Ensuring public participation in meetings takes work and organization

Meaningful public participation requires some very basic communication skills. Remember the key components of planning effective meetings.

MSUE team meeting, 2003 | Photo by Kurt Schindler

MSUE team meeting, 2003 | Photo by Kurt Schindler

Michigan State University Extension Educators often work with local organizations on a project that requires design more effective meetings involving the public.  There is an art to involving the public, but there are basic “checklist” concepts that should be followed.

Public participation is important for successful community development and positive change.  There are three levels of public participation described in “A Ladder of Participation” by Sherry Amstein (Journal of the American Planning Association, 1969).  Amstein divides public participation into three levels:

  • Nonparticipation: When the public is generally uninformed, or the “participation” is only the public hearing at the end of the process.
  • Tokenism: Public might be informed, consulted, but does not participate in policy making – the public does not really participate in or actually write the plan.
  • Citizen Power: The public participates actively in planning and policy making.

A community can increase the level of public participation by making sure their participation will truly make a difference—done at the “Citizen Power” level. Because people were empowered to actually be able write the plan, many choose to participate and stayed with the project to the very end. This will require the local organization—planning commission, economic development office, elected body – to recognize the value of public comments.  It means whatever the committee(s) of stakeholders agreed to, that would be part of the plan. It is important to bring together people who represent different stakeholders and viewpoints to discuss critical issues and reach consensus on decisions represented in the final plan.

Consider obstacles that may prevent or make it hard for people to participate. There are also some basic meeting logistics that should always be followed.  Some are suggestions (optional) and some are necessary to always do for truly successful meetings (must do).

1) Create a list of key people to invite.  Be sure to identify and include:

a) Individuals from each geographic area of the community (must do).

b) Individuals who represent each topic/aspect of the planning project (must do).

c) Compare your participants with the U.S. Census data to have roughly the same proportions of people for each racial and ethnic group in the community (must do).

d) Compare your participants with U.S. Census data to have roughly the same proportions of people in various economic income levels (optional).

e) Make sure all possible viewpoints are represented (must do).

2) Send a formal letter of invitation (must do).

a) Promote opportunities for public participation with one-on-one contact (optional). Meet with civic organizations, special interest groups or advocacy organizations to personally explain what the project is, why it is important, and extend a personal invitation to participate.

3) Poll participants to select the meeting dates and times that are convenient for them for the first meeting (optional).   Offer several dates and ask them to contact you back for which one’s work, or use a Doodle poll to select the date.

4) Sometimes it is going to be multiple meetings.  Again let the participants select the date by return contact or Doodle poll (optional). 

a) Sometimes If it is not practical for the participants to select the date, include future meeting dates, time and location(s) in the invitation letter (optional).  Remember to tell participants that they help make the decisions.  Involve them as much as possible when deciding meeting logistics (must do). Be aware of the subtle message being conveyed when one cannot even let go of the decision to set the meeting dates.

b) Stick to the selected dates and times (must do).  Changing dates without consulting others conveys a subtle message that group decisions will not be honored.

c) Take into account what times people work in a community, when other major community events are occurring (must do).   If many work out-of-town, or many work second or third shift, then events may need to be held at differing times of the day.

d) Once a date is set even if done at a meeting of the group, send a “save the date” to all members (must do).  Do not assume those at the meeting wrote the date down.  Also need to communicate the next meeting date to those that were absent.

e) Have regular recurring dates (like the third Tuesday of each month) so future meetings can be scheduled (optional).  Be respectful that people have busy calendars and they need to know dates far ahead to hold them in their calendar (must do).

5) Once the first meeting is established, communicate again to confirm attendance.  Send out a reminder and répondez, s’il vous plaît (RSVP) before each meeting (must do).  Do not assume because they responded to pick a date means they already committed to attend.  They did not.  The question was “what date works best?”  Now the question is “will you attend?”  It is too separate communications.  It is important to know how many handouts to provide, numbers of chairs, tables, refreshments, and overall meeting room setup. 

6) Send the agenda a week before each meeting with any reading or other work needed to be prepared for the meeting (must do).  This might be combined with the RSVP (optional).  Consider how far ahead of the meeting this needs to be sent out.  It may be that people need it before the weekend before the meeting, as weekends are the only time in one’s busy schedule one has to read material.

7) For the actual meeting:

a) Is child care is necessary?  This is especially important if young families or those with fewer economic resources are a significant part of the population.

b) The meeting location should be barrier-free and meet ADA standards (must do).

c) Are translators and/or sign language interpreters needed?  Are these services advertised? This is important in areas where a population exists with a dominant second language.

8) Try to never cancel a meeting (must do).  If critical work has not happened, provide an update with revised timeline for completion.  Carefully consider cancelation due to weather, and not based only on school closings.  Canceling meetings when schools close due to weather is a poor idea.  Schools close because of higher safety concerns for children and because school busses (that do not have many safety features modern automobiles now have) are often on back-roads before snow plows are.  On those days adults still have to go to work (which includes your meeting).  Weather related closures might be declared when retail or governmental offices close.

9) Have a meeting sign-in sheet for attendance (must do).  After the first meeting, compare the attendance list with the geographic, racial, ethnic, economic, and representation of viewpoints (number one, above).  Work to supplement more participation where shortfalls occur (must do).

10) Instead of large planning meetings, consider local or smaller group meetings with neighborhood groups, special interest groups, or citizen committees (optional).

11) Provide timely, clear, and accurate information on the planning process and the meeting purpose. It is very important to be highly organized. This conveys a sense of “success” and people like to join and participate in successful projects (must do).

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county.  Contact your local land use educator for more information.

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