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.