In my August 15, 2012 blog post (Not your Grandfather’s Town Meeting), I described several interesting technological tools that can create buzz, boost meeting participation, quickly gauge the views of those who attend, and even make the process more fun – the telephone town hall meeting (TTH) and polling devices. The TTH meeting approach excels at making it comfortable and convenient for significant numbers of residents across the community to “attend” your meeting without leaving home. The polling devices allow participants to register opinions, minus the stage fright, and allow all present to instantly see the combined results. These devices can feel empowering! While both are very useful for encouraging feedback on specific questions from the full spectrum of participants, they are not designed to facilitate a more free-flowing exchange of information and ideas. The following meeting approaches provide the opportunity for face-to-face exchanges that facilitate a better understanding of issues and other perspectives. They more actively involve citizens in shaping decisions that work for the community as a whole.
Focus Groups/Small Groups
Focus group meetings provide particularly fertile ground for understanding the unique needs and interests of various community or business groups. They can help you understand the unique perspectives of specific groups, benefit from the groups’ shared knowledge, and understand how various groups would be affected by programs or policies. Participants are selected based on what they share in common.
Other types of small group approaches may involve a broader cross-section of members. They generally facilitate expression of views, reasoned discussion, and a relatively in-depth vetting of issues. The back-and-forth exchange of information can lead to a creative combining of ideas, balancing of interests, and even entirely new solutions. Some communities break a larger audience into small “roundtable” discussion groups to focus on specific issues following a presentation to the entire audience. In either approach, the small group setting offers a more comfortable setting for speaking freely, listening, and interacting with others.
As an example, the city of Olympia successfully employed this technique when developing a solid waste plan. The city convened three focus groups consisting of representatives from three different industrial sectors with different types of waste streams (food, paper, and construction waste). The groups provided the city with invaluable insights about business waste generation and recycling practices, challenges, and possible strategies for reducing waste. Seattle garnered awards and kudos for its planning outreach program that included use of bilingual liaisons to host and facilitate a series of meetings in its ethnically diverse and historically underrepresented neighborhoods. The city successfully engaged over 6,000 residents in updating neighborhood plans.
The meeting-in-a-box approach is not new in Washington, but it is still a great idea. Your city or county provides a take-home kit for community groups or neighborhood associations willing to host a small gathering where participants learn about, discuss, and express opinions on issues, such as comprehensive plan alternatives. The “kit” contains everything a host needs to hold a group discussion, including instruction sheets, meeting invitations, discussion questions, and feedback questionnaires to be returned to the city or county. It allows you to hear from groups throughout the community at minimal cost. It may offer the ultimate level of comfort and convenience, especially when conducted in someone’s living room, and it can be high on the fun scale. Spokane, an early pioneer of meeting-in-a-box events, created an award-winning self-guided growth management plan workshop. More recently, Olympia recruited volunteers to host small group meetings and provided “home kits” as a part of the Imagine Olympia visioning process. The 2012 Lafayette (LA) Comprehensive Plan Meeting-in-a-Box webpage has examples of host instructions, sample invitation, agenda, and discussion questions.
Charrettes bring citizen and stakeholder groups together with team design professionals in intense, creative work sessions over a short time period. They can kick start a community’s planning process and lay the foundation for its ultimate plan or project design. Ideally, charrettes provide a climate that stimulates an exchange of ideas, information, and opinions, which serve to educate participants about the needs of other groups, and the pros and cons of many options. A charrette often includes a series of meetings with different interest groups similar to focus groups. The process promotes consensus-building toward a common vision, and can generate considerable excitement in the community. The process harnesses the talents of design professionals to help participants visualize alternatives and to recommend design solutions. One great example is Port Angeles’ downtown and the gateway corridor charrette assisted by the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Note that 2013 application packets are now available for the AIA Sustainable Design Assessment Team program that assisted Port Angeles. The first of two upcoming deadlines is October 12, 2012.
These are a few of the many meeting approaches available to supplement those more intimidating required public hearings, and more effectively involve citizens. The type of meeting format you choose depends on your specific situation and objectives. For information and examples of these and other meeting techniques, see MRSC’s Public Meeting Formats that Facilitate Public Participation section of our Communication and Citizen Participation Techniques webpage.