The public meeting is a staple part of a democractic society. Where fair-minded people get together and debate issues affecting their communities to come to a degree of consensus, and to have their say.
Or, it is an excuse for a lot of angry people to get together in one room and shout for 2 hours, usually at a poor sap from the Council. As was covered in recent episodes of the War on Cars Podcast.
Having this polarised image of what a public meeting can do for engaging citizens is unhelpful. It also does nothing to help people realise the value that can be had from public meetings. One of the few tried, trusted, and refined ways of engaging with people.
So. How do you make a great public meeting, get what you want out of it, and make sure that everyone leaves feeling that they have had a fair say? It's not as hard as you think.
Get a diverse audience along
This is probably the hardest bit. People who attend public meetings are statistically more likely to be older and wealthier than the rest of the population. You need to put the ground work in to getting a more diverse audience along.
A key factor in this is the time and location of the meeting. Consider work patterns and the daily lives of the people who are most likely to not attend, and whether they can get there without a car. You should also advertise the meeting in places where they are likely to see the advert. Just posting it on a website and a community noticeboard will not do.
Get an independent chairperson.
Assuming that the public meeting has not been organised by any one organisation, having an independent chairperson is crucial. Ideally somebody who knows the subject area (e.g. transport planning), but has no stake in the issue to be discussed.
Regardless of whether you are able to get an independent chairperson, they must also be briefed. It needs to be made clear that they must treat everyone the same, and give everyone an equal say. This may include discussing questions with them, though we would strongly advise against giving them a list of pre-determined questions. That will give the impression of bias.
Let people know what you need out of the meeting, and how they can help.
This is so often overlooked. If you are given a chance to have your say / set out your stall for a scheme or proposal, tell people what you want out of the meeting. Tell them how they can help you, and ask them how you can help them to do that. Don't just launch into presenting. Take that time to set out your ask, and you will get what you need.
Set out the rules early, and stick to them
At the start of the meeting (or - even better - before the meeting), set out what the rules are. If people are invited to speak, give them a strict time limit and explain a general code of conduct. And importantly, stick to it. It is meant to be impartial and fair, not a reason for one or two individuals to hog the limelight.
In terms of who speaks when, what we have found to be useful is alternating views for and against a proposal. So rather than everyone against a proposal speak and then everyone for a proposal speak, take it in turns. That way, there is a greater degree of balance in the debate, even if the room may be overwhelmingly on one side.
Finish off with what happens next
A really simple and obvious one, but so many times we have been at meetings where the chairperson simply says thank you and goodbye. They should summarise the discussion, thank everyone for their participation, and set out clearly what will happen next. The most important element is telling people how they can learn more, and how they can find out how the outcomes of the meeting have changed things. If this means they must sign up to a mailing list, let them know how to do this.
Follow all of these simple rules, and you are all set to have a great public meeting.