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How to Hold a Public Meeting

Archon Fung, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has written a short article titled “How to Hold a Public Meeting,” published in the March/April 2010 edition of Capitol Ideas, the magazine of the Council of State Governments. Fung’s article can be seen online at www.csg.org/pubs/capitolideas/mar_apr_2010/howto.aspx, and outlines 5 tips for holding an effective public meeting: be clear on the purpose, get help, avoid the usual format, go beyond the usuals, and avoid promises you can’t keep. This is a nice, concise one-pager worth sharing with public officials and others.

HOW TO » Hold a Town Hall Meeting
Archon Fung, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is an expert on civic participation and public deliberation. He looks at all sorts of ways people are getting involved in policymaking and the policy process—that’s where the public meeting comes in. Here are Fung’s tips on how to make one successful.

The most common bad reason to hold a public meeting is because public officials think they should. “They’re basically either literally or figuratively checking off a box on a list of things that they ought to do,” Fung said. If public officials don’t know what people think about an issue and if government needs public participation to get its job done (think recycling, for example), those are good reasons to hold a public meeting, he said.

Meetings are an art. Many resources are available to organize and conduct a town hall meeting to meet specific purposes, Fung said. Organizations like Everyday Democracy, Deliberative Democracy Consortium, National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation and the International Association for Public Participation are a few that offer such resources.

Typical town hall meetings are announced, open to anyone and a brief, official talk is followed by a question and answer period. But that common format is bad, Fung said. Why? “Usually you hear from people who have already made up their minds before they even walked in the room and just want to express themselves,” he said. So again, get help. “There’s no magic chocolate chip cookie recipe—there are many good ways to do it,” Fung said.

People who have a deep interest in the issue and people who have more money and stable employment, and those who are better educated tend to go to public meetings, Fung said. Publicize and advertise the meeting in communities and with organizations that reach people not normally heard from, he said.

Be clear about how information from the public meeting will be used, Fung said. At the end of the day is it the public official’s call? Or, is there a promise to use information or suggestions? Let people know up front and stick to it, Fung said. Otherwise, the danger is people could get frustrated and stop attending such meetings, Fung said.

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