Civic Engagement Toolkit FAQ
Frequently Asked Questions About Public Forums
Over the years, the Public Life Foundation of Owensboro has held a number of public forums. We have also helped other groups conduct their own forums. In the course of that work, a variety of questions have come up. Here are a few of the common ones:
- What ways can the public be engaged in an issue or a community decision?
- One can engage the public in a variety of ways. In fact, the best strategy is to find multiple arenas where public input and discussion can be generated. Here are a few of those:
- Deliberative dialogue
Typically features facilitated small group discussion around choices to address an issue or guide a public decision – from small forums to large town meetings.
- Speech/PowerPoint presentation
May be interactive, including an open forum following a talk.
- Letter writing campaign, e-mail blast
Demonstrates momentum in support of a proposal or in response to a problem.
- Appearances at public meetings
Enables face-to-face questions and comments that can be effective.
Can be informative, and this works if views are balanced.
- Panel discussion
Generally more balanced, works well with a Q and A, but its weakness is the usual dominance of the panelists with no opportunity for citizens to seek common ground.
- Study group
Generally involves a small group, multiple meetings and in-depth analysis of a public issue. Study group participants can often become key leaders in larger forums.
- Op-Ed piece
Promotes a point of view or challenges another’s view. A set of pro/con columns can introduce new, compelling points and spark further consideration.
- Any form of civic dialogue has intrinsic value. This toolkit will focus primarily on the use of deliberative dialogue.
- How can there be effective civic engagement when so many citizens are uninformed?
- When citizens are not informed, the best option is not to withhold power from them, but to enhance their judgment through education. At its core, civic engagement is all about becoming more informed. Providing the public with critical facts is the first step to meaningful public engagement.
- But how do we know if the information that is provided is substantive, accurate and balanced?
- The best we can do is put forth a good faith effort. Use reliable sources. Include information from multiple perspectives. Share opposing points of view. Be respectful of people from different perspectives. When you do a fair job presenting the information, people are more likely to progress toward common ground.
- How do we build trust?
- Meet with leaders and officials in advance. Meet with representatives of interest groups and socio-economic groups that reflect the profile of the target area.
- Bring an attitude to these meetings that communicates your interest in open, civil discussion. Show them the materials you are preparing to frame the discussion. Brief the leaders on the process you will use for ensuring fairness. Ultimately, people will trust you when they experience this process in action.
- Is it worth the time and effort to organize such an event if leaders don’t pay attention to the results of a civic engagement exercise? Sometimes officials only support the results if they are compatible with their own views; they oppose the results if they are not.
- Explain the open and transparent process that will characterize the process. Respectfully request that officials and participants withhold judgment until the exercise is complete.
- More critically, you may find that leaders will pay attention when a significant group (your intended audience) comes to some clear conclusions on a public issue. This can also be helped by good media coverage.
- And don’t underestimate public figures. They may well become allies in your cause if you can show public support for specific policies. This happened when local citizens took on the issue of low-cost higher education in the Owensboro area. That put education on politicians’ agenda and the result was a new community college.
- Who prepares the issue brief/discussion guide – background information, choices, points pro and con?
- An ad hoc task force needs to takes on that difficult job. If you cannot afford a consultant, you will likely need a volunteer committee that includes the skill sets needed. There are also issue briefs that have been prepared by the National Issues Forum, Study Circles and other organizations.
What if it is one of those occasions when participants have their minds made up from the beginning?
- Make it clear in the opening remarks that for a more valuable exercise, we need everyone to withhold final judgment until they have been presented with all the information and all points of view from their fellow participants.
- No one can guarantee that everyone will leave a meeting in total agreement. But it can be successful if participants leave with more information about the topic and a better appreciation of the viewpoints of others.
- Do you really expect officials to change their minds if they think that it is just another small group of people promoting their own agenda?
- Don’t ask them to change their mind; ask them to keep an open mind. People don’t expect to influence an outcome as much as they want their voices to be heard.
- And assure them through your actions that you are not promoting a specific agenda or policy. Instead, you are interested in having a community discussion about what ought to be done to address an important issue.
- How do you respond when officials, leaders or participants dismiss the exercise: “… all those people do is talk.”
- All worthwhile initiatives begin with a few people discussing a problem or sharing an idea. Some of the best programs and projects were sketched out on a napkin or brainstormed over coffee. It’s perfectly reasonable to imagine a problem being addressed from the bottom up (by people affected by public policy) rather than from the top down (by people who have the power to enact policy).
