After witnessing conflict and incivility at public meetings in the greater Syracuse area (as well as cross the nation), CNYSpeaks and FOCUS Greater Syracuse recently co-hosted a forum to generate ideas about how to foster civil public discourse. On February 18, 2011, over 80 community members gathered for a public forum called, “Making Public Meetings Work for the Public: A Forum on Finding Ways to Make Public Hearings, Forums, and Meetings more Civil, Constructive, and Productive.” With the guidance of trained facilitators, community members working at small tables answered two important questions:
- What does an “ideal” public meeting look like?
- What are your recommendations for promoting constructive, productive, civil public meetings?
After sharing their tables’ ideas with the larger group, participants had the opportunity to vote for the recommendations they believed have the most potential to promote civil public discourse. The following ideas received the highest number of votes at the forum:
- Use a Third Party Moderator/Facilitator. A third party moderator can help maintain balance among speakers, ensure adherence to the agenda, and promote a safe environment for all parties. This moderator should be unbiased, confident, respected, respectful, and a good communicator.
- Give Notice of Meeting. To attract diverse participants with different views, meeting organizers should give advanced notice about issues such as time, logistics, purpose, and goals. Organizers should use multiple distribution efforts (including direct channels) and provide contact information for pre-meeting and post-meeting comments.
- Establish Ground Rules. Meeting organizers should spend time at the outset to explain the ground rules (such as speech time limits and rules of behavior), as well as the repercussions for violating the rules. These rules should be clearly stated to set the tone, create a common vocabulary, and establish a code of communication.
- Communicate Expectations and Factual Information Prior to Meeting. Organizers can enhance public discourse by communicating their expectations, defining the specific issues to be addressed at the meeting, and providing factual information about those issues ahead of time. Such data can help overcome informational disparities and enable non-experts to feel they have the knowledge necessary to contribute in a meaningful way.
- Offer Alternatives for Participation. By allowing citizens to call in, participate via social media, or engage through other channels, meeting organizers can gain a broader audience. Such alternatives may be especially effective in generating the inclusion and participation of those who cannot participate at public events, for example because they have small children or disabilities.
- Acknowledge all perspectives through video/storytelling. Using videos and storytelling at the meeting can demonstrate a variety of views. Doing so can help people feel that their voices are heard and generate understanding among those with different viewpoints.