Town Hall Meetings Fail

Town Hall Meeting

In my professional opinion, a town hall meeting where people determine long term infrastructure decisions by popular vote, is not a recommend public engagement process, because:

  • participation requires public speaking (which is feared by about 75% of the population)
  • only a tiny fraction of the participants will be heard
  • participation is commonly not representative of the range of stakeholders affected
  • the social dynamics of crowds and public debate often appeal to emotions and thus reduce consideration of facts and information most pertinent to infrastructure decisions
  • hand raising to vote can put neighbours in conflict over opinions that could otherwise be kept private
  • where more than two options are presented, vote splitting can cause a minority preference to win (using typical single-choice voting)

Generally, I recommend authorities implement infrastructure upgrades that best compliment their policies and professional best practices.  Where there are competing trade-offs between options, and a better understanding of public opinion (community values and priorities) would be helpful, a private online survey based on easily understood information is my recommendation.  Surveys can record respondent information to make apparent representativeness among the range of stakeholder types (e.g. age, postal code, travel modes transit/motorist/cyclist/pedestrian).

A public drop-in event can also provide opportunities for face-to-face discussions with staff over drawings to help stakeholders understand the options. Stakeholder workshops and citizen reference panels are also recommended where much deeper understanding and deliberation is needed.


First Global Democratic Deliberation in History

Earth from spaceOn September 26, 2009 approximately 4,000 citizens in 38
countries discussed and recognized their collective opinions on the issue of
climate change.  The format was an incredible
example of best practices in public participation, that included:

  1. Random and representative participant selection
  2. Objective primer booklets (PDF) provided ahead of time
  3. Engaging information videos
  4. Expert panels discussions
  5. Extensive day long small group deliberation
  6. Informed participant opinion polling
  7. Collaborative authoring of suggestions
  8. Immediate publishing of results in an accessible
  9. Aiming to have real impact

The “World Wide Views on Global Warming” project was organized
by the highly respected and independent Danish Board of Technology (known for
pioneering the consensus conference and citizen panel formats) and their carefully
selected partners from each country. The event invited 100 random citizens from
each participating country to learn about the topic of climate change, spend a
day discussing the issues in small groups, answer a set of 12 multiple-choice questions
and to give recommendations in their own words. 
All the data was then compiled, made available on line and will be
presented as policy report to delegates at the UN Climate Change
negotiations (COP15) in Copenhagen December 7 – 18, 2009. 

Overall I am very impressed with the approach used and I
hope this project will be the first of many to come.   I can imagine WWViews will be considered an
import milestone in the practice of deliberative democracy and will be studied
and referenced for years to come.

The question is: will it have any impact? One thing is for
certain, the delegates will at least know about it, since Connie Hedegaard, the
Danish Minister of Climate and Energy, is both the formal Ambassador for
WWViews and the host of the U.N. COP15 negotiations. The efforts of the
National Partners and a media campaign will also try to give weight to the
results, but with so many interest groups competing to sway the opinions of politicians,
I am doubtful this incredible demonstration of how politics should be done will
be given much attention.

Learn more about the project on the website

Access the library of photos, videos and materials from all the meetings

See the results and details from the Canadian National


Citizens’ Assemblies: Wise Democracy from the Minipublic

(Originally published on September 6th 2008)

Politicians should take note; there is a new answer to some of the
toughest questions of our times. When presented with an issue with no
obvious popular and sensible solution, or a situation where a
legislature is unable to make progress on an important topic, 100
random citizens can be called on to solve the political puzzle, as they
did in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario (my home province).

Following the 2001 election, the newly elected premier of BC
followed through on a promise to create a citizens’ assembly to
consider changes to the provincial electoral system. In 2006 the
Ontario government followed suit as part of their democratic renewal
efforts. Both citizens’ assembly projects followed an innovative model
designed by former BC politician, Gordon Gibson, and were given a clear
and independent mandate by an all party committee.

Each assembly process began with tens of thousands of written
invitations sent out to random citizens all across the province.
Through several stages of positive responses and further lottery
selection, the members of the assembly were narrowed down to 158 in BC
and 103 in Ontario. Members came from every electoral riding. Their
ranks included equal numbers of women and men, and spanned the
demographic spectrum in rough similarity with census data. While not
absolutely perfect, this was a more representative sample of folks than
I have ever seen at any town meeting or campaign rally.

Central to the citizens’ assembly model is the learning phase. In
Ontario and BC, members spent six weekends learning about the topic
from panels of experts, custom educational materials, and a staff of
adult educators selected and trained to present a range of perspectives
in a way that avoids biasing the process. By the end of this learning
phase these assorted bus drivers, home makers, blue-collar managers and
school teachers were able to debate election reform at a Masters level.