- Also, remember that the basis of this process is more than talk. The three-part process of “information-deliberation-action” begins with factual information (not just opinion) and ends with citizens who are willing to take action.
- What are some examples of the structure of some civic dialogue and deliberation exercises?
- See examples of issue briefs, discussion guides and reports that are discussed in this toolkit. You can also check out the Public Life Advocate on the plfo.org website for more examples.
- When are topics appropriate for a civic engagement exercise?
- For a civic engagement exercise to capture the attention of the community, it is best that the topic be the “talk of the town.” It is best if there are constituencies in place who have already shown an interest in an issue. And sometimes, you will find that a community is faced with an imminent decision for which it may not be prepared. Civic engagement helps bring some solid information and deliberation to that decision.
- We recommend that organizers not take on more than one civic engagement project at a time. It is difficult to engage the community on multiple topics. However, if timing is an issue – for example, a hotly debated zoning vote – it may be necessary to work on projects simultaneously.
- Who should be involved? Who should lead the effort?
- If at all possible, a civic engagement exercise should be organized and conducted by a neutral group or people you can trust who will not reveal a biased point of view. Some groups will attempt to “stack the deck” with supporters or opponents. If that appears to be happening, you could limit the number of participants or make an extra effort to attract participants from other backgrounds.
- An advisory committee should be a diverse reflection of community demographics. If the public is invited, an extra effort should be made to attract or recruit people from all walks of life.
- Leaders should push the agenda along and keep moderators and recorders on task. It is best if moderators and recorders do not participate in the dialogue and deliberation, but you may need to allow them to if you cannot recruit enough moderators and recorders.
- What happens if elected officials want to be involved?
- Generally we suggest that elected officials observe rather than participate in the exercise. You may want the elected officials engaged, but you don’t want them to dominate and shut off debate.
- It can be intimidating to participants if officials stroll around the room and eavesdrop, although we have noticed that most participants are not bothered by such a practice.
- Whom do I need to recruit for the forum?
- Here’s a rough list of the folks you should consider recruiting:
- Your forum team (if you don’t have them already)
- Advisory Committee (experts who can advise your team)
- Moderators (people who can lead discussion at each table)
- Recorders (who keep notes at each table)
- Observers (thoughtful people who can analyze the discussion)
- Technicians (for sound systems or other technology, such as laptops, keypad for voting, etc.)
- Floaters (with portable microphones)
- Should participants be allowed to sit at tables with their friends or relatives?
- We encourage participants to sit with people they do not know or do not know well. This enriches the dialogue and enables participants to be introduced to more diverse points of view.
- If a participant insists on sitting elsewhere, we generally allow them to.
- A fair practice that helps avoid tables of friends (and similar views) is to have participants draw a number when they register. This is their table seating, reducing the likelihood of friends, co-workers or relatives sitting together.
- What issues has the Public Life Foundation examined?
- More than you can count on two hands! Here are a few, most of which can be reviewed in the Public Life Advocate on the PLFO website (plfo.org).
- Consolidation of city and county governments
- Disparities in local tax rates
- Local tax disparities
- Tax Increment financing (TIF)
- Prenatal care for the poor
- Proposal for a strip mine adjacent to the Pennyrile Girl Scout Camp
- Special tax districts
- Where should the proposed new public library be located?
- Dental care for the youth
- Coal-fired power plants
- Should OMHS build a new hospital; if yes, where should it be located?
- The downtown and riverfront
- How to pay for the convention center, best location
- How do we pay for the hurricanes?
- Should we pass a smoking ordinance?
- The state budget
- Care for the uninsured
- Strengthening Social Security
- What should county government do with its excess property?
- How long should a typical civic engagement exercise last?
- That depends entirely on what you are doing. You probably need a half-day for a workshop; a town meeting will require a full day.A weeknight public forum typically looks like this:5:30 pm Light supper or snacks
6:00pm Welcome and Introductions, Ground Rules
6:30 pm Background on the issue to be examined
7:30 pm Review issue brief, pros and cons, deliberate
9:00 pm Open forum, with reports from s, questionnaires
- What’s are the key values of public dialogue and deliberation?
- An opportunity to build a network: individuals, organizations, agencies, etc.
