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Public meetings can take many different forms. Where you hold them, how many people are involved and how interactive and informal they are will all influence how effective they are at engaging different audiences to meet different objectives.

Venue. Neutral venues, such as local cafés or villages halls can be good places to start, but actively making the effort to hold meetings at venues to target particular audiences is how you will ensure you reach the widest possible cross section of the community. Think about where you will be able to target specific groups – for example, a school hall is more likely to attract families, a quirky bar may attract young adults, and a church might predominantly attract older people.

Formal meeting. A public meeting could take the form of a traditional meeting, with a formal agenda and managed by a dedicated chairperson. While the structure this format provides can be useful when there are a number of specific items to be explained and communicated, it is not always conducive to involving and engaging wider audiences.

Drop-in sessions. Drop-in sessions are a relaxed, informal and flexible format for public meetings. They can enable time-pressed individuals to stop by briefly for a quick chat, to ask questions and to offer their support.

Open Space. Open Space is a meeting technique used to explore a particular topic or issue with large groups of people. The idea is that the agenda for the meeting is set by those attending on the day and discussions are formed organically in breakout groups, with no initial timetable, co-ordinator or minute taker. This may sound a bit chaotic if you are used to more formal meetings, but it is a creative and engaging way to tackle Big Questions and to ensure that the community has a chance to take ownership of the process and to help to shape discussions and outputs, whilst also facilitating networking and the forming of new connections.

Key to the success of an Open Space event is the question set. This question will set the scene for all the discussions and should be used in all publicity about the event. The question should be relatively broad and open: some examples from Transition Town Totnes include “How will Totnes feed itself beyond the age of cheap oil?” and “The economic revival of Totnes – how can we build a sustainable, equitable and healthy economy in Totnes?”. There are a wealth of resources online about open space – give it a go!

Combine with an event. Combining a meeting with a wider event can help to increase turnout and capture a wider audience.

Case Studies
Country: UK

The Big Lemon has held public meetings in pubs, university campuses, a church, and actually on their community buses!  The Big Lemon’s meetings at university campuses proved a useful platform for engaging students and forming links with student clubs, societies and newspapers. On the other hand, their meeting in Ovingdean church didn’t attract many people below the age of forty.  They have found public meetings to be a very effective way of building community buy-in, as they provided a way to demonstrate to the community at large that they were serious about listening to people, involving them in decision-making and working with them to improve the service. Once they had built up a relationship with the community and had formed a network of supporters they focussed on trying to keep them!  They found that the best way to do this was to keep them informed - taking email addresses of people who came to meetings and adding them to their mailing list was a good place to start.

Source: Community-Led Transport Initiatives action pack

Country: UK

Low Carbon West Oxford (LCWO) tries to avoid large traditional-style meetings, which they feel can be boring and intimidating. Initially they held regular open drop-in sessions to collect ideas and feedback from the community. The sessions were designed to be welcoming and fun, and people were encouraged to chat to members of the group and to share their ideas often by writing on flipcharts around the room. These sessions have been replaced by open meetings, which focus on a theme and encourage discussion, exchange of information and ideas as well as encouraging local people to get involved in projects, activities and events in their community. Open meetings are held in an informal setting such as the community centre café and LCWO provides refreshments.

Source: Low Carbon West Oxford and West Oxford Community Renewables (2010), Low Carbon Living: Power to make it possible

Country: UK

Southend in Transition ran their first Open Space event during the Earth Day event organised by the local South East Essex Women’s Environment Network, held at the Mayor of Southend’s official residence. The theme for the Open Space discussions was “How will Westcliff and the surrounding area feed itself beyond the age of cheap oil?”. The session began with screening a short film about the creation of a community garden at Leaf Street in Manchester – this provided inspiration and a real life example of what can be achieved through ‘people power’. Discussions were then organised into four breakout groups: ‘Onion’, ‘Kale’, ‘Courgette’ and ‘Carrot’. After explaining the Open Space concept, the overall question for the event was presented and participants were invited to fill out the timetable with four further questions or ‘sub-themes’. Discussions of the sub-themes were lively and generated a diverse range of ideas and inputs. Despite a few hiccups, including not being able to put the timetables up on the wall in case they left blue tac marks on the Mayor’s wallpaper, and not having enough time to properly feedback at the end, the event was a great success. Feedback from participants indicated that they enjoyed the Open Space format and found it much more interesting and engaging than traditional meeting formats.