Public Involvement Techniques
2.A.b - Open Forum Hearings/Open Houses
What are open houses and open forum hearings?
An open house is an informal setting in which people get information
about a plan or project. It has no set, formal agenda. Unlike
a meeting, no formal discussions and presentations take place, and
there are no audience seats. Instead, people get information informally
from exhibits and staff and are encouraged to give opinions, comments,
and preferences to staff either orally or in writing.
An open forum hearing expands a public hearing to include elements
of an open house. In addition, after reviewing exhibits and
talking with staff, participants can comment on a proposal for the
formal transcript of the public hearing. Open forum hearings require
formal notice, even though the hearing itself is informal.
Open houses and open forum hearings have the following common
- Information is presented buffet-style, and participants shop
for information, including graphics, maps, photos, models, videos,
or related documents. Space is allocated for tables or booths,
and information is mounted on walls. (See Public
- Agencies reserve table space for comment sheets where people
write their opinions. Participants turn in comment sheets at the
time or mail them in later. Pre-paying postage for comment sheets
increases the likelihood they will be returned. (See Public
- Agency or technical staff people are present to answer questions
or provide details. Often at least one person staffs each table,
but agency representatives also are positioned at displays or
roam throughout the room.
- These events can be used for either a planning process or project
- Since there is no fixed agenda, these events are usually scheduled
for substantial portions of a day or evening, so that people can
drop in at their convenience and fully participate. Hours should
be clearly set and well-publicized. In areas where people work
in shifts, open houses/hearings can be scheduled to overlap the
- Brochures or videos introduce the open house/open forum process.
(See Video Techniques.)
- Agencies usually provide take-home written materials, brochures,
or maps. (See Public
- These events can include non-agency displays. Sister agencies
and community proponents or opponents may be given space to present
a point of view, displays, documents, or handouts in separate,
visible areas. Some agencies have found that allowing public groups
to set up tables outside the meeting or hearing room helps the
public distinguish official agency information from other sources.
In addition to having all the features of an open house, an
open forum hearing has the following distinctive characteristics:
- A formal public notice of a fixed time and date must be published.
- People have a chance to clarify individual comments by reviewing
materials before putting their opinions "on the record."
- Comments are formally recorded. People can comment orally before
a designated staff person or court reporter, or they can write
opinions on comment forms at the time of or after the event and
return them prior to the announced deadline. (See Public
- The transcript of comments is made available to interested people
after the event.
Why are they useful?
Open houses and open forum hearings provide an informal, casual,
and friendly ambience. People drop by at their convenience,
get the information that interests them, and stay as long as they
wish. Informality encourages participants who are intimidated by
formal meetings to attend and give input; often the quality of responses
is higher. The short time required for participation attracts people
who do not want to sit through long public meetings.
Participants have many opportunities for questions and for
detailed answers. One-to-one conversations between agency staff
and participants encourage information exchange and foster courtesy
and attentiveness. Question periods have no strict time limits.
Participants have direct interaction with staff who might
not otherwise be readily available. Making technical staff available
shows an agency is open to community input. It allows for an informal
exchange of information, with everyone learning from each other.
People can receive immediate responses to questions about issues.
Technical staff is available to reduce misinformation and rumor.
The New Mexico Department of Transportation (DOT) includes a local
district engineer in its open houses on planning topics to address
immediate project concerns. The Arizona DOT used a series of open
houses at various locations throughout the State to develop the
statewide transportation plan.
The format focuses on issues rather than positions.This
focus allows participants to consider strategies to help an agency
identify issues and propose solutions. Participants may request
information and comment on a proposal.
Open houses can be tailored to participants specific needs.
They are held as necessary to improve public understanding of a
process or project. Graphics or other materials are prepared to
directly address issues of public concern. The California and Nevada
DOTs held a joint open house on the I80 Rail Corridor Study,
which included maps and displays with a video on potential new rail
equipment for operation in the corridor.
Do they have special uses?
