Public meetings

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There is nothing better than talking with people face-to-face to get your message across. Public meetings should be a regular part of your engagement activities throughout all stages of your project, from when you are initially recruiting a team and deciding on an idea, to when you are planning and delivering a project. Remember to collect contact details to keep those interested informed, and to sign attendees up to your newsletter and send follow up emails and offers of opportunities while the enthusiasm is still fresh afterwards!

Click on the ideas below for practical suggestions and detailed case studies.

Objectives

Before going about planning and organising a public meeting, it is important to have a good idea about what the purpose of the meeting is. Some possible objectives and types of meeting include:


Generating ideas and initiating a project. What better way to gauge interest and capture ideas than to invite the community to come together for a public meeting about a potential new project? Many community projects start out this way, and you don’t need an existing group or any particular ideas in mind at this stage – just an open mind is all it takes to make it feasible and worthwhile!


Fundraising and share offer. Communicating your message face-to-face with the community is the perfect way to build confidence in and support for your project in order to assist fundraising activity and to kick off a share offer. Public meetings provide the opportunity to explain what funds are required for, how the money will be used and the benefits that will accrue if people invest in the project.


Feedback and updating on progress. If your project exists for the benefit of the community as a whole, you need to communicate to them what those benefits are and how they are being achieved. Keeping people informed about what has been happening and current activities can help build awareness and support for your project, and if you demonstrate how exciting, inclusive and fun it is, those who attend may be inspired to get more involved.


Consultation and decision-making. Along a similar vein, if your project is intended to be run by the community for the community, it is important that local people have a platform through which they can be consulted and can input into decision-making. This could be in the form of contributing ideas during brainstorming sessions or a more formal voting process for key decisions. The benefits of this are two-way: the community will value having their points taken on board, and your group will gain from good ideas or issues raised which might otherwise not have been considered – the community are a vital source of local knowledge and it is in your interest to tap into this resource!


Recruiting and reaching out to new people. If the objective of your public meeting is to reach out to new people, to promote diversity and to recruit new supporters and volunteers, you need to really think about what will appeal to different groups and what might prevent them from attending. The format of your meeting and the activities and exercises you incorporate will affect who the meeting appeals to and is attended by.

Case Studies
Country: Ireland

Iona and District Resident’s Association (IDRA) helped Dublin’s energy agency Codema to deliver an Energy Smart Community project in the Glasnevin/Drumcondra area of Dublin. Between 2009-2010, a very successful pilot Energy Smart Community was ran which allowed homeowners to join together with their local community to improve the energy efficiency of their homes, while availing of energy-saving grants from the Irish government. The principle behind this project was to bring homeowners together in a ‘cluster’ to help them save money on their overall energy bills while taking advantage of the environmental and social benefits for the community. In forming this pilot cluster, partnerships were formed with the local credit union, the local Bank of Ireland branch and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI). IDRA was very proactive in spreading the news about the scheme and helped to arrange for key partners to present at a public meeting to inform local residents of how they could benefit from the scheme. At the local meetings, SEAI provided information on government grants available for retrofitting and the local bank and credit union talked about payment options to finance these works.

Country: UK

Sustainable Charlbury used public meetings to collect feedback from the community about their solar farm proposal. During the meetings, they explained the proposals and the likely financial returns for investors and the wider community.  They also used the opportunity to feed back the results from their community survey, meetings with stakeholders, and the Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment and feasibility study. The community was then invited to participate in an extensive discussion of the site design and visual impact, community benefit and business model, and also to discuss the planning application process.

Country: UK

The Big Lemon was initiated as a result of an informal public meeting in a pub. A group of local people got together to explore ideas for a community bus company as a response to rises in local bus fares. It was the first time most of the people in the room had met each other, having been invited by posters and an article in the local paper, and the group included community activists, businesspeople, bus drivers, pensioners, local politicians, residents and a few journalists. It was an interesting and fruitful discussion, and by the end of the evening there was a plan. There was even an offer from one of the bus drivers in the room to drive the first day of service for nothing!

Source: Community-Led Transport Initiatives action pack

Country: UK

Brighton Energy Co-operative launched their pioneer share offer and main share offer at public meetings. They used the opportunity to explain the broader concepts of community ownership and organisational models which underpin the initiative, as well as outlining the business plan, financial model and progress to date. Email addresses collected at the meetings form the basis of their email list which has proved to be the cornerstone of their cash-raising activities.

