Effective Public Engagement: Strategic Meeting Design and Facilitation

As we’ve explored in previous posts, ensuring a turnout of diverse citizens is a significant factor in ensuring a successful public meeting.

Yet, ultimate success is determined by how you deliver the meeting. We like to say that 50% of great facilitation is having the right meeting design in place. Yes, you still need someone with strong facilitation skills to run the meeting, make sure you hear every voice, and accomplish the meeting’s outcomes. However, even a great meeting facilitator will struggle if the design of the meeting doesn’t fit well with the meeting purpose, audience, and outcomes or the history and context of the issues being addressed


50% of great facilitation

is having the right meeting design in place.


Meeting design is much more art than science, and one improves their art the more often they design. Design consists of two core parts: content (the materials you provide) and program design (how the meeting is structured and organized). Neither can happen effectively without the other, as the tasks for each are highly interdependent.

Getting clear on the purpose of a meeting – or a series of meetings – is the key initial task. What do you need to focus on (i.e., what set of policy issues or plans) – and what do you need to achieve (i.e., what input will best assist in making progress on those issues or plans)?

A good example of this: a new Councilmember in D.C. wanted to allow residents of his Ward to weigh in on the key issues around public safety, education, housing, economic development, transportation, and health care for a full day “summit” of 200 residents.

As a result, we needed to determine what “content” we needed to provide (i.e., concise written materials that summarized each policy area; presentations that highlighted those summaries) and what meeting “design” allowed residents to effectively discuss and prioritize both their Councilman’s ideas as well as their own.

The Content for a Public Meeting

When engaging the public, it is essential, first, to ensure you provide useful and timely information, without making it too dense or detailed or too laden with jargon and “insider” terminology.

Thus, there are important questions to consider when preparing the “content” for a public meeting:

  • What is the “frame” for the information? How will it be organized and towards what outcome?  This includes how it will directly or indirectly influence the making of a policy or plan.
  • What is the minimal amount of information that participants need to understand this frame and the relevant issues?
  • What are the best methods for conveying this information that are accessible and engaging?

Ultimately, it’s important to focus on providing just the right amount of information as well as the best methods to convey the necessary background information and the most relevant data. We have found this is best done by focusing on being clear, straightforward, and engaging in the materials you provide: This includes dynamic presentations, charts, maps and other materials that provide just enough context so that people have some shared understanding of the situation and focus very quickly on the most important issues and questions.  This information should be presented in a clear and simple – and, ideally, engaging – manner to be accessible to as many people as possible.

Our general rule of thumb on most policy issues is to have no more than a 2-page handout for each discussion topic, with ample pictures, graphs, charts, and pull-out quotes. Frequently, preparing a short video (or a dynamic PowerPoint or Prezi presentation) can help to organize, animate and guide the public through a learning process and raise their level of effective participation – in the meeting itself.

The Design of a Public Meeting

While you are streamlining what information is critical to be presented and how, you will simultaneously need to determine how the meeting will be designed and structured as well as how to align that design with the materials and presentations. Questions you will need to address during design include:

  • How long will the meeting be?
  • Where does this particular meeting fit into a longer planning or policy-making process?
  • How many presentations and discussions will you have?
  • What specific questions do you need answers to – both qualitative and quantitative questions?
  • Who should present for each segment of the program?

There are many places meeting design can go wrong.  An opening that does not make it clear what the meeting is about can confuse people.  A long and detailed presentation can drain everybody’s energy.  Poorly worded discussion questions or instructions can send people working in different directions.  Allowing one or two people to dominate the conversation can frustrate everybody else.   Over the years, we have found the following design principles to be most helpful:

  1. Balance Presentation & Engagement: Balance the right amount of information presentation with table discussion and other types of interaction. Too little presentation and citizens have insufficient guidance to hold a good conversation; too much presentation and citizens are potentially either overwhelmed and don’t know where to start or they are left with too little time to engage in good conversation.
  2. Right Discussion Questions: Pay close attention to discussion questions. We almost always conduct a focus or simulation group prior to a public meeting so we can test the questions we plan to pose. Sometimes we realize we’re way off; sometimes we realize we just need a few tweaks. A good discussion question leads to quality discussions and helps yield the input, ideas, or perspectives you hope for. A poor discussion question can lead to group frustration either because it is too open-ended, too limiting, or too confusing and/or ambiguous.
  3. Right Tools: Find the right tools for each meeting (and whether they are even necessary) and the right timing for each tool. For example, like many planners, we use polling keypads frequently at our meetings. Just like a great deal of forethought is invested in the right discussion questions, the same goes for polling questions. Polling questions can be used to ascertain who is attending (and how that compares to local demographics), what are people’s priorities (either of what you provide or what they self-generate), how they evaluate various options being considered, and so on. Providing the context is critical, as is the actual framing of the question, and the options or scales you choose. We never treat the use of keypads casually, nor do we any tool we use. Invest the right time upfront to figure out what purpose it will serve, what outcome you seek, and process will best yield the desired result.
  4. Invest Real Time in Design: In our experience, insufficient attention is paid to putting together the right agenda for a meeting. Most members of the public prefer a well-structured meeting with clear objectives and clear guidance on how to participate.  Developing the right sequence of activities requires an iterative design process.  We will go through several draft meeting designs before settling on the right one.

The Effective Facilitation of a Public Meeting

Select someone who has strong facilitation and moderation skills to lead the meeting. Good facilitators can both create the right tone and environment as well as ‘hold the space’ so that citizens know what is expected from the meeting and from them. They are welcoming, clear, intentional, and open. They give people a sense of purpose for their work and a sense of appreciation for what they share, both the positive and the negative. Some agencies have skilled facilitators internally; some don’t. You might not always be able to find or provide a quality, neutral facilitator for your meetings, but especially when the stakes are high use of an outside skilled facilitator can be the difference between a successful and a disappointing meeting.

One final note on facilitation, we have found that often planners are better served during a public meeting if they can quietly and carefully listen to what others have to say and respond to feedback (praise and critique) from a position the position as the expert planner and not as a facilitator of the meeting. Letting someone else facilitate for you can liberate you to play the other critical roles you need to play to move a planning process forward.

Our next blog post will summarize what are the key differences between a traditional public meeting and a more deliberative public forum.