How to improve my organization’s Public Meetings or Public Hearings: Part 1 –Forms of Public Participation –Pros/Con

(taken from my full day workshop on Effective Public Meetings)

The first step for improving your meetings and making them effective is to achieve a clear understanding of 2 things; what is the meeting purpose and what are the desired outcomes for your event. From there the type of meeting and the public participation process can be determined.   

To begin, let’s consider this question, “What is public participation?” Public participation is a process, not a single event, that:

  • engages the public in decision making and/or,  
  • informs or educates the public and obtains input and/or 
  • gives full consideration to public input. 

In the environmental arena, public participation is critical to: 

  • gain additional facts from locals or experts, 
  • understand perceptions or different perspectives, 
  • tap a variety of stakeholders for views or concerns, 
  • allow agencies, companies or organizations to: 
    • balance views and concerns and 
    • reflect back decisions so the public understands their concerns were considered and taken into account.

There are typically 4 forms of public participation commonly used for environmentally related issues which are: 

  1. Listening Session 
  2. Open House 
  3. Public Meeting 
  4. Public Hearing 

You may see additional forms such as Roundtables or Forums so realize that much of what is discussed for Listening Sessions and even Public Meetings can be applied to those additional forms as well. 

The table below provides a brief outline of these 4 forms of public participation; their differences, functions and limitations:

Form Function Pros Cons
Listening SessionFacilitated discussion on specific questions with the general public or a stakeholder focus group.Input is from those affected or those most interested.Time intensive, may not get input on the questions, creates a level of expectation.
Open HouseAttendees tour stations of info/attendant, maps, plans at their own pace. Can be used prior to a public meeting or hearing to increase understanding or to address questions.1-on-1 relaxed communication; may enhance credibility & rapport building.Facility & stations must fit potential crowd, more staff intensive for stations, people do not hear differing views.
Public MeetingProvide info on project and/or review process, foster dialogue on issues raised in Q&A format, help public develop or expand their understanding and allow the convener to hear and understand public perception, questions and comments.Allows sharing, discussion, learning & listening. Public has a voice for issues or ideas. Allows public direct interaction with convener. Convener allowed to get its message out accurately.Good facilitation skills needed, the angriest voice may dominate, audience may play to media, high emotions may escalate and prevent many of the more reserved public from asking questions or commenting.
Public HearingUsually a regulatory requirement so it is a very formally structured proceeding. Public gives oral testimony and a stenographer provides an official record.Public speaks without rebuttal. Written record for review. Audience & convener hear differing views.1-sided communication – no Q&A may frustrate some who came to learn or to have a question answered. Feeling of “us versus them” may occur.

In some instances, a combination of the 4 forms may be used to increase the benefits and counteract the drawbacks. For example, an Open House or a Public Meeting may be held prior to the Public Hearing. This allows for sharing of information and more 1-on-1 interaction to discuss issues, concerns or recommendations before the formal proceeding of recording testimony. As mentioned at the beginning, public participation is a process, not a single event.  

Part 2 of How to improve my organization’s Public Meetings or Public Hearings will delve into the Planning Stage with emphasis on the “Do’s and Don’ts”. 

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Rita Coleman Graham

Effective communication, sound relationships, and teamwork create the framework for success. Equipped with experience in providing facilitation, training and alternative dispute resolution, I am eager to help you define and achieve your goals.

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