Following this learning phase, the assembly members took part in a
series of public meetings and opportunities for comment from the
public, giving members a greater understanding of the varied views and
opinions within the population.

Finally each assembly went through an exhaustive six weeks of
facilitated consensus driven deliberations and structured
decision-making. Members talked in small groups and large groups,
debated, researched, weighed options, heard concerns and voted
step-by-step through each of the key decisions required to find a
common answer. In the end both BC and Ontario citizen assemblies ended
with over 90% of their members voting in favour of a common final
recommendation. As the third party evaluations
and academic reviews have come to prove, these staggering majorities
were not the result of charismatic manipulation, authoritative
coercion, or exhausted frustration. These results represent over 100
random people approaching full agreement on an open ended question—on
an issue as complex as election reform. This was achieved by a thorough
understanding of the options and respectful discussion with the stated
goal of seeking the best solution that would be in accord with the
commonly recognized values of the people. This was an example of the
wise and practical democracy most of us assume is impossible. As Gordon
Gibson expressed it “For someone with a faith in democracy, this was
like seeing God.”

To put this demonstrated model of the citizens’ assembly into
context let’s quickly look at some more traditional methods of hearing
the ‘voice of the people’ on public policy:


  • Elections: Candidates often win less then
    50% of the votes cast, (but still more than their multiple
    competitors). Voters are generally poorly informed by combative media
    campaigns and are unable to recall much detail about the policy
    positions of their favourite candidates. Once elected, politicians are
    driven by short term public perceptions and party rivalry in order to
    secure a re-election.

  • Expert Panels: In formal committees,
    politicians and government bureaucrats are informed by select experts.
    The members of these committees are often well informed about their
    subject matter, but without any necessary grasp of public values. The
    selection of experts may bias the advice.

  • Opinion Polls: These telephone surveys
    are a result of top of mind reactions to yesterdayís sound bites and
    newspaper headlines. They superficially reflect public values, but
    without the educated, deliberated, and reasoned conclusions one would
    want to steer a society by.

  • Focus Groups: Focus groups typically have
    a small number of people at the table who are usually not informed
    about the issue at hand. Depending on the facilitation, focus groups
    may yield results that are uninformative, and not highly representative
    of the values of the population as a whole.

  • Town Halls & Hearings: Comments from
    the floor in a public hall have always been abused by the loudest and
    most charismatic speakers who are first to speak their complaints and
    accusations to the room. While iconic of our early democracy, the
    self-selected public speakers who tend to participate are often driven
    by personal or interest group agendas and are quickly situated in
    Us-VS-Them debates. These are not well informed, representative, or
    consensus-driven events.

comparison, the citizen’s assembly model is what deliberative democracy
theorist Archon Fung calls a “minipublic,” that is “…an educative
forum that aims to create nearly ideal conditions for citizens to form,
articulate, and refine opinions about particular public issues through
conversations with one another.” It is one of few processes where the
shared values of the public are directly applied to policy
recommendations, rather than guessed or assumed by privileged
individuals—sometimes with their own agenda. That said, the citizens’
assembly model it is not a perfect system. It is susceptible to
manipulation or corruption by incompetent staff, or can be directed by
a biased chair, possibly appointed for political reasons. According to
the third party evaluations, this was not the case in Ontario or BC.

Both the BC and Ontario Citizens’ Assemblies on Electoral Reform
ended with referendums (similar to U.S. ballot initiatives) that were
carried out as an addendum to the provincial elections. That is, the
thoroughly debated, close-to-consensus recommendation of over 100
random citizens (who had been highly educated on the topic at hand),
was subject to 60% approval by a general public that was overwhelmingly
uninterested and uninformed about the subject matter. In BC the
proposal won 57.7% of the votes, but did not pass the 60% threshold
required. In Ontario the proposal only received 37% support. One theory
for the difference between the two is the much higher level of media
coverage of the citizens’ assembly process that occurred in BC, i.e.
the more people learn about the citizens’ assembly process, the more
likely they are to support its recommendation. In any case, referendums
are dependent on expensive media campaigns and commercial news coverage
with often trivial, controversy seeking, and superficial rhetoric.
Without a complete overhaul of the media system, like public opinion
polls, referendums are not appropriate mechanisms for wise policy
decisions. In short, the citizens’ assembly model works to produce
useful recommendations to government and like any legislative
commission or committee, should not be required to pass a referendum.

Beyond these two Citizens’ Assemblies on Electoral Reform, Canadians
have and continue to use similar random selection, educated and
deliberative citizen panels to inform various government decisions,
such as the newly starting Ontario Public Drug Programs Citizens’ Council, the ongoing independent Canada’s World project, or some of the many citizen dialogues conducted by the Canadian Policy Research Networks. Based in Toronto, a young firm called Mass LBP is aiming to make a business out of citizens’-assembly-inspired public consultation.

