Effective Public Engagement: How Deliberative Forums Differ from Traditional Public Meetings

Most communities hold public meetings throughout the year, but very few of them are well organized or structured to be effective or achieve meaningful results.

Often, public officials invite public comment on policies or plans but without framing well what are the issues in play, what kind of information needs to be provided to bring citizens up to speed, or, what kind of input would be useful.

To make things more challenging, the meetings are rarely well publicized, minimal efforts are deployed to bring in a good cross-section of the community, and thus, turnout is largely residents who are either most opposed to or most supportive of what’s being proposed.

When Public Engagement Associates works with public officials we always bring a very different approach to organizing public meetings, one where the turnout is more representative of the local community by age, gender, race, and income level, and one where participants learn about the issues throughout the meeting, and deliberate together to find common ground and shared priorities.

The table below summarizes the key distinctions between traditional public meetings and the more deliberative approach we take in organizing and facilitating public forums.

 Areas for Comparison “Traditional” Public or Meeting Deliberative Forums
 Type of Format Used Speaker-focused Participant-focused
 Mode of Discussion Open-ended discussion Focused discussion questions
Role of Information “Experts” deliver information

Participants share anecdotal evidence

Participants use detailed, balanced background materials

Citizens respond to and share information

Who Attends Often engages the “usual suspects,” i.e., stakeholders and citizens already active on specific issues Reaches into diverse populations, including citizens not usually active, with efforts to reach under-represented
How Citizens Ideas Get Surfaced Airing individual ideas and concerns Facilitator-led small group discussion

Identifying shared ideas/concerns and assigning them relative priority

How Citizens Ideas Get Used Limited reporting of participant input Instant, detailed reporting of participant input


Deliberative forums require a different type of commitment from public officials. First, there must be genuine desire to move away from the tradition and custom of a public hearing, which is built around the idea of each citizen receiving 2 or 3 minutes, solo at a microphone to express their view or opinion. Second, public officials must look for effective ways to help residents understand important background on the issues in play and key particulars about what are the range of options to consider. Finally, they must commit to a more transparent way of collecting ideas and allowing residents to exchange ideas and views with one another.

To plan for more deliberative forums, public officials need to invest more resources into recruiting a representative group of citizens, more time and attention on developing materials that can be easily understood, and sufficient time and inventiveness in determining the right outcomes you want to achieve and the right means to achieve those in how the meeting is designed.