Who knew we facilitators would ever miss the day of watching the public stream into a gymnasium, grabbing a handout on the way to a folding chair, to discuss zoning, land use, or other public issues? Rather than wrestling over the potential outspoken firebrand, we now find ourselves grappling with creating a meaningful experience in a virtual forum. How do we pick the right tool to inspire creativity or solicit useful feedback? How do we share information without boring people with too many slides? How do we build rapport and connection on flat screens and telephones? And, most critically, how do we help stakeholders make progress on critical public issues when we cannot gather in person to listen to one another and discuss options?
Whether we’re meeting in person or virtually, we still have to determine our purpose: thinking about what we wish to accomplish and what we would like to our audience to learn and to contribute. The virtual tool really needs to match our purpose. Do we need a bunch of “bells and whistles” when all we really want to do is have people talk together in small groups? Can a group of 100 really brainstorm on virtual post-its and make any sense of it? While answers to these questions may sound obvious, the choices we make (tools and approach), sometimes quite subtle, can really make a difference on content and quality – and the success of the meeting.
When planning public meetings, it is always important to consider – and try to address – barriers to participation. Regardless of the type of meeting, access can be a barrier to fuller participation. With in-person meetings, this might involve finding an accessible location, thinking about transportation options and childcare, and offering the meeting at different times of the day. With virtual meetings, “accessibility” can take on different meanings, including ensuring that people have a strong Internet connection, have access to the online tools, and understand how to use them. Luckily, we have found that, whether it’s Zoom, Webex, or Adobe Connect, most of the public are quite adept at quickly catching on to these online tools, and we have found them to be very effective for our public meetings. Interestingly, we have found that in some cases, our participation has shot way up in some public forums because they are online and allow people to attend from home. To help participants get up to speed on the technology for online meetings, we send information on the basics of navigating the platform in advance of the meeting, offer to assist those who need some “tutoring” ahead of time, and take the first 15 minutes of the meeting to explain the tool and let people acclimate. With these simple steps, the public is diving into these platforms just as readily as managers and technical experts have been.
We are finding ways to engage the public so that meetings can be more than the “same old” with the additional, tiring quality of a two-dimensional screen. We have used polling via platforms, like Zoom, Mentimeter, and Poll Everywhere, and virtual brainstorming, like Mural and IdeaFlip. And, this week, we worked with a graphic recorder who drew on her tablet and projected onto the screen – and it was fantastic. She helped participants follow the developments of the meeting visually – and ignited creativity in thinking about the challenges and opportunities before them.
Building rapport and helping people connect are so important – and can be really hard online. If you don’t have time or your group is too big for live introductions, you can invite people to do so on the chat – asking them to share something a little bit more personal to build connection, in addition to their name and organization. Another recent ah-ha was to stop putting people on mute automatically when they arrive at Zoom meetings. We have realized that this tidy method of silencing background noise has an unintended consequence of stopping any hello-chatter, necessary for people to greet one another and make small talk – and creates a flat, cold start with people staring into a screen of faces with no sound. This can apply to the end of meetings as well. In one case, we invited everyone to come off mute at the same time at the end of the meeting and shout out their thank-yous and good-byes, giving everyone a feeling of “we are in this together” as they headed into the weekend. While none of these techniques fully replace the connection that occurs in person, we are learning as we go and identifying some great ways for people to get to know one another in our new virtual life.
There are still firebrands in meetings. Interestingly, online platforms actually make this common challenge more addressable. Some approaches to consider: sending people to the chat function to make a comment (which has its own risks); asking the person to move on, and if they do not, muting them, acknowledging that, and moving to others; and using methods like round-robins (everyone gets an explicit chance to speak in order). These techniques ensure that everyone gets to voice their views and that the loudest don't monopolize or dominate.
Many of our meetings call for different kinds, or levels, of engagement for those in attendance, and our online tools enable differential forms of participation. For instance, we must structure public meetings so that members of the community advisory group can get their work done and members of the public have the opportunity to express their views. We start by asking all advisory group members to identify themselves as such when they pre-register for the meeting. That way we can quickly determine who is who in the participant list. During the meeting, we might ask members of the public to raise their questions in writing (in a Q&A tool or in the chat rather than speaking one by one). This allows the advisory group members to lead the conversation and be informed by written comments (and we sometimes run public stakeholder meetings via a webinar so that advisory group members have full access to presenter tools and the public has a more limited means to engage). When working groups meet (during the online meeting), we sometimes ask the public to turn off their video so that working group members can see one other more directly. And, we provide dedicated time during the meeting for the public to weigh in via polling, public comment periods through the raising hand function, a Q&A tool, and the chat.
Lastly, we are finding that it’s possible to do difficult, deliberate work online with the right tools. Though not a public meeting, a recent example with researchers seems transferable. We recently worked with a group of 45 researchers nationally to brainstorm, refine, and prioritize breast cancer prevention research topics. We used a tool called Stormz.me, which offered a highly structured platform. The researchers were able to share ideas, add new information or considerations, evaluate the pros and cons of ideas, and then prioritize by “setting aside” topic ideas – these ideas didn’t go away completely, but they faded into our virtual background so the ideas with the most promise stayed prominent. Several participants and the organizers commented that they found the online process to be more effective than a similar in-person exercise that we did last year.
There is nothing quite like an in-person gathering of impassioned citizens in their municipal building engaged in the business of self-governance. That being said, while virtual meetings are imperfect in many ways, we and many of our stakeholders and citizens are continuing – despite the challenges of COVID – the hard, sometimes tedious, deliberative work of democracy. We hope the above suggestions will help you to do so with your constituencies.