Town Hall meetings ‘dead or alive’ in community engagement?

BY SARAH HILL AND ANDREW COULSON

Engage 2 Act Adelaide Lunchtime session - 31 May 2017

Engage 2 Act lunch time sessions

Each month or so Adelaide members of Engage 2 Act hold lunchtime sessions on a topic of interest that somehow creeps out of the previous session. At the last session, a fun very much two sided debate on incentives in community engagement, the topic of whether the use of town hall meetings in the public arena was actually killing community engagement arose. The debate discussed that, among other things, incentives were actually being used to try and get people to attend these often drab, stale, brown council rooms in an attempt to tick off community engagement. 

The question was asked, was it actually the style of meetings that were actually a barrier to engagement and stopping people from participating in engagement processes and not as was thought the need to incentivise against other areas of life? Were in fact Town Hall Meetings the problem, were they dead or alive in community engagement?

So with that question in mind the arena and indeed topic had naturally been chosen for the next Adelaide Engage 2 Act session - Town Hall Meetings. 

Local member Sarah Hill took on the challenge of taking that one question and making it an event and with a little guidance from Adelaide Board Members Andrew and Becky set about organising the next lunchtime session. With a letter to the Lord Mayor of Adelaide a free venue was secured and a date and time arranged. 

Come 31 May the scene was set and we entered the Colonel Light Room at the City of Adelaide Town Hall ready to debate whether town hall meetings were actually worth their while… fittingly the session was held in a rather regal council debating chamber. Complete with microphones, voting buttons, bone china cups and saucers and even a public gallery 30 plucky members entered the arena. Elected members, students, public servants and practitioners sat around the ‘formal’ table set up and more in the public gallery.  

Setting the scene

First up the obligatory introduction and Becky gave a quick overview of Town Hall types whilst Sarah shared some research she had done on the history of town hall meetings. She had found out that most examples/definitions originate from the US but the Town Hall meetings don’t necessarily need to be held in town halls. In Spain for example Church steps are preferred. 

So how are town hall public meetings defined? Put simply, the Oxford dictionary says they are ‘an event which a politician or public official answers questions from members of the public’. 

Sarah also discovered that in the US there's even an app to find out when and where there might be a town hall meeting happening so should you really have something to get off your chest you can go on a ‘ranty tour’!

There are two main legislations that public meetings fall under, the 1999 Local Government Act and the 2003 Procedures at Public Meeting Regulations. Interestingly in 1912 there was a Public Meetings Act. It was an act for the prevention of disorderly conduct at public meetings. If a person was near a place where a public meeting was held and they behaved in a riotous, disorderly, indecent, offensive, threatening or insulting manner they could be found guilty of an offence, and liable to a penalty or imprisonment, with or without hard labour, for a term not exceeding one month. Can you imagine! 

On to the debate

Before we started we needed a few ‘real’ examples. First up a clip showing a public town hall meeting that happened, during what is now commonly known as the St Kilda Triangle wars… check it out here… a coffin is thrown!

Our 2nd example lightened the room a little after the shock of St Kilda with a clip of a public town hall meeting from TV comedy show Utopia (Thanks Paul Smitheram).

Examples out of the way it was over to the room to share their stories. 

A story from a local Council suggested that they often hold Town Hall meetings but no one came. Rage and violence was been mentioned in another example by someone from state government suggesting that when the topic is right people's passion certainly comes out. 

The value of accurate promotion

Conversation flowing chat turned to the promotion of meetings and how this can have an effect on attendance numbers and who is in the room. Yes a poster or advert will get people coming, but worded wrongly can also get the wrong people there who just want to cause issues. Andrew gave an example of where in a group of about 30 people at a recent session one man turned up wanted to have his 5 minutes shouting and pointing fingers but when he entered the room and saw it wasn't a traditional town hall meeting and instead was a one on one opportunity with maps and materials he got extremely angry and instead vented his frustrations for all to hear to the bemusement of others. 

Using the format and structure to set the scene

Format, framing and structure are really important in Town Hall meetings as it sets a good direction for how a meeting will pan out. You may still get angry people but the situation is easier to control when people know what to expect. However it was also mentioned it’s possible that the discipline of a meeting should be communicated (how people should behave). 

