The Worst Things to Say During a Public Meeting

IMG_0722I was recently sharing some war stories with my colleagues, and we started discussing the worst things that you could say during a public meeting you are hosting. I can tell you that I have heard all of these during meetings, and all led to a disastrous end.

I would encourage you to read all of these, and completely remove them from your mind. I warn you now, these are the worst things to say during a public meeting:

1. I am from the Government and here to help

2. We have two plans and we need you to select one

3. We master planned your entire community in just one day

4. We do not have a budget yet

5. The comment box for tonights meeting is located at the back of the room

6. We are in the construction phase. We really needed your input 6 months ago when we were in the planning phase

7. We have hired a world famous consultant to solve all our problems: Translation, We hired an expensive consultant to deal with you

8. We hired a communications expert to explain what we are doing

9. We are showing these plans to you (the community) as a courtesy

10. We are required by (any government agency) to hold this meeting

Please feel free to add your own war stories here under comments.

Here is a link to a great follow up to this post. Speech Habits Worth Breaking

Related posts:

This entry was posted in charrette, Colleagues, Public Policy, The Profession. Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to The Worst Things to Say During a Public Meeting

  1. Boenau says:

    Edward, good list. Sad how many project managers with good intentions blurt those comments out to the public. Here are some additional ones I’ve heard:

    – These charts are too small to read, but it’s just technical details. [in other words, you regular people don’t need to know how we do our work]

    – The plan is to improve the corridor to meet current standards. [which actually meant “your street will get wider and cars will drive even faster”]

    – We eliminated any scenario that degraded peak hour level of service, because we have to reach level of service C or better. [which can be the kiss of death for improving walking or biking]

    • Edward says:

      Great question. I hear this often when a development team or consultant is not prepared to include public input in the decision making of the process. Citizens translates this into two things. First, the consultant not listening to community and will force a design. Secondly, a back room deal has been met or there is something to hide.

      Comment boxes at the back of the room is commonly used by the Department of Transportation during their public outreach sessions. The problem is that the decision making has already been made on a project, the comment box is just requirement to demonstrate they met with the public. When a comment box is in a room, the questions and concerns of those stakeholders that show up are put on hold.

      The issue is that the comment box is not part of the process. The comments are left unanswered in the mind of the citizen. If people attend a meeting, they want to have their questions answered.

      When citizens take the time to show up to a public meeting, be sure to take the time to collect their input real time. This can be accomplished through a series of facilitated processes, and not a box in the corner of the room. This is the opportunity for all the issues to be discussed, provides the foundation for public consensus, and fulfills a public need to be heard.

  2. VMGillen says:

    How about not providing a Spanish translation when presenting to a community of (primarily) Spanish-speaking people? Never mind: at least then no one understands the innapropriate comments!

  3. Dan Johnson says:

    Worst war story – 25 years ago, I attended a public meeting in my home town. The State DOT was studying a highway bypass project in the area. The State DOT had no visible presence at the meeting – only their national engineering firm who was serving as project manager. The meeting was an old format meeting with the project managers seated at a table on the stage above the audience of several hundred, responding to questions from the public. Comments 4,5 ,9 and 10 above were among the responses given during the meeting. At one point, a citizen asked about the implications of the alternatives on traffic bound for a nearby town. In a thick regional accent not native to the study area, one of the presiding consultants leaned back to ask one of his colleagues on the stage “Where’s that town?”. The microphones captured the whispered comment and the audience’s frustration with the proceeding was exacerbated.
    Public frustration with the project was further heightened when the local newspaper reported that on the following day, the janitor at the school where the meeting was held found hundreds of public comment forms filled out by attendees of the previous nights meeting stuffed in the auditorium trash cans. Over ten years elapsed before the DOT reinitiated a study for needed traffic relief in the area.
    We have made progress in the field of public involvement, but the cardinal rule is to demonstrate you’re interested in what the public has to say, not just in words, but in deeds.

