“Let me even say before I even get inaugurated, during the transition we are going to be having meetings all across the country with community organizations so that you have input into the agenda for the next presidency of the United States of America.”
— Barack Obama
“The least productive people are usually the ones who are most in favor of holding meetings.”
— Thomas Sowell
Whatever your view about meetings, they are integral part of business and public life. Public meetings, in particular, are central to the process of operating an open and transparent government. They are also used by businesses, community leaders and citizens who desire to accomplish something.
Public meetings are used to gather information, impart information or to provide the public with a way to participate in the process at hand. Public meetings have been around as long as a group of people got together to discuss an issue. The Roman Forum is no doubt the most celebrated of all public meeting spaces. Speeches, trials and all manner of public events were held there. The term “forum” has come to mean a place where ideas are discussed or discussion is held. In this column we discuss several types of public meetings and how to handle those meetings if you are the one who is conducting the meeting.
The most important part of any public meeting is the laying of ground rules for the conduct of the meeting. Otherwise the person conducting the meeting has no authority to control the meeting if it gets out of hand. For example, if it is understood that one person may talk at one time the meeting conductor may publicly silence someone who interrupts another person. Another common example is that a person must be recognized before he or she is allowed to speak. It is also not uncommon for there to be a rule that persons speaking must stay on topic or discuss only the relevant issue.
The Town Hall meeting is one type of public meeting we hear about often. It is used when someone, often a public official, wants to gather information about a particular issue or “… to understand what is on the minds of my constituents.” It is also considered one of the purest forms of democracy. Most people in this country associate town hall meetings with Colonial days, and for good reason. The first recorded gathering of voters in America took place in Dorchester, Mass., in 1633.
Nowadays these type meetings are sometimes semi-staged events if there is nothing controversial going on in the public realm. In the past it was not unusual for a public official to announce such a meeting only to have just a few people show up. Lately, things have changed. As the national dialogue becomes evermore contentious some public officials are no longer holding such public meetings because they can quickly get out of control and provide a sounding board for those who oppose certain policies. Nevertheless, town hall meetings provide a great forum for discussion of issues at the local level.
Community listening sessions are becoming more in vogue. This is a type of public meeting where an elected official, a candidate or even a business leader hears from the public about a certain issue. The key to a successful listening session is to do just what its sounds like — listen. The ground rule should state the “listener” is not there to debate an issue or even to discuss an issue, i.e. it is not a forum. Community listening sessions are an effective way for the public to feel a part of the process. Abraham Maslow, the psychologist most well-known for his development of the Hierarchy of Needs, said that one of the most important emotional needs is for a person to feel that he or she is understood. Community listening sessions are one way to meet that need. It is not uncommon for people to say that they did not agree with a certain public person, but that at least they had a chance to say how they felt.
The danger for the person holding the listening session is that the listening session may not represent a true sampling of the community. Therefore, if someone wants to understand the real feelings of a community the listening sessions should be held in different parts of the town or region, as the case may be.
Informational public meetings are a way to provide information to the public. The better ones are those that offer a chance for questions and answers. For example, public projects such as highways and transportation plans are often presented as informational public meetings so that the public will know what to expect in the future and how the project will affect them.
The key to holding public meetings is to understand the purpose of the meeting and to know who will be in attendance. Consideration should also be given to having a professional moderator or facilitator conduct the meeting. This takes the person or company out of the spotlight yet still allows their presence. It also protects them if the meeting gets out of hand.
Finally, when public meetings are well-conducted and well-attended they can be useful tools for discussion of ideas and issues as well as dissemination of information.
» Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Pease contact Hardwick at firstname.lastname@example.org.