ED Now Feature: How to Do Public Meetings That Aren’t Miserable – and Actually Make Your Community Better

The International Economic Development Council’s ED Now  ran an article last week that I wrote to explain why economic development people should be thinking about how to do public engagement more effectively — and why the ways we’ve been taught (or not taught) to “engage” the public so often end in anger and misery — for the public, and for you.  It gives you a little introduction to the Crowdfunding Wisdom approach to public engagement, which is designed to give you more useful information and your residents and business owners a more positive and more constructive experience.


If you’re an IEDC member, you can check out the article here.  For the rest of you, I’ll post an earlier and somewhat longer draft here.  If you want to learn more, check out the book at www.CrowdsourcingWisdomBook.com.  


We have a problem with how we deal with the public.  We have this problem in all types of government and community professions, but the more economic developers find themselves required to work with business owners and residents and community groups, the more this problem threatens to further impair economic developers’ ability to help their communities.

The Problem

The methods, the assumptions that we rely on to figure out what people want their governments to do, to try to get them to understand why we’re building this or that, to get people involved in decisions the way we know we should…

They’re not working.  Too often, the only response we get is a useless, ill-informed, sometimes crazy response.  And on top of that, we fail to hear from the thousands who could very well know something crucial to developing useful plans, setting effective policy.  And whose support we need to build political support for the hard decisions that our communities increasingly have to make.

Those people are not failing to participate because they don’t care about the places where they live.   They’re not failing to participate because they don’t care what we do.

They’re failing to participate because the way we do these meetings gives them a pretty clear message that we don’t want them to have a meaningful role in the process.

What we really want, in the depth of our guts, in the place where the reasons why we went into this profession or ran for office or went on this committee still live, is to help make this community better.  We want to make the right decisions, anticipate and address the issues that might affect the community in the future, use the money and people and other resources that the community has as wisely as we can.

And if we’re really honest, we often have to admit: we don’t know how to do that.

Ten or 30 or 40 years ago, our predecessors in these roles hired Experts – Big Deal Architects, Big Name Economic Development Types, Big Budget Think Tanks, people who offered Big and Easy Solutions.

As you might have noticed, a lot of those haven’t worked.  When you look back on the projections, the visions, the promises, what they said and what came to pass very often don’t match up.   And for many of us, the great challenge that faces us today consists of trying to fix or undo the damage that those Big Solutions caused.

As the era we live in becomes more and more unpredictable, as we start seeing ever so acutely how one issue in our community unexpectedly impacts another, as we realize that the future, whatever it will be, probably won’t be a simple linear extrapolation of past growth…

We come to realize that expertise based on the past has less and less relevance.  Even major business publications are questioning the purpose, the most rudimentary value, of expert advising.[i]  They’ve been lead down the wrong path a few times as well.


Private sector businesses, from the largest to the smallest, are increasingly turning to crowdsourcing to try to get a handle on the emerging issues, the disruptions and the out-of-left-field new ideas that have the potential to catapult them into a market lead (or, if they miss it, shatter them to bits).  Crowdsourcing enables businesses to gather ideas, solutions, designs, sometimes even blueprints, from a wider range of people than they could every employ or contract on their own.

And even more surprisingly, businesses increasingly use the “crowd” to sift through the options and select the ones that will work best.  Academic research[ii] has been demonstrating for a few years that the Crowd does these two steps better than the Experts, and that crowd-designed and crowd-selected results tend to perform better on a variety of measures than when experts design and select them.

Businesses have to work like fury to attract their Crowd.  They put a huge amount of effort into reaching their Crowd, convincing their Crowd that it’s worth their time to participate, keeping their Crowd plugged in and participating.  Their ability to provide value depends on their Crowd, and when you’re crowdsourcing for T-shirts or motorbikes, you’re competing for their attention with a lot of other shiny but not all that important products.

In our world, where we’re trying to make communities better, we’ve got a Crowd that’s eager and waiting for their chance to participate.

We already have what those businesses are spending so much money to build.

We just need to open the doors, to give them a way to participate, in a way that matters.


But just asking isn’t enough

If you’ve been around the block a few times, you know what happened the last time you asked residents what they wanted. I often compare the responses we get to the lists that my kids used to prepare for Santa Claus:

“I want a dollhouse… and a pony… and a rocket launcher… and a baby brother…and a unicorn…” 

Kids eventually figure out that Santa Claus can’t actually deliver the way he promised, and that’s when they start questioning our whole system of magic-holiday-gift-givers.

Adults who respond to a civic invitation to identify their “vision” or give their “recommendations” often don’t know that what they’re offering is at the same level of realism as that baby brother or unicorn.  If you don’t know the ins and outs of zoning regs and state enabling regulations and nonprofit funding sources, you’re not going to know that what you’re asking for isn’t feasible. And the way we community leaders handle those uninformed requests looks a whole lot like how we as parents handle Santa Claus questions: we sidestep, we hem and haw, we make empty promises to “see what happens,” and then… we fail to deliver, with no comment.

If we want to meaningfully engage the power and potential of our people, we need to give them a channel.  We need to enable, empower them to do much more than spout ill-informed NIMBYisms or buy into knee-jerk cause-effect assumptions.  We need to

  • Draw on the unique knowledge, perspective and expertise of everyone we can get,
  • Get them reasonably up-to-speed on the issues, and
  • Engage them – get their hands deeply into – the search for solutions… solutions that are realistic and address the complexities and ambiguities of real community life.