  4. Larry Ehl says:

    Really enjoyed this post and the comments. Related issue is poorly designed powerpoints and explanations. Some that drive me crazy: “I know you can’t read what’s on this slide,” and “I know this slide is really confusing.” Well, fix it!

    • Marco says:

      The problem with Powerpoint presentations is that people are still using Powerpoint presentations.

      • Edward says:

        Do you have a suggestion on a different type of presentation? I would be very interesting in hearing about successful methods in presenting ideas.

        • Jenna says:

          Prezi is one option…

        • Mike says:

          It’s not so much that Powerpoint itself is bad – it’s just that we tend to go with the Powerpoint “slide templates” which create silly bulleted lists – and then we do lazy “cut-and-pasting” of information into the format. For a great critique – check out Edward Tufte’s “The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint” – makes the point that the use of Powerpoint pervaded NASA prior to shuttle disasters – leading to reduced quality of discussion/analysis.
          http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint

          My own pet peeve specific to presentations (Powerpoint or whatever!):

          1) Slides with text only – or high % of text
          Better to simply use an appropriate picture or graphic and talk at length about it!

          2) Presenters who face the screen and then turn to the crowd to read their text-dense presentations! (AHHHHHHH!)

          One additional phrase I’ve heard: “I’m sure that some of you folks won’t like this…(followed by some controversial idea/plan).”

          • RITU RAJ says:

            PDF is an excellent option. You can zoom for detail etc and not worry about the loss of resolution.

      • I have heard everyone of these as well. However, these comments merely exemplify a bigger issue; the disconnect between agencies and communities. To me the very idea that a smart developer or public agency would ‘present a plan’ for a major change in a community without directly involving the community in the design process using interactive public involvement software (like Crowdbrite) and 3-D visualization is ludicrous. We are not demanding or expecting enough of planning, especially considering the technologies we can bring to the table. Frankly the cost of doing things two or three times, not to mention the loss of confidence in public institutions, instead of doing in right the first time, is not worth it.

  5. Charlie says:

    We are assuming traffic will grow by 5%, 10%, etc, which is why we’ve added more lanes while narrowing the sidewalks, and sorry there simply isn’t room for bike lanes. (Meanwhile, traffic counts have been going DOWN!)

  6. “We’re going to play a game!” Yep, Comp Planning Manager where I once worked, in a series of public meetings related to Comp Plan updates. A rousing game of “XXXX County Jeopardy” ensued. The public was not happy.

  7. Mark says:

    If you want to raise the hackles of a few local residents, try this old saying.
    “Change is inevitable folks, your town is going to change….You can choose to plan for change or have the future plan it for you.” (or something very similar)
    Oh, they didn’t like that one bit.

    • Edward says:

      This is the best way to alienate your entire stakeholder group, and a great comment to get you fired from a job. The most successful plans include consensus building. This comment demonstrates how planners can destroy public trust.

      We must all remember that every plan starts with Desire. Not every community has the desire to develop a plan.

  8. Laura says:

    Can you please elaborate on #2, #4 (how you address this question in the planning stages, where there often isn’t money allocated), and #6 (how do you reasonably address people’s concerns when you have given the public a chance for input (legit input) and they come in at the last minute or after things have started)?
    Can you also please elaborate on how you would speak to Mark’s comment above about planning for the future? I know you shouldn’t say what he mentioned, so I guess the question is how do you address a group that needs to make a plan but doesn’t want to?
    (Sorry for so many questions – this is a great topic!!!)

    • Edward says:

      These are great questions. First, good design does not cost more. Let me repeat this, good design does not cost more. In the public sector, we pigeon hole the total cost of a project into preliminary design, public out reach, final design, permitting, pre-construction, construction, and maintenance. These tasks are usually completed over a multi-year capital improvement plan, so it is easy to forget how many times you have to re-do a plan to meet the needs of new stakeholders.

