,
  • A situation that is set up to enable them to succeed.

In my talks, I have sometimes referred to what Mrs. Brenner did as channeling  — guiding a powerful force so that it flows in the direction where it can make the most positive impact.  Think about a river: if it bursts its banks, the river water flow uncontrolled into places where it wasn’t supposed to be – fields, cities, houses.  The flowing water has power, but that power is wasted, in a sense.  If the river flows within its channel, it can drive a water wheel or a turbine, grind grain, make clean power.

My premise to you: 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.

Large companies put massive amounts of e


Kids participating in a focus group as part of a plan for their neighborhood in Huntsville, Alabama in the early 2000s. Yes, they’re not first graders.

ffort into broadening their employee base to include the widest range of people possible and then creating team environments to work on solving complex challenges.  They have learned that working groups of people who come from different backgrounds, different perspectives, can find more original solutions to complex problems through the interplay of their perspectives, provided that they are doing so within a structure that gives them that power.

If they’re finding it necessary to use diverse team problem-solving to deal with issues like getting shampoo into a bottle, how much more do we desperately need real, deep, broad participation to deal with the massive complexities that make up a community?

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.

But if first graders can do that, chances are the adults in your community can do it as well.  We just need to channel them into success.

Random Selection: What We’re Really Telling People When We Do Public Participation

This is a random selection from the Book Crowdsourcing Wisdom: A guide to doing public participation that actually does good (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).  If you like this, you’ll like the book – learn how to get your copy in the format you want here.


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 we’ve given them a pretty clear message that we don’t want them to have a meaningful role in the process.

It’s easy to blame that message on politics and the Big Media – dirty campaign ads, PACs, etc.  National and state stuff. Not my fault.

But look at what we do to those people when they do try to participate in our own cities and villages and counties – the places where democratic involvement is most direct, where it should be easiest.

See through their eyes for a minute, and realize what our typical “public participation” or “public involvement” looks like from their perspective:

Meeting rooms that look and feel like courtroomsI must have done something wrong… did I do something wrong?  I don’t remember doing anything wrong.  But this place feels like I did something wrong.  Why are my palms sweaty?

A microphone in the middle of the room.   Dear God, I’m going to have to go up there and talk…Gulp… my stomach feels like it’s trying to strangle me.  Do I know enough?  Part of what that other guy said could be right in some cases…  I, uh… what do you mean, my three minutes is up?

Be there in person or You Don’t Count.  I know I should go, but I’d have to miss my continuing education class… who can I get to coach the kids’ soccer team that evening?  If I ask for that night off from my job, will my boss punish me later?  Who can I find to watch the kids?

An agenda that could go on for hoursCan I get there at 7:30, after my class, or do I have to be there right at 7?  How long is going to take to get to… oh, no one knows?  What am I going to do if they’re still talking about other things when I have to leave to get the babysitter home?  Dear God, these chairs are uncomfortable…

A confrontational, argument-focused environment   I have to be right. They have to be wrong.  I’m white hat, they’re black hat.  I can’t admit that they might have some good ideas.   I can’t propose a compromise…that would look weak… what do you mean, my three minutes are up?

And even when we’re not doing the standard government meeting, when we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re doing an “interactive” meeting we’re still sending that same message:

Welcome to the Open House!  Here are a whole lot of maps, and here’s what they’re going to do.  I’m no good at reading maps… where’s my house?  Maybe finding that will help me make sense of it.

But this map shows the “Preferred Alternative…” In that case, why did I bother to come? Does anything I have to say really matter to them?  

OK, the sign over here says “We want your feedback!!!”  So I guess I’ll give them some feedback.  Can I ask a question?  How would I ever know whether a question is worth answer – or whether I’m getting a legitimate answer? Are they doing this just to pretend to care?

How the hell are you supposed to write on this card with this little golf pencil anyways??


Vague, disconnected-from-reality questions, like “What do you think this spot on the map should be?”  Geez, I don’t know… what’s there now?  What is around it?  What do we need?  Am I really supposed to just pick something out of the air?  I’d like an ice cream shop, but is that really a good idea for that corner? 

Am I just supposed to say anything?  Are they just going to build whatever we say?


We make clear that whatever real opportunity to influence what we’re doing depends on you being at the meeting in person. OK, there’ no way I can make it to that meeting (thank God… only crazy people show up for those things).  They said I could send an email. 

But how do I know if anyone will ever read it or think about what I had to say?  Will they use that online survey thing to actually maybe change the plan?  Does anyone look at that stuff? 

Is anyone actually listening?

When we do try to open the doors of participation, we let a few people get crazy.  No way am I going to that public meeting.  The last time I went there was this guy who wouldn’t let anyone else talk.  He kept interrupting other people, he kept insisting that he was the only one who knew what was really going on, and the people running the meeting didn’t do anything to give anyone else a chance to talk. 

It was totally frustrating – a complete waste of my time.


None of this works.  None of it makes our plans and decisions better, makes our governance better, makes our communities better.

In fact, it has probably made a lot of things worse.

book cover

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.

Random Selection: The Root of the Problem

This is a selection from Chapter 2 of Crowdsourcing Wisdom.  If you like what you read, chances are you will like the book.  Learn more about the book and how to get it in print or for your Kindle, iBook or Nook here.

