One of my pet peeves is how we fill conference programs and websites with the most successful case studies and we don’t talk about our most potent learning experiences – when things went wrong. Maybe we just need a safe place to talk about these important learning opportunities. When things go wrong in public engagement, they can go spectacularly wrong. The result isn’t just frustration for project leaders. It can spell costly delays, failed or overturned planning efforts, or the loss of public support for politicians and government agencies. Introducing the Fiasco Files – a lighthearted opportunity to look back on those times when things went sideways. We’ll have some fun with it and also draw out some valuable lessons that will help us all avoid them in the future. Names will be withheld in order to avoid any embarrassment to any people or organizations involved and keep the focus on the lessons learned. These stories could happen to anyone.
Fiasco Files #1: A Vocal Minority Dismantles a Community Meeting
Being vulnerable and talking about personal disasters can be intimidating so I’ll go first. This is the story about one of the last public meetings I ever facilitated. I was on the public engagement team that was charged with conducting a series of community workshops throughout a metropolitan region to discuss a long range regional vision for land use and transportation. The first few workshops were held in urban areas and went smoothly. We weren’t aware what was brewing as we prepared for our 3rd workshop – this one in the suburbs.
We learned later that the evening before the workshop a local group of people strongly opposed to the direction that the planning process seemed to be going met privately. They studied a manual on how to disrupt a public meeting and developed a strategy. With the project team blissfully unaware, this group of 40 or so arrived the next morning and positioned two of their members at each of the 20 tables set up around the room. A mere 30-seconds into my introduction it started.
One by one, members of this group started interjecting, some by raising their hands, others by shouting out. When one would say their piece, a cascade of approval spread around the room as other members of the group chimed in. I still recall the looks on the faces of the non-group members which made up the majority of the audience (though it was hard to tell since they were silent). It was a look of “Gee, I’m the odd duck here.” In speaking with participants afterwards I heard statements like, “I disagreed but everyone seemed so fired up that I kept my head down.” These sentiments spoke to the effectiveness of the intimidation and influence that a vocal minority can wield at a public workshop.
Despite the finger-pointing, personal attacks and criticisms leveled against me as a representative of the agencies involved, I listened to their input and tried in vain to move forward on our agenda. I was under strict direction from the lead agency that participants should be allowed to have their say for as long as they wish. When we were 45-minutes into the session and still barely past the first stage of our workshop plan I took a moment to confer with the team. “Let them talk” was the directive. Needless to say we were unable to follow our workshop plan and we did not collect any structured input that could be compared with input gathered at other workshops. We left feeling frustrated, humiliated and sympathetic for the majority of the participants who were robbed of their opportunity to express their views by the vocal minority.
Anyone who has a few community workshops under their belt has experienced a disruptive vocal minority though they are not always as well-organized as they were in this case. With the benefit of hindsight there are several things that we could have done to help the situation. Here are some steps that helped at subsequent workshops:
- We got into the habit of making the rules of conduct at the workshop clear and got the audience to agree to them at the beginning of the session.
- If people disrespected the agreed-upon rules of conduct steps were taken to restore order – gentle at first and if those didn’t work, increasingly direct. On one occasion a little humor alleviated an outburst.
- On other occasions we used the wireless voting keypads to ask the audience whether they wished to continue entertaining interruptions or move on with the agenda. Because of the anonymity of the handset voting, the vocal minority was outnumbered by a wide margin.
- In some situations we reduced the opportunities for disruptive plenary outbursts by organizing table discussions.
I’d like to say that these measures fixed everything. They certainly helped a great deal but there still was moments of chaos and disruption at the remaining workshops and I think the agencies involved came away feeling pretty drained and bruised from the face to face process.
In this particular case one of the things that helped was the concurrent option for people to participate online. In fact this experience caused us to double down on online community engagement. The disruptors not only showed up at community workshops, they also tried to stack the deck online. In this case, we were thankful that MetroQuest had fraud detection capabilities allowing the fraudulent entries to be easily identified and removed from the results. That combined with the sheer number of online participants (over 11,000 participants online) meant that the sentiments of the general population carried the day. The absence of an open forum online meant that grandstanding opportunities did not exist. Thankfully the intimidation and alienation that occurred in the workshop was not part of the online experience.
It is important to learn about the views of all stakeholders though there are far more productive ways to gain those insights than a chaotic public meeting. We did learn about the nature of the concerns from our very passionate minority group. That knowledge helped to shape not only the plan but also how those divergent views could be mitigated during the implementation process to avoid a political mess down the road.
We also came away a little wiser about how to structure a public workshop to avoid this kind of disaster and gained a greater appreciation of the relative safety of online engagement. While there are certainly opportunities for chaos online, well-designed software can help to mitigate these potholes to a great extent.
This post was published in Planetizen.