Internationally, many governments and non-government organizations
have conducted similar processes under many different names: Consensus
Conferences, Study Circles, Planning Cells, National Issues Forums,
21st Century Town Halls, Citizen Juries, and Citizen Panels (among
others). Each model varies in the number of members, the amount of time
given to education and deliberation, and the facilitation process, but
as Matt Leighninger of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium suggested at the BC When Citizens Decide conference,
“We should avoid ‘modelitis’ that focuses on the difference between
models rather than the similarities. The larger context is more
important then the specifics of the model.” That larger context most
importantly includes the political will of the government to listen to
recommendations from its citizens.

Looking to 2009, we will see elections in Canada, the Unites States of America, Germany, Mexico, India, Japan and over 50 other counties.
These politicians will all be facing such challenging issues as climate
change, public education reform, strains on health care, improving
child care, supporting minority rights, addressing aboriginal land
claims, fresh water protection, demographic shifts, sustainability and
development. When looking for direction on such complex issues, there
will be many that seek advice from business leaders and experts, some
that carry out traditional consultations with the usual suspects, but
only a courageous few that will take the political risk to champion
citizens’ assembly like process that will have actual influence based
on the deliberation of informed random citizens. These few pioneers
will be the examples for future democratic leaders and we should give
them our support.

You can learn more about deliberative democracy processes at the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation’s Learning Exchange.

Jason Diceman is a stakeholder engagement consultant with LURA Consulting and author of the popular Dotmocracy Handbook for large group decision-making.


A great guide to public consultation

I recently found this manual…


By Peter Sterne with Sandra Zagon

I am finding it very useful for planning public consultations required for environmental assements. The detailed Roadmap Model gives 51 key steps one should carry out to conduct a successful public participation process. Written in 1997 it’s a bit out of date in terms of more conteporary approaches, such as the use of online tools, but it is still very worth while and insightful for consultants and government folks in Canada and beyond. Pass it on!

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public consultation guide 1997.pdf 2.65 MB

More Criteria for Evaluating Participatory Processes

I found this “Practical Guide for Evaluating Participatory Processes” (PDF) by the International Observatory of Participatory Democracy (OIDP is the Spanish acronym). I’m not that impressed in the ambiguity of the criteria, the redundancy between criteria and the lack of reference to foundational research. Instead I would highly recommend “Public Participation Methods: A Framework for Evaluation” by Gene Rowe and Lynn J. Frewer, whose criteria I summarized in a previous blog post.

The OIDP guide was written for municipal governance, but can be applied to other levels of government and community organizations. I believe the original document was written in Spanish and the meaning of some terms may have been a bit confused in the English translation I read.

Below I copy the criteria titles directly from the guide, although the definitions were rewritten based on my interpretations of their descriptions.

A. Criteria related to the process coordination

  1. Consensus: Agreement from political groups, social groups and government related technicians on the need and methodology of the process.

  2. Transversality: Participation in planning and implementation from relevant political and technical bodies.

  3. Initiative and leadership: Government leadership is required for a institutionally valid process. A diverse group of stakeholders and technicians should also be part of the leadership.

  4. Integration in the [government] participatory system: The process should be within an established participatory system or at least be consistent and complimentary to any established participatory system.

  5. Clarity of the objectives: Establish clear expectations of results and limits to their scope. Fulfilment of the objectives.

  6. Planning and resources: Confirm a detailed plan including sensible objectives, stages, schedules, and sufficient provisioning of economic and personnel resources.

B. Participant-related criteria

  1. Number of participants: Percentage of participants in relation to the reference population. Percentage of organized players versus the reference total.

  2. Diversity: compare the demographics of those participating in the process, with the demographics of those in the reference society. Consideration for social groups that are usually under-represented (e.g. women, immigrants, disabled, low-income). Compare the profiles of the participating organizations (e.g. neighbourhood, corporate, union, cultural, sports, political) to the theme of process. Look for key stakeholders, players and organizations that were not included but should have been.

  3. Representativity of the participants (specific to organization representatives): Where organization representatives play a role, what is the democratic quality of how they recognize and present the views of their constituents. E.g. information flow to and from representatives and their constituents, use of elections, consistency between the organizations’ formal statements and that of the representative.

  4. Openness of the process: The public is invited to participate and take part in the decision-making process.

C. Criteria related to the reason for participation

  1. Relevance: The topic of the process is within the governments agenda and viewed as important and relevant to the citizens. Significance of the potential result on the government budget.

  2. Capacity of intervention by the [government] administration: The topic of the process is within the governments administrative scope.

D. Criteria related to the type of participation

  1. Participatory diagnosis: Start with a diagnosis that defines the main problems and matter for debate. Ideally this diagnosis would be participatory in nature.