      The key to this post is that you need to engage the stakeholders early in the process in a meaningful way. All of these gaffs, can be avoided in a successful public engage process. I will be writing about this in detail in an upcoming blog post.

      Here is an outline of your questions. Please continue to dive into these. It is a pleasure to share these.

      2. We have two plans and we need you to select one.

      I see this occur at many public meetings. What happens is one of two things. First, the public and the decision makers create a Frankenstein of the two plans. “I like this from plan a and this from plan b”. This usually occurs during a public meeting, and results are scary. Remember that your audience is not composed of professionals. Groups can easily be led down a path of good intentions without any professional guidance on the pros of their decision.

      Secondly, a plan is selected that a majority does not like. The resulting days and weeks will be spent battling the “other side” on the chosen plan. The public will forget about the benefits and goals of the project, and will fight over the decision for the plan. After weeks of political war, you will return to a Frankenstein Plan.

      It is best to test ideas with the stakeholders early in the conceptual design phase. Do not waste time or money on the development of plans that are just going to be thrown out in the end. Decision making should be focused on projects goals and objectives. For example, when proposing a road diet, you may establish a goal to add on-street parking, and increased safety. This will inform a discussion on the type of on-street parking that will be utilized in the project. The resulting plan will demonstrate how the plan achieves the goals and provide you a stakeholder supported platform for innovative design.

      This has been very successful for me in several projects, where we were able to introduce flush curbs and Head-Out Angled Parking. Moral of this story, ask for input when you have the ability to thoughtfully incorporate into the design.

      4. We do not have a budget yet

      When stakeholders show up to a meeting, they are taking time out of their personal time to participate. When it is stated that “We do not know the budget”, it places doubt in the seriousness of the project.

      All projects need to start somewhere, and they will not have a budget day one. Participants need to understand where you are in the process. If you are in the early discovery phase because of the desire of several residents, then budge is not a critical aspect of the project. Stakeholders understand that you are seeking input to make decisions.

      If you are further in the process, and ready to implement the results of the discovery phase, you need to build confidence in the community. At this point, you are spending money to complete engineering, to engage a design consultant, or to acquire land. Stakeholders want to know that you are spending money on something that is real and tangible.

      Again, you may not have the exact cost of curbs or the total lengths of sidewalks required, or know fully how much it will cost to manage all of the stormwater. You cannot outline a budget, however you can describe the possible funding sources for the project. The funding may come from several sources, or be contingent on a grant. This is a viable and direct answer. I have found that when one describes funding sources, the stakeholders become more educated on the project.

      Participants in your meeting become stakeholders during this discussion. They understand that there are several more steps that need to be taken to be eligible for this funding that will require their active support. They become activists cheerleading at public meetings and in grant applications for the proposed project.

      Budget, Finance, and Money, are the hottest topics in every public meeting and news story these days. As a facilitator of a project it is your responsibility to manage the unknown. Share the facts of how the community will be successful, and how they can assist in making the project successful.

      6. We are in the construction phase. We really needed your input 6 months ago when we were in the planning phase

      This statement is a true statement. Once you get into the construction phase, all of the decision have been made. It is not impossible to change a project during construction, but is the most expensive time to re-introduce your designers.

      The question that resulted this response is simple: What is going on here? You are not going to be able to communicate with everyone in the planning phases of a project. Believe it or not, there are citizens that did not participate in the early phases because they never thought the project would ever happen.

      My response is based on a successful public participation process. I will be writing about this in greater detail in an upcoming blog post. If you have not engaged the public, developed consensus, and established clear goals, then it is best that you do not start a public input process now. Continue on your path in your silo.

      If you have a plan that was developed with the community, then these late inquires in the project require a one on one approach. Citizens want to know what is happening. A successful public involvement process will provide you the project goals that will address the citizen’s concerns. 9 times out of 10, the concern is addressed in the project.

      Remember, citizens are not engineers and cannot read plans. Do not just send them a copy of the construction plans, or the illustrations from the charrette. Take the time to meet and describe the project. This should take 5 minutes to do. Listen to what they have to say, and explain how this was addressed in the plan.

