Public Involvement Techniques
2.A.a - Public Meetings/Hearings
How do meetings and hearings differ?
Public meetings present information to the public and obtain
informal input from community residents. Held throughout the planning
process, they are tailored to specific issues or community groups
and are either informal or formal. Public meetings have been used
for many years to disseminate information, provide a setting for
public discussion, and get feedback from the community. Over 100
public meetings were used to develop a subway extension in Boston.
While the technique itself is not innovative, some creative applications
are being made. For example, Delaware used public "exhibits"
in an informal open house format with one-on-one discussions as
a focal point of each phase of a highway planning effort.
A public hearing is a more formal event than a public meeting.
Held prior to a decision point, a public hearing gathers community
comments and positions from all interested parties for public record
and input into decisions. Public hearings are required by the Federal
government for many transportation projects and are held in transportation
planning at the discretion of the sponsoring organization. Public
notices in a general circulation newspaper cite the time, date,
and place of a hearing. The period between notice and hearing dates
provides time for preparing comments for submission to an agency.
During this period, the agency accepts questions and provides clarification.
The Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT) expands the question-and-answer
period by holding an open house in conjunction with a public hearing.
(See Open Forum Hearings/Open Houses.)
Meetings and hearings have these basic features:
- Anyone may attend, as either an individual or a representative
of specific interests;
- Meetings may be held at appropriate intervals; hearings are
held near the end of a process or sub-process before a decision;
- Hearings require an official hearing officer; meetings do not;
- Hearings usually have a time period during which written comments
may be received; and
- Community comments are recorded in written form as input to
Why are they useful?
Meetings and hearings are forums for receiving community comments.
Both are widely used to achieve a basic level of community input
and to exchange information with a wide representation of community
Public meetings are optional events and thus tailored to agency
and community needs. Public hearings, by contrast, are frequently
used to fulfill regulatory requirements. Meetings and hearings can,
however, be linked. For example, Metropolitan Planning Organizations
(MPOs) in both Atlanta, Georgia, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, held
multiple meetings on a transportation improvement program (TIP)
at local public review meetings, followed by a public hearing at
the MPO level.
Public meetings are flexible and can be held as part of MPO
or statewide planning or part of a single project. There can
be multiple sessions on a single topic: the Kentucky DOT held community
meetings on the State TIP over a three-month period. Meetings can
be held in multiple locations, as can hearings.
A public hearing is a single opportunity for people to be heard.
If held at the end of a process without other opportunities for
involvement, it does not provide opportunity for early and continuing
involvement as described in Federal regulations. More frequent community
input is essential to agencies and more satisfying to people as
a means of meeting participation requirements and goals. In Seattle,
for example, the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority
(RTA) took part in more than 1,000 community meetings, forums, open
houses, and hearings to provide information and receive public input
on the Regional Transit Plan. As part of this effort, agency representatives
participated as guest speakers in meetings of groups such as the
Do they have special uses?
Each meeting or hearing facilitates participation. Scheduling
these opportunities demonstrates progress toward involving community
residents in projects and programs. They provide a place to identify
positions and report a consensus or divergence of opinion to an
agency. In Brisbane, California, a "Have Your Say Day"
was held to obtain individuals ideas for the citys planning
A single meeting can address several related projects or community
planning issues. This is more efficient for agencies, in terms
of both staff time and mailing costs, and it helps avoid participant
burnout, particularly when many of the same people are interested
in several projects or plans. Joint meetings also help to place
individual project issues and goals within a broader community context.
For 10 projects along the San Francisco waterfront, the city created
a Waterfront Transportation Projects Office that coordinated all
the city agencies involved. The office used a common mailing list,
coordinated newsletters, and joint meetings. Through this cooperative
effort, participants saw their specific concerns in relation to
the "big picture."
Who participates? And how?
All community people can participate in meetings or hearings.
In some instances, participation is structured, either within larger
meetings or for geographic areas. Both the Baltimore and Washington,
D.C., MPOs provide time for formal public comment periods (1520
minutes) at each of their meetings. In Portland, Maine, the MPO
received input from neighborhood associations. The New Orleans MPO
made special efforts to reach out to businesses by sponsoring two
major conferences dealing with transportation issues of interest
to businesses. The Mobile, Alabama, MPO brought in Chamber of Commerce
representatives to review TIP projects and worked with them and
others to forge a consensus. Meetings, but not hearings, can be
focused on particular groups.
How do agencies use the output?
Meetings and hearings help monitor community reactions to
agency policy, proposals, and progress. By observing reactions at
periodic meetings or at a hearing, agencies and people are made
aware of opinions and stances. If public meetings are held early
in the process, these opinions may be analyzed and responded to
before they become solidified or difficult to modify. Public hearings
provide formal input to decisions.
