Bang the Table’s Engagement Manager Meghan Ruble shares her top 30 ways to design a better public meeting
I spent the last week traveling through Eastern Canada with Bang the Table’s North American Engagement team and our Co-Founder and Impact Lead, Crispin Butteriss, PhD. We got together to share ideas, plan for the future, and hear a series of presentations on Crispin’s emerging ideas and concepts regarding the practice of digital deliberation and digital first community engagement. While the U.S. isn’t quite at the place where Canada is as it relates to digital engagement being the norm, I was (pleasantly) surprised to hear him say the following:
“I used to try to be polite about social media, but at this point I think it is unethical to put public policy discussions on Facebook, because all that they are doing is harvesting our data. There are plenty of platforms out there that allow you to facilitate those conversations while retaining control and ownership of your data.”
Unethical…whoa. But agreed! Take a minute to run a quick news search on social media and you’ll learn about how those platforms aren’t a safe space for children, dialogue or even information gathering. Forget knowing who you’re talking to. Crispin went on to note that digital and in-person community engagement should be seen as equals, as you’re able to foster inclusivity by bringing more people into the conversation digitally, giving you a greater opportunity to share, empathize, and connect with your community.
He described digital community engagement as “freeing,” a word I’ve latched on to for how it makes me feel; safe, welcome, included. It is freeing to have enough time to educate yourself about important issues before being asked to give feedback. It is freeing to have time to really think about what you want to contribute before contributing. It is freeing to not have to stand up in front of a room of strangers to say it. It is freeing to be part of the public process while in your sweatpants, waiting for Game of Thrones to start its final dang season already. Online community engagement is freeing.
So, if we can agree for a moment that digital community engagement might be as important as in-person community engagement, I have a treat for you: a quick list for you to skim over before you plan your next public meeting, designed to help you make it as inclusive as possible:
30 Quick Ways to Design a Better Public Meeting
- Post meeting information at least two weeks in advance so that your public has adequate time to plan for attendance.
- Host at least two meetings on the same topic, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, so that more people have a chance to attend.
- Schedule your evening meetings late enough (7 p.m. or after) so those with jobs that end at 5 p.m. have enough time to pick up their kids, commute, etc.
- Hold your meeting at a venue easily accessible by public transit.
- Buy transit passes to gift to participants who took public transportation. (And advertise this!)
- Ensure your venue is guide dog-friendly, meaning they’re allowed in the building and have space outside to go to the restroom.
- Advertise and offer interpreters.
- Offer free babysitting during the meeting. (Well worth a few hours pay for a part-time Recreation staffer!)
- Set your public up for success by providing an overview of the topic and talking points in your invitation or meeting notices, with a link to where they can go to learn more.
- Feed your participants, regardless of the time of day. Granola bars, pastries and coffee are great in the mornings/afternoons, and pizza is always a winner in the evenings.
- Leave the microphones and PA systems behind. If your room is large, microphones are only for use by staff, for welcome messages, etc.
- Create a welcoming atmosphere by greeting your attendees at the door and thank them for participating.
- Set up your room with several round tables so that participants can interact with each other – avoid the folding chair “assembly in front of a panel” set up at all costs.
- Seat city staff or representatives at each table and encourage the audience to ask them questions if anything seems unclear.
- Set the tone of the meeting by saying that everyone in the room has valuable input to share, and interrupting, bullying, or personal attacks amongst participants will not be tolerated.
- Present and stick to an agenda, so participants can know what to expect.
- For longer meetings, schedule a break so that people have the opportunity to use the restroom without missing any discussion.
- Find ways to get older kids involved in the meeting, with stations and questions tailored to them.
- Give a clear, synthesized outline of your project or issue before beginning the meeting – don’t assume that participants are arriving armed with the factual information they’ll need to meaningfully engage.
- Bring all printed materials in alternative formats (Spanish, Large Print, Braille)
- Describe all visual aids when presenting them – just because a chart or graph is clear to staff doesn’t mean that the public will interpret it in the same way.
- Design interactive stations (dot voting, ideation boards, community calendars) that don’t require deep subject-matter knowledge.
- Use inclusive, straightforward language both when presenting and when speaking to participants.
- Ask open-ended questions. (Not sure what this means? If your question can be answered yes or no, try again.)
- Set up interest based-stations so that people have the opportunity to engage on the topics most important to them.
- At each step in the meeting agenda, review what was said and agreed upon before moving forward – this helps to close your transparency loop and manage the spread of misinformation.
- Conclude the meeting by giving a quick overview of the other projects going on in the community to increase awareness and transparency.
- Send participants home with a link to an online engagement space so that they can share any feelings that might have bubbled up on the drive home or during the following week.
- Designate a staff contact for the meeting and post their name, email and direct line on the board for participants who may have questions or feedback post-meeting.
- Ask for feedback – encourage participants to fill out a post-meeting survey outlining their experiences.
If you are interested in learning more about what a holistic, inclusive Community Engagement Process looks like, join me at my upcoming webinar “Inclusive Strategies for Community Engagement” on Wednesday, November 28th from 3-4 p.m. Sign up here. If you have questions in advance, reach out at [email protected].
Meghan joined the Bang the Table team after five years working at the local government level. Her experience managing a municipal marketing and communications team left her very familiar with the challenges agencies face when planning and running community engagement projects. She is based in New York City.