Facilitating public workshops and comment sessions are typically conducted by public-sector organizations. These sessions are intended to share information and receive comments.
Public workshops and comment sessions differ from public hearings in two distinct ways. First, public workshops and comment sessions are usually optional, whereas public hearings are statutorily required. This opens the door for more flexibility with workshops and comment sessions.
The second difference is that public workshops and comment sessions do not require formal responses, whereas public hearings require responses by legislation. The lack of formal responses often leads to misunderstandings and hard feelings among those participating in workshops and comment sessions.
1. Public Notice
The sponsoring organization provides public notice. Because there are usually fewer statutory or policy requirements, there is flexibility in how to advertise the event and for what period of time. Facilitators should participate in the process to minimize fallout in the sessions from stakeholders not promptly getting the correct information.
The best course of action to minimize session disruption is for facilitators to insist on seven days’ notice, both written and virtual, and for interested stakeholder groups to be notified specifically with either phone calls or emails.
2. Venue and Format
Format was not much of an issue pre-COVID, but today the choice (or combination) of in-person, hybrid, or virtual is an ordinary decision. However, it must be coupled with the ease of connectivity with the venue for the public event. Format can limit venue, and venue can limit format.
The best course of action to minimize disruption is to do the sessions in-person or at least take comments only from those in attendance. Written comments should be taken instead of hybrid or virtual sessions.
Public workshops and comments sessions can be just as unruly as public workshops so facilitators should not let their guard down. Work through normal security protocols, which should minimally include on-site personnel, emergency contacts, and after-event safeguards. All attendees should be required to sign in.
Facilitators should review security protocols in advance and immediately before the event with the sponsoring organization.
4. Ground Rules
Ground rules should be written as a script before the session by the facilitator. Having the ground rules in writing allows for formal review by the host organization and assures that what is placed in the public record is complete.
Facilitators should include in the ground rules:
Total time of session
Decorum and language
Cell phone and other potential distractions
Time allocation for each speaker
Facilitator flexibilities and discretions
6. Introductory Comments
Introductory comments are necessary for everyone to understand why they are there. The public notice usually provides a brief description of the topic or issue. The introductory comments are a reiteration and possibly an expansion of those previously provided. Sponsoring organizations typically do the introductory comments following the "Welcome" and “Facilitator Comments.”
The sponsoring organization normally provides introductory comments on the topic or issue to build trust and establish rapport with the public. Facilitators should review the introductory comments in advance to ensure they are concise. In some cases, the facilitator also provides introductory comments.
7. Record of Comments
Much information is exchanged in either a workshop or a public comment session. The sponsoring organization and the facilitator should be clear up-front with how they intend to develop a record of the event. In most cases, this is in a summary report that contains specific public comments (in workshops, specific comments are not requested but workshop materials are included.
The facilitator and the sponsoring organization should develop a recording secretary for the event. The facilitator normally provides a two- to four-page event summary but does not serve as the recording secretary. The facilitator should do a cursory review of the event's record of comments if requested.
8. What Happens Next
The facilitator should provide a formal description of what happens next at the end of the event. The sponsoring organization should summarize this information in the “Thank You” part of the agenda.
Facilitators should develop the remarks in writing to ensure that the information in the record is correct. This important step is often overlooked or taken too casually.
How Does This Help You
Public workshops and comment sessions have fewer statutory requirements than public hearings. With that flexibility also comes more sources of peril. Follow these eight tips as a facilitator to improve the quality of your next sessions.
This article also appears on JD Solomon, Inc.