Meetings can become a driving force for technical work.The
MPO of Dane County (Madison), Wisconsin, devoted one year of a three-year,
long-range planning process to responding to community input and
comments brought up at a series of meetings scheduled throughout
Who leads public meetings or hearings?
Meetings may be led by an agency staffer or a member of the
public. In some instances, it may be appropriate to hire a professional
facilitator to lead a meeting, especially if the issue to be discussed
is highly divisive or controversial. A "discussion document"
helps prepare people for participation if distributed prior to public
meetings, as is done in Los Angeles.
By contrast, hearings are led by a public hearing officer,
who is an agency representative. Agency staff helps disseminate
information, particularly when a public hearing is combined with
an open house. Virginia DOT publishes a step-by-step guide for open
house public hearings, emphasizing that people can attend at a time
of their own choosing and can present comments either formally or
informally, as desired. The Georgia DOT reports that proportionally
more citizens make comments at open forum public hearings.
What are the costs?
Resource and staff needs can be substantial, depending on
the type of meeting. Delaware's exhibit meetings were heavily staffed—16
to 18 professionals were stationed throughout the room to answer
questions and determine the concerns of the 300 to 500 people who
attended each event. In a meeting or hearing preceded by an open
house, displays of major elements of a plan or process are required
for full explanations to community residents. Sketch overlays, notepads,
or comment sheets are needed to record public comments at the meeting.
How are they organized?
An agency organizes a public meeting or hearing and prepares
pre-meeting materials, including meeting announcements and agendas,
displays, audio-visual materials, and any mailings or publicity
that are necessary. The public should be made aware of the free
access to these materials. (See Public
Information Materials; Mailing
Lists.) In San Diego, the MPO publishes an agenda and monthly
digest of its meetings for public distribution. Agencies consider
the needs of people with disabilities and transit access in selecting
a convenient place and time.
An agency or community people may want to set up ground rules
for meetings. These include:
- Recognizing the legitimacy of others concerns;
- Accepting responsibility for coming to a meeting prepared for
- Listening carefully and sharing discussion time with others;
- Encouraging everyone to participate;
- Discussing with intent to identify areas of agreement, clarify
differences, and search for common understanding; and
- Establishing a speakers time limit.
For a public meeting, an agency provides meeting summaries
in written form, describing areas of agreement and disagreement.
All points of view must be clearly and fairly stated. A hearing
transcript is formally prepared, based on a stenographic record
How are they used with other techniques?
A media strategy is always necessary for either a public
meeting or a public hearing to attract the widest possible audience.
(See Media Strategies.)
For example, adequate advertising for public events always includes
more than a single newspaper advertisement. During a public meeting,
a brainstorming, visioning, or charrette technique may be used.
(See Brainstorming; Visioning;
Charrettes.) A facilitator may
be appropriate. (See Facilitation.)
Special provisions need to be made to comply with the needs of disabled
people for access to the meeting. (See People
with Disabilities.) Video or audio tapes of proceedings are
important for analytic or other purposes. (See Video
An open house is similar to a transportation fair, for either
a public meeting or a public hearing. Presentations, slide shows,
and one-on-one discussions continue throughout the event. Exhibits
are laid out as a series of stations: a reception area; a presentation
area for slide shows or short talks; areas for one-on-one discussions
between community people and agency staff members, and displays
of background information, activities to date, work flow, anticipated
next steps, and an array of primary subject panels. (See Transportation
Fairs; Open Forum Hearings/Open Houses.)
What are the drawbacks?
A public hearing is an insufficient level of public involvement
when held at the end of a process and not accompanied by other
opportunities to participate. In such a case, community members
feel their concerns cannot be addressed because they are heard too
late and have little chance of being integrated into the final decision.
At open house public hearings, although people may present views
publicly, they are heard primarily by the agency and not by other
participants. Such hearings in Delaware include time for speakers
to talk in front of others who may have conflicting viewpoints.
Public meetings do not always allay community doubts about
agency credibility. Although they improve the possibility of adequate
public involvement, meetings must be frequent enough and well-focused
enough on issues to demonstrate agency concern about public involvement.
In addition, an agency needs to make clear the link between meeting
input and decision-making. Public meetings must be held early in
the process and reasonably frequently thereafter to dispel fears
that they are perfunctory or that an agency is not listening to
community concerns. Large meetings or formal hearings may intimidate
people and restrain commenting.
A very small percentage of the public attends public meetings,
so such meetings should be only one component of a more comprehensive
public involvement program.
For further information:
|Atlanta Regional Commission
|Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, Seattle, Washington
|City of San Francisco Chief Administrative Office
|Dane County, (Madison), Wisconsin
|Delaware Department of Transportation
|Georgia Department of Transportation
|New Orleans Metropolitan Planning Organization
- table of contents - next
For more information about the TPCB program, contact Michelle
at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls
at FTA (202-366-5362).