Let’s talk about town hall meetings and what makes them so scary

By December 20, 2018News
Town Hall Meetings

People like me attend town hall meetings and community workshops. I am engaged and interested in the subject matter, and if I make the time to attend a workshop at dinner time then you know you’ve got my attention. Not only that, but I also remind my neighbours, I drop flyers in their letterbox and remind them on the day of the workshop. Or in the case of this workshop pictured above, I even drove my neighbours to the meeting.

There is an awful lot of good will in community from people who are willing to contribute time and energy into hearing councils plans, and working with them to improve the place they live. It’s important for the outcomes of the plan being put forward and for communities themselves, that these consultative meetings are run with thought and purpose.

Let’s look at what happened prior to the meeting to create so much interest.
Nothing officially. But it’s important to remember that as a community we live with the experience of the issue that council is trying to fix every day. We catch up for dinner, meet each other in the street and talk about the issue as we put our bins out. We discuss what Council might, should or could do about the problem, but we never know for sure and suddenly the community has amassed five years of in depth thinking about the issue just as much experience living with it.

Then there is the opportunity. The opportunity to do something about the issue that we have been thinking about for so long and we now have a place to direct this. We get excited, our conversations in the street turn to the points we need to raise at the meeting and possible solutions that we have thought of. We fill in the survey, we put the flyer on our fridge and we wait. We wait for the date to arrive.

As the local council representative in charge of the community consultation, what happens next is up to you. On contentious issues, this is the moment where things could all go very wrong, but with a little thought and fore-planning, you can reduce the risk of your night turning into an angry town hall meeting considerably. Here is how to do it.

Hire a facilitator, don’t let the technical consultants facilitate and don’t facilitate yourself.
As the project lead, you need to remain neutral and you are too close to the project. You will start to defend your work, without realising you are doing it. Be the technical expert which is what you are. Take a step back and fill the role of welcoming committee, sign people in, get to know the people attending, make them a cup of tea and thank them for coming.

Make a genuine effort to fill the room.
The workshop I attended put a letter in everyone’s letterbox, and it was the right approach for this project as it was for local traffic management. Publicise and promote it, with ample lead time.

Take RSVPS and send a reminder.
It’s good for you as you know how much catering to order, and how many staff you’ll need. Then send a reminder to come a day or two before, it shows you are genuinely interested in us coming along.

Hydrate us.
A cup of tea and a bite of something should be the minimum. It may not make us stay longer, we have families and priorities to juggle outside of this meeting, but it will ensure we are not hangry, and therefore more easily frustrated by the issue at hand.

Consider your presentation.
In my case, the community had five years of thinking to release. Don’t squash it with an overly detailed presentation of the work and what you are going to do about it. If the problem has been under consideration for a while, then tell us where the council is at with it, provide a brief overview of what you know, present the options and let us get into the work.

Make sure your table facilitators are facilitators.
I know it doesn’t look like the people facilitating on tables do very much. They write notes, nod and make noises that reassure people they are listening. It doesn’t sound difficult but it’s important. I like to think of table facilitators as ground controllers at an airport, they don’t wear fancy hats or travel to exotic places, but you’d definitely notice the difference if they weren’t there waving their large glow sticks around.

In summary, a well-structured meeting with experienced meeting facilitators can drastically improve the types of responses you get to your proposal. While a town hall meeting can be scary, when it’s done right, it’s one of the most powerful engagement activities at your disposal, and it’s a great way to build trust and strengthen relationships between council and community members.

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