Open houses help get a community interested in programs,
plans, or projects. The publicity and the procedure call attention
to a process that is underway. For a Cleveland, Ohio, light rail
transit project, open houses were scheduled to gain name recognition
for the project and to call attention to the potential of the line.
Open houses are used when a project is complex. A project
can be broken into smaller pieces to enhance understanding. Detailed
information is presented graphically or in text. The format allows
plenty of time for people to see displays and documents close-up.
Agency staffers give oral information to supplement displays.
Open houses are held at an early stage in planning or project
development to gather information from people. Further along in
the process, they update this information or seek comments on the
progress of a draft plan or a project. The Pennsylvania DOT used
a combination of open houses with workshops to develop issues, goals,
and specific policies for its long-range transportation plan.
Open forum hearings are used primarily with projects, although
a State or a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) may choose
to call a public hearing for other purposes. During the environmental
process for a project, the Nevada DOT uses the open forum format
for an "informational hearing" at the beginning of the
process and for a design public hearing at the end of the process.
The Nebraska DOT holds formal public hearings at the location stage
of a project and open forum hearings at the design stage. The Georgia
DOT uses open forum hearings for virtually all of its projects.
If attendance is large, the Department gives out numbers for those
wanting to speak during the event and make their comments before
Who participates? And how?
Anyone interested in a plan or project development can attend.
New Jersey Transit used open houses as an integral part of its major
investment study of a potential MonmouthOceanMiddlesex
Commuter Rail Line.
Individuals with a specific stake in an issue are urged to attend.
They are especially encouraged to attend open forum public hearings
and make their opinions known.
Open houses or open forum hearings accommodate people who are
reluctant to speak in front of an audience. Casual settings
are not as intimidating as a public meeting with a large audience.
Participants are encouraged to ask questions. The Orange County,
California, transit agency provided bi-lingual staff at an open
house in connection with a major investment study. Staffers were
identified by blue dots on their name tags.
The media should be encouraged to attend. Information provided
is generally comprehensive and may include useful visuals. Staff
people involved in the project are available for details. People
give their opinions of agency proposals or projects.
Stakeholders prepare visual and written materials to make their
viewpoints known. Space can be made available for community
viewpoints expressed in documents or graphics. At the invitation
of the Tennessee DOT, American Indians and environmental groups
teamed up to display their own materials at a table during an open
forum hearing. People representing these groups were present to
discuss their position.
People interact directly with staff. To get a "true"
sense of a meeting, public hearing officers circulate around the
room, listening to questions and answers. Circulating also gives
staff members a chance to "relieve" others who are being
monopolized by one person. The Tennessee DOT uses a court reporter
and comment cards at hearings, along with a two-week period for
further comments by letter, petition, or note.
How do agencies use the output?
Agencies use community comments for guidance in planning or
project development. Comments help an agency take the pulse
of the community, shape and modify plans, and monitor reactions
of the individual stakeholders most affected by the proposal or
project. Participants in the Orange County, California, transit
agencys open house provided advice on how to best structure
the subsequent public involvement program.
Agencies review comments and incorporate them into the work
wherever possible. They also provide responses for the record
to document and acknowledge receipt of public input. For open forum
public hearings, comments and responses form the bulk of the formal
transcript of a session, which also includes the agency brochure,
summaries of agency displays, a transcription of oral comments,
and copies of all written comments.
Who leads the process?
Agency staff members always take the lead for hearings and
usually for open houses as well. They are responsible for organizing
the session, setting up materials, getting staff to the session,
recording the testimony, and documenting the process and community
attendance. Staff members also respond to comments made at the session.
Agency representatives with expertise in the issues staff the
tables at open house sessions. Technical experts or consultants
may assist in the process. At open forum hearings, a public hearing
officer is appointed by the agency to assure a sessions smooth
operation and the agencys response to comments.
What are the costs?
Open houses and open forum hearings involve significant staff
time in preparation and reproduction of materials, such as displays,
graphics, brochures, and other materials. (See Public
Information Materials; Interactive
Video Displays and Kiosks.) Significant staff work on publicity
efforts is required to make a session successful. (See Media
Strategies.) Staff can be briefed to assure that similar questions
receive the same answer.