  2. Capacity to make proposals: Allows citizens to make proposals.

  3. Level of participation: On an upward scale from Information to Communication, Query, Deliberation, and then Decision.

  4. Quality of the information: How effective the information channels were at distributing key information to prepare and support participants. Plurality, objectivity, clarity and utility of the information provided.

  5. Deliberation methods and techniques: techniques or mechanisms were used to avoid inequalities between participants in the deliberations. Each participant felt empowered to voice their opinion.

E. Criteria related to the consequences of the process:

  1. Substantive results: The results respond to the needs recognized in the initial planning of the process.

  2. Implementing the results: Verify the implementation of tangible results. The existence, or the study to create a body to follow-up on the outcomes.

  3. Result feedback: The participants know the results, validate them and consider the process as ended.

  4. Improvement of relationships among the players: Strengthen relationships among the participants, their organizations and the government administration.

  5. Training: Trained participants in the field of citizen participation.

  6. Building a political participatory culture: Participant satisfaction with the process and the willingness to participate once again.

Again, while you may find these criteria useful, I would recommend using the Rowe and Frewer criteria instead.


Evaluation Criteria for Public Participation Methods

In search of a solid frame of reference for comparing various international citizen assembly processes I am investigating, I discovered an excellent paper called “Public Participation Methods: A Framework for Evaluation” by Gene Rowe and Lynn J. Frewer, two Ph.D.s working at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich, United Kingdom. Below I copied and pasted together all nine key criteria defined in the paper and their related suggestions. You can use these criteria and suggestions to help plan and evaluate any stakeholder engagement processes you are involved with, such as members surveys, focus groups, public hearings and citizen juries. I think it is very useful.

The original paper was published in 2000 in the Science, Technology, & Human Values journal and has since been the most read article on the journal’s web site. You can download a free copy of the PDF from or see the attached here. The full paper is 27 pages long with 75 bibliographic entries. It is definitely a key paper in the emerging canon of research on public participation mothods.

A Summary of the Criteria from “Public Participation Methods: A Framework for Evaluation” by Gene Rowe and Lynn J. Frewer

Acceptance Criteria

  • Representativeness: The public participants should comprise a broadly representative sample of the population of the affected public.
    Suggestions: select a random stratified sample of the affected population; involve the use of questionnaires to determine the spread of attitudes with regard to a certain issue, using this as a basis for the proportionate selection of members.

  • Independence: The participation process should be conducted in an independent, unbiased way.
    Suggestions: steering committee or management team incorporates members from diverse bodies or neutral organizations, such as university academics; disclosure from participants of any relationship to the sponsoring body ; rhe use of a respected facilitator.

  • Early [public] involvement: The public should be involved as early as possible in the process as soon as value judgements become salient.
    Suggestions: Public debate should thus be allowed on underlying assumptions and agenda setting and not just on narrow, predefined problems

  • Influence: The output of the procedure should have a genuine impact on policy.
    Suggestions: ensure that there is a clear acceptance beforehand as to how the output will be used and how it might direct policy; use of the media to inform the general public about the specific ways in which the output has influenced policy.

  • Transparency: The process should be transparent so that the public can see what is going on and how decisions are being made.
    Suggestions: releasing information on aspects of the procedure, varying from the manner of the selection of the public participants to the way in which a decision is reached to the minutes of meeting; if any information needs to be withheld from the public, for reasons of sensitivity or security, … admit the nature of what is being withheld and why.

Process Criteria

  • Resource accessibility: Public participants should have access to the appropriate resources to enable them to successfully fulfil their brief.
    Suggestions: information resources (summaries of the pertinent facts); human resources (e.g., access to scientists, witnesses, decision analysts); material resources (e.g., overhead projectors/whiteboards); and time resources (participants should have sufficient time to make decisions).

  • Task definition: The nature and scope of the participation task should be clearly defined.
    Suggestions: [clearly define at the outset] the scope of a participation exercise, its expected output, and the mechanisms of the procedure.

  • Structured decision making: The participation exercise should use/provide appropriate mechanisms for structuring and displaying the decision-making process.
    Suggestions: A variety of decision-aiding tools might be incorporated into a participation procedure, such as decision analysis, decision trees, multiattribute utility theory, and the Delphi technique; structure the decision process in groups; important to structure the decision process in [small] groups; ian ndependent decision analyst could be usefully involved; use of an [experienced] group facilitator to employ rules for effective group decision making.

  • Cost-effectiveness: The procedure should in some sense be cost-effective.
    Suggestions: take account of the potential costs of the alternative methods, in both time and money, and to consider the extent to which they
    fulfill the other criteria.

If I find other evaluation frameworks I will post them to this blog.

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Rowe frewer public engagement.pdf 79.99 KB