We often shy away from that, because we don’t trust the public.  We’re afraid they’ll say something crazy, they’ll have different ideas, that they won’t Get It.  But chances are, there’s something we’re not Getting, either.  The crucial, and too often missing piece, is that we have to create a structure in which constructive collaboration between us and them can happen.


How to CrowdSource Wisdom

Every Crowdsourcing Wisdom event works a little differently, and the details of how you fit the process to the people cannot be overlooked.  But here is the basic structure:

  1. Meeting attendees work together in small groups. Whenever possible, it’s good to make the groups random so that people are less likely to be working with people who are exactly the same as they are.
  2. Establish some basic rules of engagement – guidance as to treat each other, how to make decisions, how to resolve disputes, and so on. Basic rules of engagement give everybody some confidence that they will be able to participate, and have a fair chance to be heard – and it gives them the power to stand up if someone is trying to hog all the attention.
  3. The group has a specific activity that they need to complete together. This is more complex than “do you like this design or not?” The group activity might have to do with analyzing the factors behind an issue, designing a potential solution to a thorny problem, or setting priorities for future programs.  Each group does its work together on a large paper that walks them through the process.
  4. The groups work largely independently. My big work was on the front end – planning the activities, preparing the materials, setting up the groups and framing the rules. Once the activity is underway, I focus on monitoring, sensing emerging issues, fine-tuning and redirecting if a group gets lost in the weeds or can’t seem to come to a conclusion.
  5. The group shares its work with the rest of the participants, so that everyone gets to understand what the other groups did.
  6. Everyone has an opportunity for individual response. This might involve “voting” for their top priorities across all of the groups’ solutions, or allocating “money” to indicate where they think the majority of the effort should go.
  7. The results of the meeting are clear for everyone to see. Since everything was done on paper, there’s no question about whether some staffer with an agenda accurately reported the results, or took a colorful quote out of context, or mis-interpreted a minority position as The Conclusion.


The Results

I learned to use methods like this during my early career as a middle school teacher, and I’ve used Crowdsourcing Wisdom methods in dozens of communities and with thousands of people over the last 20 years.  And this is what I consistently find:

  • The people who participate feel like they’ve been asked to do something worthwhile. They feel like the participation has been worth the time and effort they invested.
  • The officials and staff feel like they have gained useful information. They have a clear picture of what the community values, where its priorities, lie, what it should focus on.
  • Officials, staff and participants feel like they have been part of a positive experience. They’ve built relationships with people, they’ve been able to focus on positives instead of just complaining, and they feel like they might actually have some power to help make their community better.
  • Even just one Crowdsourcing Wisdom event seems to start to overcome all those decades of bad public meeting experience. Suddenly, attending a public meeting doesn’t look like such a bad idea.


Learn more about Crowdsourcing Wisdom  at http://crowdfundingwisdombook.com


[i] Ron Ashkenas, “Change Management Needs to Change.” Harvard Business Review, April 16, 2013.  https://hbr.org/2013/04/change-management-needs-to-cha.

[ii] Brad Power, “Improve Decision-Making with Help from the Crowd.” Harvard Business Review, April 8, 2014. https://hbr.org/2014/04/improve-decision-making-with-help-from-the-crowd/.

2 thoughts on “ED Now Feature: How to Do Public Meetings That Aren’t Miserable – and Actually Make Your Community Better”

  1. From the perspective as a member of the public, the reason why I find participating in such consultations, surveys etc is that no matter what I say, my thoughts will be ignored. I usually err on behalf of international best practises, I sometimes know more about a particular issue I might be interested in, than those who are conducting the engagement program.

    I find that too often, public engagement does not result in an ideal hybrid/balance, but a really bizarre compromise as those involved find it so difficult to balance all the points of view involved and the end result tends to be heavily skewed towards the squeaky wheels (especially those with cash), rather than an outcome that best matches the human needs of everyone the final policy/infrastructure/whatever is going to effect.

    This is because regardless of who you consult with, there is too much emphasis on ends and not enough on why you are doing it in the first place.

    That appears to be the main problem, in that the needs (eg starting with Max Neef’s human needs matrix), are inadequately mapped. Instead the perception of needs tends to be strongly biased based on the ideology of the government, the worldview of any experts consulted and the most noisy stakeholders involved. It is no wonder that when these same biases are carried through towards selecting policy outcomes, that it is quite different from what the community expected or needed.

    Crowdsourcing wisdom could certainly help, but there is still no guaranteed that you have a representative group, that the underlying needs are effectively communicated nor that the proposed outcomes would map well against the underlying needs.

  2. The problem is often the Government or Local government have looked at a problem, taken advice from 1 firm of advisers and then after pretty much deciding which way they want to go have public consultations. That happened in our city recently There was a drop in one and several meetings and a huge amount of public criticism. Not one person’s criticism was answered or any organisation’s either, so what was the point of calling it a consultation?

    If you really want to consult you have to do earlier. Before the professional consultant. Who knows could even save you money. I am reminded of a road that had to be completely rerouted because they didn’t consult earlier and therefore didn’t hear from locals how high the tidal surge could get in the river estuary.

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