Open houses and open forum hearings are minimally expensive
or more elaborate. Expenses increase with the complexity of
the project and the scale of graphics or display materials required.
Special large graphics dramatize the elements of a project. Expenses
also increase as an agency makes extra effort to publicize the event.
Staff needs to be present at sessions held outside normal working
hours. If consultants are involved, their contribution is helpful
during complex projects or processes.
A hall is needed for the event, and rent may be required.
A neutral space is desirable, depending on the level of controversy
associated with the session.
How are they organized?
As an early step, an agency defines the issues to be presented.
This process guides the choices and preparation of audio-visual
materials (whatever graphics tell the story best). The process also
guides the selection of written materials to be distributed.
Based on the issues, an agency designates an event coordinator.
For example, the coordinator may be from the planning disciplines
if the subject is long-range planning, or from the engineering disciplines
if a project is to be announced or explored.
The agency coordinator sets a date and time for the event.
Both date and time should be convenient for people who are employed
during the day. The Regional Transit District in Sacramento, California,
held evening and Saturday open houses to review alternatives for
an extension of existing light rail into South Sacramento. In experimenting
with alternative times for open forum hearings, the Georgia DOT
determined that 4:00 to 7:00 P.M. met most community needs. The
Michigan DOT has found that 3:30 P.M. to 5:00 P.M. and 7:00 P.M.
to 8:30 P.M. work best, in part because rural communities often
"respect" the dinner hour. Longer hours are essential
for controversial or large-scale projects when many people want
to participate. Alternatively, multiple sessions may be held at
The coordinator finds space large enough to accommodate
not only tables and displays but also traffic flow for people to
move efficiently and comfortably between areas. At hearings, space
should include a location for taking oral testimony, and the facility
should be relatively quiet, comfortable, easy to find, free of conflicting
events, and handicapped accessible. Places to sit and rest should
be provided. Drinking water is essential.
Multiple locations are desirable for large geographical areas
and for planning processes. To encourage people to attend meetings
for its Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, the Oregon
DOT held open house meetings in school cafeterias, libraries, senior
centers, and a community theater. (See Non-traditional
Meeting Places and Events.)
An agency gets the word out about the event. A media strategy
helps an agency determine content and spacing of announcements.
Media announcements dramatically enhance public awareness. Handouts
are distributed in areas of potentially high interest. (See Media
The agency prepares illustrative materials for display.
Presentation boards, copies of documents, maps, and videos are very
helpful. (See Public
Information Materials; Video
Techniques.) Topics to be illustrated can include traffic, noise,
specific sites, economics, design, neighborhood impacts, routes,
goals, evaluation criteria, and policy issues. Fact sheets or maps
can be provided for visitors to take home. The South Carolina DOT
uses color coding on graphics intended for community review to emphasize
and highlight the projected impacts of a project.
Tables are provided for specific purposes that allow people
to address issues in depth. Each table should be clearly identified.
During the feasibility study for the Los AngelesBakersfield
High Speed Ground Transportation Project, tables were provided for
the following: sign-in; orientation and video; routes and stations;
environmental study; engineering; train technology; costs; statewide
policy; and terminal station location.
The agency staffs the event. Staff people with specific
areas of expertise are scheduled for each table. Reception staff
people are essential to welcome new arrivals and to let them know
how the open house works. The Georgia DOT uses a "greeter"—a
staffer who welcomes participants and helps them understand the
process. Other staff members can aid in recording comments or in
explaining issues to people. South Carolina DOT personnel wear name
tags to identify themselves and encourage questions from participants.
A method for recording comments from the community is established.
At open house sessions, an agency can provide cards for people to
fill out, for either immediate or mail-back return. For mail-backs,
pre-paid postage on the card or envelope speeds response.
For open forum hearings, an agency must provide a formal means
of recording comments. The Georgia DOT uses a court reporter
to record comments, while the South Carolina DOT provides a staff
person to tape record them.
