Why a Meeting?
Public meetings have been employed since before the telephone and the television were invented to gather people together to hear their ideas, to allow them a space to complain, and to communicate messages to the public. But in an age of email, social media, texting, and even the telephone, should public meetings always be the de facto strategy for public engagement?
One commentator at Strong Towns says no. But before we get to actual data, my personal experience is that only people who feel strongly show up - even on matters that everyone cares about and that affects their daily lives. More than 10 years after my local, quite harsh, speed bumps were put in, I still hear frequent complaints. But at the speed bump meetings years ago, very few people showed up and the ones who did were not representative of many in the neighborhood. The ones who showed up and participated wanted as many speed bumps as possible and as harsh a design as possible. While I was one of the few at these and other meetings, it is obvious that if we want ideas that are representative of communities or neighborhoods or whole regions, then we have to build a better mousetrap than a public meeting.
And the data? The commentator at Strong Towns says: "A new study from Boston University confirms that formal public hearings held by local governments have exactly this shortcoming. ... The problem: the "public" that shows up doesn't look that much like the whole public, in terms of either their demographics or their attitudes." Instead, the study finds that who shows up are homeowners - not renters, people with relatively higher incomes, men, and longer-term residents. These are people who have strong opinions and the time to organize, which is fine, except that most other people do not participate. And the strong opinions expressed at meetings, according to the study's large database, are not representative of the public.
Other people are busy and, even if interested, are unable or unwilling to commit an evening or lose hours at work - if they even have the choice to take off selected hours or days - to attend a meeting. For the study authors, in the words of the Strong Towns post, "elected officials need to take what they hear at meetings with a grain of salt. The public in the room probably doesn't look quite like the public outside the room—so be aware of whose interests aren't represented in the meeting minutes. In a truly effective public engagement process, testimony at formal hearings needs to be only one source of information among many."
With and without technology, there are other ways to engage the public. Try twitter, facebook, texting, emails, and face-to-face engaging where people gather or where interested people are everyday. For example, an elected official or a planner can ride a bus or hang around a bus stop to speak to riders about possible route changes. People go to fairs, to libraries, to supermarkets, just as examples. Real pubic engagement can include those; but let's not forget people who participate remotely, whether through a hard copy letter, a phone call, or a post on a social media platform.
NADTC Speaks Out to Make Every Autonomous Vehicle an Accessible Vehicle
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