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Stopping the snoozefest -- BYU study describes how to improve public hearings

Researcher suggests virtual neighborhood councils via email

Anybody who's been to a public hearing knows how quickly it can either devolve into a total snoozefest or explode into rancorous rigmarole.

But Brigham Young University professor William Baker says it doesn't have to be that way – his new nationwide survey of city administrators reveals the factors essential to successful public hearings.

"These meetings are complex communication events," said Baker, a professor of organizational leadership and strategy in BYU's Marriott School of Management. "If they are treated as such, they can really allow for meaningful participation by citizens."

Baker got the idea for the research after juxtaposing his own successful challenge of a controversial proposition in his home town with attendance at "significantly less exciting" meetings. These experiences caused him to wonder what makes one hearing brilliant and another a bust.

As part of the study, Baker and professors H. Lon Addams and Brian Davis at Weber State University sent a survey to 500 city managers in U.S. cities with populations of 25,000 to 99,999.

The city managers were asked to consider the public hearings in which they have participated and to indicate what most contributed to their success or failure. Responses came from 46 states and were classified and categorized into a list of critical factors.

Published in the new issue of the "Public Administration Review," a top public administration journal, the study recommends that managers:

  • Carefully prepare for hearings. Clarify goals, hold the hearing and alternative public-participation events early in the decision process. Select an appropriate site and an effective communicator to run the meeting. Also, prepare government officials, and develop detailed procedures and clear written and oral reports.

  • Effectively publicize the hearing. Use multiple media to create public interest and educate citizens about what issues are involved and how they will be affected. Use various communication channels to notify, educate and build interest.

  • Launch the meeting well. Clearly frame the key issues and use multiple media (i.e., visual aids, handouts, charts and graphs) to help achieve understanding. Clarify the procedures to be used during the meeting.

  • Keep things moving. Ensure that the person running the meeting guides and advances the discussion, clarifying and summarizing main points, assuring citizens of the value of their input and managing their emotions.

  • Pay attention. Make sure attending government officials carefully listen to and value citizens' comments, remembering that they are stewards—rather than owners. Help officials to be honest and forthright, yet respectful and sensitive, in their responses.

  • Follow up effectively after the meeting. Carefully consider and use applicable input and report back to the citizenry. The most important factor is that government get citizens involved early and often in the decision making process, says Baker.

    "This is the key 'take away' from the research. We are a government by the people, for the people, and we like to have our say," says Baker. "Government is obligated, by law, to ask for public input. If it will do this at the beginning and throughout of the process instead of just at the end, it will get the buy-in it is looking for."

    In that spirit, public administrators should consider public hearings as only one part of an overall public-communication strategy.

    "Because of the inherent limitations of public hearings, city officials should use multiple participation methods," says Baker. "One thing that could happen is the creation of virtual neighborhood councils. Email is pervasive enough now that this could be done rather easily."

    Another key factor in the success of public hearings is the amount of public interest in the topics being discussed, says Baker.

    "You can have a topic that people don't really care that much about – like budgeting. You can publicize the meeting, have a good presentation, a great facilitator running the meeting, and just because the subject matter is what it is and people don't care, it's not going to be a homerun of a meeting," said Baker. "Government officials shouldn't be too concerned about the success of a meeting like that."

    Although the participants in this research included only city administrators, Baker believes many of the conclusions and recommendations can be adapted to other government entities.

    "All levels and units of government face similar types of public-participation challenges," said Baker. "I hope this list will serve as a checklist for government. Not only at the municipal level, but at the state, regional and federal government level."

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