Timing is always an issue with public meetings participants feeling they don’t get time to think through the topic and quite often they are put on the spot for responses or ideas. 

Becky shared a story about how even best laid plans can come unstuck. A session she’d organised was once hijacked by community members’ discontent in that what had started as a workshop actually ended turning in to a public Town Hall meeting and staff just had to go with it. People power!

Aaron Glossop attending his first Engage 2 Act session raised the question via Twitter that ‘Are town hall meetings worthwhile or an avenue for negativity?’. He also wondered what community members got out of attending a Town Hall meeting asking - Is there a feeling of 'Can I be heard' in town hall meetings?

Closing the loop

So rose the question - Does a classic town hall meeting offer the public ownership? Some seemed to think that this is what people want and others suggested that if actually organised by the community attendance is often 400x that of a council run event. There was also the question of feedback after a meeting. Councils are notoriously bad at closing the loop, we need to follow up and close the feedback loop which could include bringing them back together. 

Online meetings

Then attention shifted to online meetings where specific spaces are seen as more vitriolic and in some cases out of control.  Comments in the room however suggested that whilst face to face town halls can get loud and confrontational they offered no anonymity and were often more truthful in the statements that were made. People aren’t as accountable when anonymous online. 

So…what are the top 10 tips for a holding a town hall meeting

Coming towards the end of the session the debate turned to the question - What does a ‘good’ public town hall meeting look like? Getting 1 person or a 1000? Who is best to run them, the community or the council? 

And so we moved to a task set by Becky - what are the top 10 tips for a holding a ‘good’ town hall meeting?

Answers from the room were quick in coming:

  1. A good facilitator is needed 
  2. That you need to have the decision makers there 
  3. Having a draw card speaker on the subject will actually get the right people there as they will want to listen to them
  4. Closing the loop after a session was crucial, what did come out of a session, this aids in people wanting to coming again as they can see something actually happened
  5. Timings - open early to enable people to chat before a meeting, sometimes over a cup of tea, as this will help get the unrelated things out and even some negativity. But also giving people time to be heard is important. Not rushed. Make people feel comfortable so that they can talk
  6. Be careful in how you promote and even name an event. A drop-in public meeting 4-6pm needs to highlight the drop-in part more otherwise everyone comes at 4pm and stays until 6pm expecting a public meeting.
  7. A good comfortable and accessible venue so all can participate
  8. Ask people to voice their opinions upfront and not at the end - maybe build in an opportunity to submit relevant questions before hand (could be an online component)
  9. It’s all about making sure people feel heard – put their feedback on a big screen – use a suite of tools to enable people to ask questions
  10. A good layout - layouts can help or hinder debate, don't but suits behind a barrier

Town hall alternatives

Finally the group turned to alternatives options to a straight Town Hall meeting. Face to face one on one in a room with props (maps etc) had been mentioned before and gives people a chance to be and feel heard. But also what about the digital space? Are online town halls the way forward? Are telephone town halls working? 

One question raised about the digital version was, who owns the online town hall content? What about the fact some Facebook chats go so fast that questions are missed? If online, is there even potential for town hall meetings to last for days? All good questions we didn't know the answers for. 

Final remarks

With this it was concluded that if a public town hall meeting is happening we don't or shouldn't need to choose, we should be able to have the on and offline options given to us/the community. 

Again Aaron asked a fitting question and echoed a sentiment in the room - Do traditional town hall meetings suit the older demographic and digital platforms our future stakeholders? 

Next session

And so with those final questions a topic for the next Adelaide lunchtime session was posed. How is digital community engagement working? 

Thanks to all those who attended the lunch time session on Town Hall meetings in Adelaide, we hope you enjoyed what Engage 2 Act does. Especially, big thanks to Sarah Hill who solely organised this session. With the next topic set Sarah is now looking for other local members to aid here in putting together our next offering. Let us know via the Engage 2 Act email if you are in Adelaide and interested in helping run this or you have an idea for a future session - likewise if you’re in another city anywhere in the world let us know if you want to run a session like this on community engagement under the Engage 2 Act banner and we can help you set up and promote it. 

Join the Collective… it’s free

Don’t forget if you’re not yet a member sign up on our join page and if you want to participate more why not come along to out (un)Conference in September at St Kilda Town Hall where this and many other topics will I’m sure be debated further. 

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