We know pretty definitively that people are not participating in local government decision-making, of any type, at anywhere near the levels that professionals and pundits would prefer.  Take a quick scan of two recent data points:

  • Voter turnout for non-presidential elections holds consistently at under 60% of total people eligible,[i] and multiple local elections nationally have experienced voter turnouts of 20% or less.
  • In a survey done by the National Research Center for Governing magazine, 76% of respondents said that they had attended no public meetings in the past year.[ii]

How much public participation in local government is enough?  There’s no set answer, no easy target or simple rubric.  But general consensus is, “enough” equals… a whole lot more than this.

And while there isn’t a definitive answer for why people aren’t participating, there’s a whole lot of evidence indicating that it’s not because they’re blissfully delighted by everything that their governments are doing:

  • Frustration with government at all levels has remained at high levels for more than a decade.[iii]
  • 66% of national voters currently believe that “the country is headed down the wrong track.”[iv]
  • A “survey of more than 1400 public officials and local community leaders in California reveals that both groups feel that public comment agendas are dominated by narrow interests and negative remarks.”[v]

So. Significant portions of our communities aren’t participating in even the most basic ways, and significant portions of our communities aren’t happy with how things, in general, are going.

What do we make of this?

You can find a thousand pundits, professors and assorted talking heads who will give you their learned advice on this topic.  And from having read and talked with a whole lot of them over the years, I’m going to posit to you a relatively unprovable hypothesis: If you polled all those august figures, I suspect you would find most of them asserting one of the following as the root cause of that disaffectedness:

  • The nasty tone of Politics, with its smear campaigns and sound bites, has turned people off on government.
  • People increasingly limit their interactions to people who agree with them, and avoid situations where they might have to interact with people who have different opinions than they do.
  • Public policy questions are more complex than ever, and as the media and politicians over-simply issues and focus on trying to yell louder than the other, people give up hope that they have any ability to understand or influence the situation.
  • People are apathetic. They just don’t care about the future of their community. They’d rather pay attention to celebrity gossip and cat videos.

Probably some truth in all of those.  Angry politics clearly energizes a party’s base and alienates most others, residential patterns and social media channels make it easier to only deal with people who look and think like you do, the Big Issues that face us are complex and we’re not getting much useful help understanding them, and…

Well, we do like those cat videos.  You have to admit that.

The problems with these assumptions are threefold: First, they’re blanket statements, which by their nature means they’re going to be wrong in a lot of specific instances.  Second, they assume that the poisons affecting political participation in national issues are the same as those impacting the local communities that you and I deal with directly every day.  As we’ll discuss, I don’t think that’s fully the case.

Third, and worst, they infer that the issues are Just Too Big.  Impossible for little you in your little burg to fix.  C’est la vie.

I’ve spent 25 years working with communities.  I’ve worked with the very large and the very tiny, wealthy and desperately poor, on issues that have ranged from routing cars to rebuilding an economy.  And this is what I think is probably keeping your residents from making it to your meetings and participating in your community:

  • They’re so overextended that making your meeting means they have to give up something else important. Our models of how we do democracy date from an era when the only people who participated in democratic debate were white men – typically, white men with a farm or other business that someone else could keep operating while they were at the meeting.

Think about it: for every man who showed up at a township/school board/ city council meeting in the 1800s, how many wives, women, children, workers, slaves, hired hands, you name it, were back home running the shop?  If you’re the white male in that situation, you can sit and debate ad nauseum.  No classes to get to, no emails to answer, no children to pick up from soccer, no jobs with evening shifts.  How many of us have that today?

That means that the opportunity cost – the value of what else we could be doing with our time – is a whole lot higher for our citizens than it was for the people who sat through our council meetings 120 years ago.  When we want them to come to a meeting, we forget all about the very high opportunity cost of their time.

  • They figure out quickly that we’re not really trying to talk to them. When our residents do come, they find themselves snared in a web of jargon and insider baseball.  Remember that comprehensive plan meeting?  What impact do different levels of residential density or Floor Area Ratios or Adjusted Daily Traffic (whatever that is) going to have on their everyday lives?  Why does it matter whether that square on the map has the residential or the industrial color on it, if we’re talking about 20 years from now?

 Why should I spend my time on this?  No one has really explained how it impacts me, or how my being here makes it better.  And I’m paying a high, high price in terms of my time to be here.  Looks pretty soon like I made the wrong decision.

  • We’re subtly (or not subtly) insulting them. We tell them that their feedback matters, and then we ignore what they tell us in the final report.  We invite them to an hour-long meeting, and then we leave 5 minutes for questions (then we tell them that if they didn’t get to talk they can give written feedback, but they have to do it on a note card with one of those golf pencils that never works).  Then we use all our responses to defend the Plan, or string out mea culpas  about how that issue isn’t part of our job, or say the words that we all know from childhood mean you’re being politely ignored: “That’s interesting…we’ll look into it….

We ask them to help us create a vision, to “dream,” to “Think Big!” but then we quietly sidestep the fact that those dreams that we invited talked about things that we don’t have the power, or the resources, or the political will, to do.

We kinda hope they just forget.

In a sense, we’re treating the adults of our communities the way we too often treat children – even worse, he way we treat “problem” children.  We assume that they have nothing better that they could be doing with their time, we assume that it’s their job to figure out how to fit into our world, and we assume that We Always Know Best.

Good teachers know that this approach usually doesn’t work.  Good teachers figure out how to meaningfully engage their students.  Good teachers don’t always do that perfectly, but they do it a lot better than other teachers.  And a lot better than we often do.  So perhaps, to get started, we should go back to school.

This is a selection from Chapter 2 of Crowdsourcing Wisdom.  If you like what you read, chances are you will like the book.  Learn more about the book and how to get it in print or for your Kindle, iBook or Nook here.

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!