Source: Community-Led Photovoltaic Initiatives action pack

Format

Public meetings can take many different forms. Where you hold them, how many people are involved and how interactive and informal they are will all influence how effective they are at engaging different audiences to meet different objectives.


Venue. Neutral venues, such as local cafés or villages halls can be good places to start, but actively making the effort to hold meetings at venues to target particular audiences is how you will ensure you reach the widest possible cross section of the community. Think about where you will be able to target specific groups – for example, a school hall is more likely to attract families, a quirky bar may attract young adults, and a church might predominantly attract older people.


Formal meeting. A public meeting could take the form of a traditional meeting, with a formal agenda and managed by a dedicated chairperson. While the structure this format provides can be useful when there are a number of specific items to be explained and communicated, it is not always conducive to involving and engaging wider audiences.


Drop-in sessions. Drop-in sessions are a relaxed, informal and flexible format for public meetings. They can enable time-pressed individuals to stop by briefly for a quick chat, to ask questions and to offer their support.


Open Space. Open Space is a meeting technique used to explore a particular topic or issue with large groups of people. The idea is that the agenda for the meeting is set by those attending on the day and discussions are formed organically in breakout groups, with no initial timetable, co-ordinator or minute taker. This may sound a bit chaotic if you are used to more formal meetings, but it is a creative and engaging way to tackle Big Questions and to ensure that the community has a chance to take ownership of the process and to help to shape discussions and outputs, whilst also facilitating networking and the forming of new connections.


Key to the success of an Open Space event is the question set. This question will set the scene for all the discussions and should be used in all publicity about the event. The question should be relatively broad and open: some examples from Transition Town Totnes include “How will Totnes feed itself beyond the age of cheap oil?” and “The economic revival of Totnes – how can we build a sustainable, equitable and healthy economy in Totnes?”. There are a wealth of resources online about open space – give it a go!


Combine with an event. Combining a meeting with a wider event can help to increase turnout and capture a wider audience.

Case Studies
Country: UK

The Big Lemon has held public meetings in pubs, university campuses, a church, and actually on their community buses!  The Big Lemon’s meetings at university campuses proved a useful platform for engaging students and forming links with student clubs, societies and newspapers. On the other hand, their meeting in Ovingdean church didn’t attract many people below the age of forty.  They have found public meetings to be a very effective way of building community buy-in, as they provided a way to demonstrate to the community at large that they were serious about listening to people, involving them in decision-making and working with them to improve the service. Once they had built up a relationship with the community and had formed a network of supporters they focussed on trying to keep them!  They found that the best way to do this was to keep them informed - taking email addresses of people who came to meetings and adding them to their mailing list was a good place to start.

Source: Community-Led Transport Initiatives action pack

Country: UK

Low Carbon West Oxford (LCWO) tries to avoid large traditional-style meetings, which they feel can be boring and intimidating. Initially they held regular open drop-in sessions to collect ideas and feedback from the community. The sessions were designed to be welcoming and fun, and people were encouraged to chat to members of the group and to share their ideas often by writing on flipcharts around the room. These sessions have been replaced by open meetings, which focus on a theme and encourage discussion, exchange of information and ideas as well as encouraging local people to get involved in projects, activities and events in their community. Open meetings are held in an informal setting such as the community centre café and LCWO provides refreshments.

Source: Low Carbon West Oxford and West Oxford Community Renewables (2010), Low Carbon Living: Power to make it possible

Country: UK

Southend in Transition ran their first Open Space event during the Earth Day event organised by the local South East Essex Women’s Environment Network, held at the Mayor of Southend’s official residence. The theme for the Open Space discussions was “How will Westcliff and the surrounding area feed itself beyond the age of cheap oil?”. The session began with screening a short film about the creation of a community garden at Leaf Street in Manchester – this provided inspiration and a real life example of what can be achieved through ‘people power’. Discussions were then organised into four breakout groups: ‘Onion’, ‘Kale’, ‘Courgette’ and ‘Carrot’. After explaining the Open Space concept, the overall question for the event was presented and participants were invited to fill out the timetable with four further questions or ‘sub-themes’. Discussions of the sub-themes were lively and generated a diverse range of ideas and inputs. Despite a few hiccups, including not being able to put the timetables up on the wall in case they left blue tac marks on the Mayor’s wallpaper, and not having enough time to properly feedback at the end, the event was a great success. Feedback from participants indicated that they enjoyed the Open Space format and found it much more interesting and engaging than traditional meeting formats.