      I have found that a successful public participation process does not lead to a redesign. It leads to more design. Once the community sees what is possible, they will demand more.

  9. Linda says:

    Similar to the feedback boxes, I think the worst thing you can say is “Project planning began 6 months ago and we are now entering the consultation period” which is similar alienation to “Feedback / consultation closes in 2 weeks time”.

    • Edward says:

      Yes, do not let you consultant own things like Facebook Pages and Websites. Once the public is engaged, keep then engaged by sharing information. Shutting down a Project Facebook Page is like locking the door to a commission meeting.

      Do not let good tools turn on you.

  10. Dustin Gabus says:

    “In a democracy, there are winners and losers. Unfortunately, your side lost.”

    I actually heard this from a D.C. urban planner during an advisory neighborhood council meeting.

  11. Frank Pondrom says:

    From a participant at a neighborhood meeting..”This aint no residential area ita where we live!”

  12. George says:

    Addendum to 10: “and while we’re required to have this meeting, none of the members of the board making the decision are here tonight.”

  13. I’m consultant who works in many different jurisdictions for both public and private clients. My ‘worst thing ever to say at a public meeting’ is to get the name of the place wrong – i.e. – “Here in Anytown …” when I am, in fact, “Here in Everyville …” You lose your audience real fast with that one …

    Thank goodness this has only happened ONCE (so far) !

  14. Morven says:

    I am from the government and I am here to help you

    That in my view is by far the worst. Planners rarely recover from that gaffe

  15. Rhetta says:

    When you present them with two plans they have to choose from, you have eliminated them from the planning process. A choice from two options is not meaningful involvement. You should never let yourself get to a point where you have two completed options where the public has not been involved it their development. It will appear to be a backroom deal.

    On the issue of no budget, its telling the public you’re not really serious about the project. You may not have a budget, but you likely are working on securing one. You need elaborate. If you really have no budget, how will the project ever get done? You need to have an answer for that.

    As for not being there 6 months ago – you might as well shot yourself as say this. If the planning was an open process and an individual chose not to participate that’s kind of on them, but if you didn’t go enough outreach to bring them into the process its on you. If you had an open process and they weren’t involved, you need to explain you process and how you did the outreach. If it was an open process the other community members attending will likely point this out the individual. You don’t need to.

    As for change, you should ask them how they see their community changing. Take a little time to move them all to that conclusion.

    Great posting.

    • Adam says:

      The budget can be largely dependent on the options being explored. If we have a budget up front, it limits the feasible alternatives and creates an appearance that decisions have already been made. Money becomes the driving force behind the project rather than problem-solving. For the project I’m working on, we know it will cost more money than we have, but we need to complete the study process to apply for funding. For the study process we have a range of alternatives with widely varying costs. What’s wrong with being honest that we want to find the best solution, not the cheapest?

  16. Good points any elected official with empathy can understand

    Yet, surprisingly, some elected folks sometimes fail to understand the citizen viewpoint. Where I live, in Quebec City (Canada), the Major administration is surprised that consultations are not just people saying “Yes, yes, we agree”. If you consult the people (because the law forces you), it is fine and natural that folks express disagreements and criticism. Clearly, if the law did not impose some consultations, most mayors and elected would never consult. In most cases, consultation leads to doing what local businessmen preferred. I’m afraid my view is based on objective observations.

  17. charles richmond says:

    You mean there are people actually living in the Revitalization Zone!? At least ten “worst things” in two meetings – a record?

    Urban renewal is new territory for our remote prairie “city”, so planners were perhaps over-enthusiastic at the prospect of actually planning such an area – in contrast to their usual fare of drafting numerically-detailed prescriptive ordinance, jealously evaluating developer-designed neighborhoods, or evaluating requests for yet another variance for snout-garage heights – all from the safety of cubicles… At the required public meeting, city representatives characterized the area as “fertile ground”, an “empty palette”, allowing a unique opportunity for creative design not usually possible in mature cities – apparently neglecting to notice the large number of actual residents from the neighborhood present (including a contingent of transient and homeless folks).