- An opportunity for participants (and community leaders) to:
- gain a greater understanding of the issue/information
- wrestle with the complexities of issues, shades of gray
- grasp the tradeoffs, the costs and consequences of each option
- introduce participant’s own ideas and options
- come away with some common ground for action
- gain greater respect for those who may have a different point of view
- How many people need to be involved to have an effective civic engagement event?
- On one extreme, a small group can discuss an issue over lunch. On the other end, large assemblies, like town meetings, can be powerful catalysts for community introspection and action.
- In short, any place people are gathered with good information and open minds can work. No magic numbers here.
- How will you know if the event is effective?
- You can gauge effectiveness in a number of ways. In fact, the more ways you try to assess effectiveness, the better.
- What’s the “street talk”? Are people discussing the forum in places people gather, like barber shops or beauty parlors?
- Newspaper coverage: Has the media picked up on the topic? If not, what can be done to get them involved?
- Editorials: Look for ways the media might express its opinion. This can include opinions from citizens, such as letters to the editor.
- Written report/questionnaire: Follow the forum with a report to the participants and ask them to fill out a questionnaire that gauges the effectiveness of the forum.
- Impressions left with elected officials, community leaders, participants: Check out the views of opinion leaders. One possibility is a survey of leaders and citizens before the forum and a similar survey after.
- Invitations from civic clubs, community groups and service clubs: Who wants to hear about the issue and the public policy alternatives? (Consider offering to speak at these forums, even if you are not invited independently. These groups are often eager for good presentations at their meetings.)
- How do you capture input from participants that can be used to document the event’s discussion and also spread the word?
- A number of options are possible. Choose one or more that might be useful:
- completed questionnaires (pre- and post-forum)
- keypad voting
- notes from table discussions
- videotape of an open forum that is videotaped can be analyzed and edited for a public access channel
- freelance reporter who gathers notes as a journalist might and prepares a report (or story) for later use
- On any issue, how many events are needed?
- That depends on time and money, and how long you are we willing to devote to the project. You may find a strong consensus coming out of a single event; or that event may raise the need for more information, more experts, more alternatives. You can only judge how many events are needed step-by-step.
- How large should the event be?
- Some events make a profound impact because of the size and ripple effect of the event. Others are noteworthy because of the credibility and objectivity of the leaders and participants.
- It is hard work to attract participants to civic engagement events. Several strategic approaches can help you achieve your participation goals:
- take the dialogue ‘to the people” (e.g., neighborhood alliances, ministers, shop owners and others)
- attract participants from a target area (e.g., nearby residents, business interests, advocacy groups, community leadership)
- hold events throughout the community
- Try to involve people from all walks of life in the planning as well as the execution of the event.You can also use census and other data to gauge the effectiveness of recruiting target constituencies. For example, suppose you wanted to recruit 150 participants for a discussion on building a new middle school. You want all educational levels to be represented. The census would tell you, hypothetically, that 40 percent had less than a high school degree, 30 percent graduated from high school, 10 percent had some college and 20 percent had a college degree or more. Using those percentages, your target number for each category would be 60 (less than high school), 45 (high school grads), 15 (some college) and 30 (college degree or more) participants.Depending on the issue, you might do the same thing with rural/urban splits, parents/non-parents, racial and ethnic minorities.
- How do we get to the point where civic engagement is a regular and expected part of the decision-making process?
- It is not practical to use a civic engagement process in connection with every decision, but it will lead to better decisions, build trust and build a stronger sense of community.
- When public forums are regularly held on community issues (and publicized), people may come to expect or even request such public deliberation. That has been the experience of the Public Life Foundation over the last two decades.
- What do you do when is it obvious that participants are not objective?
- Acknowledge that their points are welcomed and valued, but then make sure that others are allowed to add their points as well.
- Do we invite everyone to forums or only those who you think will be objective?
- All should be welcomed. No one can be sure how someone will react or vote.
- Do you use standard ground rules?
- Essentially, yes. However, we tend to customize ground rules as well.
- Is it possible to take on too many topics at a time?
- Yes. The organization of a good public meeting takes time. Too many topics can tax the organizers. And it can tax participants. If you are asking for a morning, evening, or even an all-day event, you cannot expect people to come to such meetings too often.
- Where do you find participants and committee members?
- People with a natural connection to an issue, challenge or community choice:
- If you will be examining health care issues, you might make an extra effort to attract public health workers, health care providers, health care administrators, insurance or pharmaceutical representatives, single mothers on Medicaid, students who need community service hours, interns, civic and service club members, Leadership Owensboro and more.