Tip of the Month by Larry Schooler
Public participation isn’t the only arena where an agenda matters—think of all the internal or organizational meetings you may have attended where a plan of action would have helped things move more smoothly and make the group feel more productive. But an agenda in a public participation context takes on heightened significance when you consider that public agencies (like city councils) are required by law to post an agenda for their meetings with advance notice (usually more than a day) so the public knows what is coming. An agenda distributed and/or posted in advance for just about all public participation meetings and events will undoubtedly benefit a public participation process in the long run.
It ties into IAP2’s core value that “Public participation provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.” A well-written agenda, with a clear objective for both the specific meeting and the process as a whole, gives the public important information about what is germane to the discussion and why the meeting is occurring in the first place. Facilitators really need this clarity in order to help make sure all members of the public can participate in the discussion at hand and no one steers the conversation off topic.
The use of times next to each agenda item (#’s of minutes) also helps participants realize that meetings are usually designed to be deliberative, exchanges of ideas among people—rather than oratory, listening to one speech after another. The presence of a time line for the meeting, item by item, can help participants move beyond a position of “for or against” a specific idea and towards some sort of collaboratively produced solution.
In groups like task forces or advisory groups, facilitators and/or government staff should consider vetting an agenda with the group before it becomes official. This is their meeting, too, so collaboration in agenda-making can help build or establish trust.
Agendas often include a generic item known as “next steps.” Those compiling an agenda would do well to consider what those next steps could, should, or will be so that participants in the meeting know how the input they give during the meeting will impact future actions.
Mediator/Facilitator/Community Engagement Consultant, City of Austin
U.S. President-Elect, International Association for Public Participation (IAP2)