    Understandably, this raised objections: that far from being “an empty palette”, real people actually lived and worked there, and enjoyed a community sociology that many sterile suburban developments did not. And then the obvious question: had any of the planners actually walked the scary area? As the lineup to speak to this matter grew, the moderator closed discussion with the suggestion that they’d got the message, and people could fill out comments in the handy sheets provided – or, in the alternative, could use the city’s web form. More audience groans – the area is a landing place for Aboriginals and new immigrants, many not comfortable in English, and few having Internet access. Shouts of “Let them eat cake”. With the Press present, it was theatre.

    And not the end of the matter; at the followup meeting planners boasted they had now “walked the neighborhood” (a novel alternative to planning from maps and airphotos?), and that every attempt would be made to accommodate those displaced with off-site social housing. No discussion of social disruption, nor that the estimated numbers were based on primary occupant data, arguably half the actual community residents.

    Too many blunders to count – an exercise left to readers.

  18. Morven says:

    One of the worst, if not the worst, is for the local government not have a consultation charter of guidelines that allow the ordinary citizen to understand just how the consultation will proceed.
    -30-

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  20. chris says:

    These are all bad things to say because they reveal an underlying disrespect. The issue is not that the meeting might not go well for the planner–the issue is that the future of the community, in a situation like this, is in the hands of badly intentioned entities. Bring a foundation of respect for the community and none of these issues would come up.

  21. Ray Schoch says:

    My experience as a planning commissioner was that – far, far too often – public comments made no difference because, whether there were public meetings or not, the important decisions had already been made, and everything that came after was simply pro forma. One of the primary reasons why it’s rare to have members of the public leave a meeting actually feeling reasonably positive is that, whether explicitly or implicitly, they know in their gut that the process is already beyond their control, and that they’ve just wasted 3 hours – or whatever length of time – of their lives effectively beating their figurative heads against that figurative stone wall.

    In the state where I lived when a planning commissioner, plans were not “enforceable,” but were merely advisory, so developers and city councils could – and did – propose things that significantly altered a plan that was, in fact, the product of genuine community collaboration. The community was usually NOT a genuine part of the alteration.

    Further, the general public (and sometimes elected officials, as well) frequently don’t really “get” zoning, which seems to me the most basic level of decision-making. Over and over, I had conversations with disgruntled members of the public after the planning commission meeting, and a big part of why they were unhappy was that they didn’t know, or had paid no attention to, the zoning. To make matters worse, zoning definitions varied tremendously from community to community, so there was no consistency. R-1 meant one thing in town ‘x,’ and something very different in town ‘y.’

    In some ways, it’s the proverbial rock vs. hard place. People generally don’t like change, and planners sometimes don’t engage the public in the earliest stages of a development or operational change because they assume (often correctly) that the public will object just because whatever’s being proposed is different. NIMBY on steroids. And sometimes, planners don’t engage the public because they know that what’s being proposed carries very little public benefit, but many benefits for some favored segment of the local economy, or even a particular developer or development. In those cases, public NIMBYism is not only understandable, it’s justified. Not true in very many cases, but it does happen.

  22. Dave says:

    Another worst thing to say is: We understand your concerns; but we are the experts.

  23. Caroline Petti says:

    I was at at public hearing on nuclear waste and two of the Department of Energy employees on the government panel receiving comments were visibly asleep!

