Formal public hearings have their place – They are often required, after all, and they assure the basic, minimum rights of interested citizens to know what’s going on and to make their views known. They’ve been around for some time, and they likely will continue to be a part of the public involvement landscape. But I think it would be a rare event to hear someone say they relish the thought of a public hearing. City hall and courthouse settings can be intimidating, and sometimes the time and place are just plain inconvenient. Hearings can sometimes be dominated by the more vocal among us – voices of many affected community groups are too often missing. The format of hearings often leaves little, if any, room for reasonable discussion, give or take, or response to other comments – so in my opinion, at least for the big questions, a public hearing’s place is somewhere down the line, after a thoughtful public involvement process is well underway. (Note that any meeting, including public hearings, can be made more effective – see the MRSC webpage on Effective Meetings.)
Washington communities have been experimenting with a variety of newfangled meeting formats in response to the all-too-apparent citizen interest in having a greater say. Also, Washington Growth Management Act (GMA) requirements for “early and continuous participation” probably helped jumpstart a quest for more inclusive, convenient, comfortable, and effective ways to communicate with residents and involve them early in the decisions that affect their lives.
Stripped of the intimidating formalities of the public hearing, public meetings offer the opportunity for a valuable exchange of information between the city or county and community residents. Face-to-face exchanges can facilitate a deeper understanding about the needs of various interest groups, provide instant feedback about proposals, and allow the kind of back-and-forth dialog that can lead to creative new alternatives that just might better balance diverse interests.
The type of meeting that is most effective varies with the objective of the meeting. Some shine at getting information to large numbers of affected people, others are better at gauging preferences, and some allow you to partner with the public in developing alternatives and shaping decisions. Here are several interesting technological tools that can boost your meeting participation, create buzz, quickly gauge the views of those who attend, and even make the process more fun.
Telephone Town Hall
Rather new on the local government scene, the telephone town hall (TTH) technology allows a city or county to efficiently call tens of thousands of residents to invite them to participate in a call-in meeting. Although the TTH retains a degree of formal meeting structure, the TTH technology can connect people from all corners of the community to your meeting at the same time, and no one need leave home! So, it’s a particularly useful way to hear from a cross section of the community on issues that affect people throughout the community. It makes it easier to hear from those who don’t always speak up, since all have equal opportunity to speak without the glare of a spotlight. As noted in a USA Today article, “it’s a convenient way to reach thousands of people instead of the dozens who might show up at a municipal building.” Although there won’t be time for everyone to speak and although there isn’t much opportunity for give and take, all who call in may leave a comment, and you may also reply later. It’s also common to intersperse some polling questions to get a response from all listeners on some important questions.
Spokane recently gave TTH a try. The city invited residents to voice their opinions about features of the proposed 2013 budget, with impressive results – some 3,800 residents took Spokane up on the offer (see Spokane’s invitation). “People were very positive about it,” Marlene Feist, Spokane’s Communications Director, noted. They appreciated that the city reached out to them “in a proactively way” and “in a way that was convenient to them.” She advised getting word out about a TTH meeting in advance so that people realize it’s not just another telemarketing call. The 2012 Longmont, CO TTH attracted 2,000-plus residents to its TTH meeting and offered an alternative Spanish-speaking focus group. The Fort Lauderdale, FL TTH, a series of three city-wide visioning meetings (and one to come), was a whopping success, attracting about 9,000 at each TTH! See podcasts of presentations at Fort Lauderdale’s meetings.
Some of you may have already tried out a cool new tool. Hand-held polling devices or “pulse pads” allow citizens to register their opinions and see the instantly tabulated responses of all participants – all minus any occasion for stage fright! It is equally easy for any participant to register an opinion. As the city of Duvall noted, in an AWC brief, “It seemed to defuse the very vocal minority in the audience.” Echoing this sentiment, Liisa Fagerlund, a Sequim Park & Recreation Board member, commented, “It was a good way to get information without causing an argument.” The polling device can feel empowering and add an element of fun. It is a better tool for gauging reaction to various alternatives or choices, than for suggesting changes or new ideas. Even so, it can provide useful feedback on specific questions and can be combined with other exercises. Sequim recently used “pulse pad” polling for its visioning open house in combination with other interactive activities including futures mapping, a take-home “word cloud” questionnaire, and an activity focused on transportation priorities. Similarly, Olympia used pulse pad technology last year for a community budget meeting.
Technology tools, such as the telephone town hall and the polling devices, can help you to reach and hear from a greater number of citizens more effectively. In my next blog, I will share some of my favorite meeting approaches that involve citizens in a more in-depth vetting of issues, and a back-and-forth exchange of information that can lead to better understanding and balancing of interests, and even creative new solutions. For more information about these and other meeting ideas, see the MRSC webpage on Variations on the Public Meeting Theme.