Tonight is a meeting. Tonight, my colleagues and I will go to a local school at 6pm, start setting up the chairs in a circle, spread some maps, get some snacks, and then hope for the best.
“The meeting”. A word I have been using often in the past months. In our public participation trajectory, “the meeting”, has become quite a core element. It is where citizens and other vested interests gather with the municipality. Some mid-week evening at 7pm, in a quiet school. We hope for this event to be the culmination of all previous efforts. It is where, if all the “ingrededients”, all the preliminary work has been done, some “magic” will happen amongst the citizens. If you and your team believe that (and ours does), the stakes are very high.
To me, there are various things you as a practioner could be worrying about in the wake of such a meeting. Unfortunately, they kind of stack onto each other. When 1. is not a concern anymore, 2. or 3. become your worry instead:
Over the course of the past months, I have seen in myself and my collegues various moods before such a meeting:
- “I really hope enough citizens come, I will feel embarassed towards the important guest if noone shows up.”
- “We don’t have many registrations, I really hope our advertising campaign worked and some more people will come. Why don’t they rsvp? I would be less stressed if we had more registrations.”
- “There is nothing I can do anymore. Either they come or they don’t come, I can’t force them. I can now only focus on creating engaging enough activities so that those who come will have a great evening.” (i.e. Resignation over the aspectsthat seems beyond your control, so you focus on one of the other worries instead)
Does one of these sound like the voice in your head?
What if attendance is low? This causes a few uncomfortable situations: At 7pm on the clock, one or maybe two people have arrived, some small small talk is happening. By 7:15, there are still only 4 people. Is now the moment to start? How much longer to wait? Elaborately prepared group work becomes suddenly impossible. Instead of the prepared 3 tables, only one will actually take place.
Sometimes, the attendance can seem like a voting on your past work: In a superficial way, it signals to you and your superior whether you have been successfull in engaging citizens or not. But this number is not everything. In fact, the more you are concerned with the number of citizens present, the more you loose sight of the overarching goal. The more you are focused on attendance, the more effort will you put in just getting people there rather than making the experience a fulfilling one.
2. Uncomfortable Questions
Psst, are you somehow afraid of your citizens?
- “Whenever the municipality is present, people just complain at the municipality rather than being constructive. I struggle to keep the evening going then, I don’t want to loose control of the room”
- “I don’t know that much about X and Y, I hope citizens won’t ask too many questions there, and realize that I am not actually an expert”
- “I don’t know the neighborhood and all the people as well as some of these networked citizens. To them, I seem uninformed. I am giving my best, but some see that as ineffective. Will they ask again tonight?”
This one if a difficult one:
As humans, we want to be respected. We want to be seen as knowledgable. But as public participation practioners, we are out there on the ice. Lots of unexpected things happen, people will make us reponsible for things beyond our control, plus, we want to entice people into listening to us. It is understandable, that you feel insecure.
Yet as we feel insecure, the more we retreat to the safe spot of being an “expert”. It can deflect some questions, can grant us respect. Some examples:
- Come join the experts in redesigning X in your neighborhood
- This is a scientifically proven method, that is why we do it this way
- Come join this innovative process!
- Municipality and airquality experts will be giving a press-conference on the progress of the process
This works for a bit. But not for long.
Because citizens will make up their mind, whether they think you are one (an expert that is!). You claimed to be one, to calm the questions or entice participation. But are you one? Or are you just playing over your weaknesses? People are smart, they can tell, and if they come to the conclusion, you are only playing over your weaknesses, well, they are going to tell that to their friends: “Hey, you went to the meeting last night, how was it?” “Aw, not sure, they seemed to have no clue themselves and just be going through some unclear process they called innovative. Not sure whether I will go again, I don’t think I can recommend it.” Whether (or rather, how long) the role of “expert” will work for you depends of course on your own expertise and also on the culture of your country. In some, experts are more highly valued than in other cultures.
We have tried to be experts, and it failed. People saw through it and now, nobody comes anymore. Where did we go wrong, what could we have done instead? I think: Be honest and treat the citizen like he is the expert. You are just the person that brings her the tools to envision her ideas. Plus: In the background, do try to become the expert you aspire to be.
Yet here we talk about the role you choose to adapt, something for another article. (future article)
Puh, the coolness-factor! This is a very vague concept and it boils down to the answer the person will give to their family/friends when asked: “How was it?” The meeting was “cool”, if they answer: “Awesome, you should come next time, we meet again next Tuesday!” This goes beyond whether or not you faked to be an expert in something you are not. Even if you are honest on that end, a meeting can still be boring.
When is a meeting “cool”? When it feels like play and not like work. When it is a worthwhile evening activity for anyone. When the participant feels like they had agency, they were the makers. If they feel consulted, next time around they will think: “I volunteered my time to be consulted once, no need to spend another evening there!” So, apparently it is imperative that the meeting ends on “this was cool, I’ll tell my friends”, because if not, no movement is forming and the people who came this time won’t come next time.
High stakes once again. It is very understandable that you worry. In fact, this is the only one I would suggest you to worry about. If citizens see you as an expert in making city planning fun, it does not matter that you don’t know the neighborhood. It does not matter, that only six people came. So, develop an evening that will be fun for everyone, no matter whether there are 5 or 20 or 40 people.
Here are my thoughts on what could be fun (future article)
4. What then? After the meeting is before the meeting
Lastly, already before the meeting, something else is looming: The aftermath… Are you in a repetitive cycle? Every four or every six weeks, you prepare a public event on the progress of this redevlopment plan or whatever. Because current practice says: “Continuing public engagement is imperative to ensure better solutions, broader acceptance, democratic values.”
So you do it. And somehow, it is a drag. Your meeting just wrapped up. Only 7 people came. What do you do now? You and your colleagues are clearing the school auditorium, wrapping things up from the tables. Was this now public participation? Can 7 speak for a whole neighborhood? What do we do with the outcome of this? Can we go forward with the consensus made amongst these 7? (future article: how democratic are face-to-face workshops for decision making).
There is another event in 6 weeks time. Someone told you that immediate follow-up is imperative to keep going with the momentum? But what momentum? Your colleagues seem disillusioned. None of the citizens is eager to help make ideas more concrete or follow up by collecting data. So even before the meeting, you are afraid of this deja-vu, that it will be just like last time. Where you will inevtiably pick up the threads since this is your job, but as you continue, you wonder whether this is how it is meant to be.
The day of an evening event with citizens have been stressful for me. While there is the attendance, the role of me as an expert, the coolness-factor and the aftermath to worry about, most of these days were spent keeping myself busy and distracted from these four areas. My mindset has been: Don’t let the worry take over, just get those practicalities done!
So I work hours on powerpoint slides because it feels safe, it is something I can control: When I present, they will listen. And I spent hours worrying about all the details: Get this and that printed, organise the keys, get some ipads, print some maps. Control what you can, the rest seems beyond controlling.
I am sorry that this article does not end on a happy note. It is my account of how I felt in the role of public participation practioner. In the future, I aim to give suggestions how to improve if you feel the same. Yet, my hunch is, that if there are fundamental flaws in the design of your process which you need to work with, there is very little to remedy the worries you experience. They are justified.
Now, read further on in my article on “How to stay calm before a public event with citizens”. (future link)