  24. Urban Diva says:

    What “They” say to you… “We value the public’s input and we are here to listen to your concerns”
    What they say to themselves.. This is all for show, to give you the impression your voices are being heard and that you, you poor gullible saps can really make a difference”

  25. Edward – Thank you for addressing such an important topic. I really appreciate your willingness to share your experiences as a means to advance the practices of planning and design. It is so important that as professional planners we continue to share those lessons learned in support of one another. An additional topic that might also advance this discussion is with regard to our goals for engaging individuals during the planning process. In addition to educating ourselves about all of the tools that help us communicate better or reach a larger audience, one of my goals as a planning professional is to advance our public participation processes by focusing on methods for creating, building and sustaining relationships with the individuals that make up the communities that we serve. The language that we use – “members of the public”, “citizen”, “landowner”, “homeowner”, “stakeholder” – are all terms that can begin to discount the individual person as a human being. I would love to see a future post where you share some of your secrets for sustaining those great personal connections in the community you serve – I know you have them!

    I know that, unfortunately, some of the public meeting “horror stories” in the comments section are examples from current meetings – but I recognize some of those stories as being nearly 25 years old. Two decades have held witness to significant advances in our profession and in technology, substantively different economic and political landscapes, and an evolution in expectations in general with regard to “participation” in the planning process. Here’s to “learning forward.”

  26. Many of the sayings relate to having the wrong meeting design for the stage of the project. There’s nothing wrong with having two alternatives to choose from if you’re very close to the end of the planning/design process, and there has been substantial public engagement leading up to that. Here are a few of my cardinal rules for meeting design:

    1. Figure out the purpose of your meeting and what kind of input you need, and then design the meeting to that purpose. This is absolutely the most important rule, and it’s almost always ignored. Most engineers and architects, and many planners, don’t stop to consider what they’re really trying to accomplish at a meeting, or what kind of input they might need. Consider the difference between these purposes:
    * Educate people about a decision that has already been made (public information campaign)
    * Understand local community values and goals
    * Develop consensus about goals for the project
    * Get input about the community’s perception of the pros and cons of different alternatives

    The choice of giving a presentation vs having open-ended small group discussions vs having structured exercises to solicit specific feedback should be guided by the purpose. If you’re at the beginning of the process, your purpose might be developing a community consensus about values and goals, and that requires small group discussion. If the design is finished and you need to educate people about the design details and construction schedule, a presentation or open house format might be appropriate.

    2. As much as possible, design your meeting to minimize the chances for grandstanding. Unless you have gone through a consensus-building process, and you know there is broad agreement about what to do, don’t design a meeting that has talking heads up front and citizens at a microphone. That’s a recipe for disaster.

    3. Never ever let go of the mic.

  27. Mark Loomis says:

    I stumbled upon this discussion through a LinkedIn update and found it to be very interesting.

    I have no experience with public meetings but I noticed a similarity between your experiences and the MacLeamy Curve: http://www.msa-ipd.com/MacleamyCurve.pdf

    A recurring theme in most of the comments is the fact that community involvement needs to be brought into the project early in order to be able to easily incorporate the results into the design.

    The MacLeamy Curve compares IPD (Integrated Project Delivery) with a traditional design process. In architectural terms, it’s comparing BIM (Building Information Modeling) with CAD design processes. The key takeaway is that IPD forces the design effort to be spent earlier in the design process where the cost of design changes are the least and the ability to impact cost/functional capabilities are the most accessible.

    It seems to me that this graph could easily be revised to represent early public involvement versus later public input in a project with similar results being the outcome. I don’t know how you’d come about the metrics to support such a graph but I think it would be worth looking into.

    It would make a great PowerPoint slide!

  28. Hi, thanks for this nice post. I’m sharing it on FB. One comment I want to add is related to number 6, not at construction phase but at planning phase.

    “Please do not oppose to our plan in such a hurry, We are now only in a planning phase and nothing is decided yet.”

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  30. WillJ says:

    QuikTrip used #9 “We are showing these plans to you (the community) as a courtesy” and then proceded to ask for a bunch of variances for building a large surburban model gas station (the largest in the City of Atlanta) next to my urban neighborhood. The neighbors were not exactly thrilled. QT has yet to win its variances, but we shall see what happens.

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