Tip of the Month by Larry Schooler
Tip of the Month: The Physicality of Public Participation
Quite often, government agencies host community meetings by arranging rows of chairs all facing towards the front, with one or two speakers at the front of the room. If you consider the other contexts where we usually find a seating arrangement like that, you might think of a lecture or a worship service with a sermon. In other words, that kind of seating seems to lend itself to a situation in which the assembled crowd expects to participate passively–listening, perhaps occasionally muttering something in agreement or disagreement, maybe getting a chance to ask questions at the end. It’s the kind of setting that lends itself to hearing from an “expert,” an “authority,” or a scholar–someone whose knowledge would benefit the audience member.
Given those dynamics, you might want to consider whether or not that kind of “pew style seating” works for your community conversation. After all, it’s pretty rare that you would convene a meeting simply to deliver information face-to-face–in this day and age, we typically convey information more quickly and affordably via other means, including technology. So, if your meeting serves a purpose beyond sharing information (like input gathering, review of alternatives, dialogue and deliberation, and the like), consider what physical seating or standing arrangements might best create an atmosphere for that kind of activity. A large semi circle or square arrangement of chairs, where everyone is facing everyone else, might work well for groups of a certain size. Smaller tables spread around the room might also work well, even for a full group conversation, provided everyone can hear and see (might need boards/screens around the room). Another option to consider is integrating staff, elected officials, or other key decision makers into the crowd rather than having them at the front of the room where they may be “targeted” by those angered by a proposal. In certain cases, like ones where decision makers represent a particular constituency or are, themselves, citizen volunteers, it might help to make public participants feel more like they’re on a level playing field with decision-makers.
Mediator/Facilitator/Community Engagement Consultant, City of Austin
U.S. President-Elect, International Association for Public Participation (IAP2)