Activities and exercises

Activities and exercises can help to liven up your public meetings and make them more engaging. Interactive tasks enable people to participate and contribute ideas, whilst also helping to build community connections and to incorporate a fun and social element.


Presentations. Presentations can provide important context for a public meeting, enabling the key concepts, plans and progress made to be explained to bring everyone up to date. However, presentations can turn people off and aren’t particularly interactive or engaging, so make sure they are kept succinct and just briefly cover the most important points by way of introduction.


Film screenings. Like presentations, film screenings can provide context for a meeting and inspiration for discussions.


Guest speakers. Talks by guest speakers can also provide context, expert information and inspiration at public meetings. Well-known speakers can help to raise the profile of your public meetings, encouraging more people to attend.


Question and answer sessions. Question and answer sessions can fit all formats of public meetings and can complement other activities and exercises, such as presentations, film screenings and talks from guest speakers. Recording questions and answers to develop an FAQs resource can be useful for those who don’t attend on the day, and inviting experts to answer questions on technical issues can help to instil confidence in your project and how it works.


Group discussions or interviews. Your public meeting will be more fun and engaging if people are encouraged to interact with each other. Possible activities include small group discussions, talking in pairs or informal interview sessions. For example, as a starter exercise you could ask everyone to turn to the person next to them to discuss their motivations for attending the meeting and what they want to get out of it. It can help to have a key question or theme to guide discussions and to have some kind of facilitation role to ensure that everyone has a chance to get involved. Allow time at the end for feeding back to the wider group and for recording thoughts and ideas generated.


Sharing ideas. Try asking people to contribute suggestions under key headings or questions, such as “what do you want from this project?” or “what can you offer to help us get started?”. Post-it notes and flipcharts are great for capturing ideas – why not ask people to write down their own questions, areas of interest or ideas for projects to discuss with the wider group or to feed into future meetings and discussions.


Social. Social activities are another good way to ‘break the ice’ and to help build community connections. Why not plan your meeting over a coffee at a local café or around a shared meal, or arrange for a post-meeting pub trip?

Case Studies
Country: UK

Brighton Energy Co-operative took their idea for a community owned solar PV project public at an open meeting at a local community centre. The night was a great success and was used to explain ideas around community-ownership and organisational models, technologies, and finances. To further support their idea, they arranged for a director from a nearby community energy co-operative – OVESCO in Lewes – to give a presentation about their group’s experience. This helped to bring the idea to life and generated a lot of enthusiasm. The email addresses collected at the end of the night formed the beginnings of the email list that is now the cornerstone of their cash-raising abilities.

Source: Community-Led Photovoltaic Initiatives action pack

Country: UK

Stroudco Food Hub recommend encouraging people to bring food to share at public meetings. The room can be laid out with tablecloths which participants are encouraged to write on. During the meal a member of the core group sitting at each table leads people through the questions and subject areas that require consultation. At the end of the evening the tablecloths are typed up and circulated. These meetings have not necessarily been a forum for making decisions, but have provided very valuable input from a wide range of stakeholders to inform the decisions of the smaller management group.

Source: Community-Led Food Initiatives action pack

Country: UK

Transition St Albans invited the Recycling and Waste Officer from their local council to present at their public meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss in small groups the planned summer initiative to reduce household waste, with the guest speaker’s presentation and question and answer session providing important context and background information to inform the plans. The aim was to identify next steps for promoting waste reduction for individuals, groups such as themselves and the wider council.

Country: UK

Sustainable Charlbury arranged for the Chief Executive of the Low Carbon Hub, an organisation that provided assistance and support for the project, to attend their public meeting to help answer questions about finances. All the questions asked during the meeting were recorded so that they could be responded to in writing and posted on the Sustainable Charlbury website for the benefit of those who could not attend on the day.

Country: UK

Transition Town Totnes colour code their Post-it notes to correspond with topics people can contribute ideas on. Upon arrival, they give people four different coloured Post-it notes without initially explaining what they are for in order to build a sense of anticipation. Pink Post-it notes are for ideas on “one thing I can do”, yellow for “one thing Totnes can do”, orange for “one thing Government can do” and green for “one other thought”. After the event, they type up the contributions and email them out to everyone who attended. This helps to demonstrate that everyone’s thoughts are being taken on board and are part of something bigger, while keeping ideas fresh in people’s minds.