Long lines at stenographer or tape recording stations detract
from the informality and convenience of this format for the
public. Agencies may provide multiple stenographers or recording
stations. The Georgia DOT used two stenographers for an open forum
hearing attended by about 1,500 people. Another strategy is to use
speaker time limits. At an open house on its statewide plan, the
New York State DOT used a traffic signal as a device to let speakers
know when their speaking time had expired. The Delaware DOT schedules
its speakers in order of sign-up and adheres to a specified time
limit. In other locations, however, time limits would be unacceptable.
Agency staff in Michigan successfully rely on the rest of the audience
to encourage brevity. Knowing when time limits are essential or
appropriate requires a thorough knowledge of the community involved.
How are they used with other techniques?
Open houses can be combined with public meetings. Displays,
brochures, documents, videos, and other materials can introduce
a meeting and help people prepare for it. (See Public
Open houses can be partly staffed with civic advisory committee
members. For the New Haven, Connecticut, Q Bridge Study, committee
members staffed open houses to help ConnDOT respond to questions
about the study and the alternatives being considered. (See Civic
Open houses often incorporate brainstorming or focus groups.
The Delaware DOT allowed participants to write comments directly
on maps. Other people could then review the comments and add their
opinions. North Carolinas Triangle Transit Authority conducted
mini-focus groups as part of open houses on long-range transit options
for the region. (See Brainstorming;
Public information is essential, including press releases,
briefings, speakers bureaus, brochures, posters, mailings,
and media announcements. All information must be timely to assure
that public hearing notice requirements are met and to give people
time to fit the event into their schedules. Reminders can be sent
out a few days before the session. (See Public
Information Materials; Media
Mailing lists are used to contact potentially interested people.
An agency should make special efforts to solicit minority and ethnic
participation and attendance at the session. (See Mailing
An open house is a convenient place to conduct an informal survey.
People can complete the survey right away or mail it back. In this
fashion, an agency obtains responses quickly and analyzes the results
to ascertain community interest and understanding. (See Public
Opinion Surveys.) The Nevada DOT conducted a survey of interested
parties in conjunction with an open forum hearing. As part of work
on its long-range plan, New Jersey DOT recruited random participants
for focus groups during open houses conducted at a shopping mall.
What are the drawbacks?
An open forum hearing without an audience session precludes
debate on a proposals merits. Parties do not hear opposing
views first-handnor do they have an opportunity to clarify
stances or raise questions about opposing viewpoints. Some critics
charge that agencies use open forum hearings as a "divide-and-conquer"
strategy. If differing views are not heard, the public may be surprised
to find a controversy exists. When people hear one another, they
develop an improved understanding of a proposal and its implications
for other people. To assure that multiple viewpoints are presented
at an open forum hearing, the Ohio DOT allows community groups to
set up exhibition tables near the open meeting tables, labeled clearly
to distinguish them from agency tables.
An open house/open forum hearing only reaches people willing
to attend. Potential stakeholders who do not attend may not
receive essential information, and their opinions are not heard.
Translators, translations of summaries, and blue dots on name tags
of bilingual staff, were used to supplement the Orange County, California,
open house, because minority participants said they were ill at
ease at such events. (See Ethnic,
Minority, and Low-income Groups.)
Outreach is limited to a few days, even if hearings are held
in different locations. A single event should not be the sole
opportunity for people to be heard. It does not reach large numbers
on a continuing basis—a key factor in successful public involvement.
Informal conversation does not replace written comment.
In brief conversations with agency officials during an open house,
people sometimes get lulled into a sense of being heard and fully
understood. Agency staff cannot be expected to retain all opinions
and may not have sufficient time to note each statement. Unless
official recording is underway, people should be encouraged to present
written comments, so their opinions or viewpoints are sure to be
Constituents do not hear elected officials at an open forum
hearing. At traditional public hearings, elected leaders announce
their views. At open forum hearings, however, officials can speak
to only a few people at a time.
Effective displays and materials may be expensive. Large-scale
graphics and photographs are essential to promote rapid comprehension
and understanding of a proposal. Video is often used as a method
of explaining both the proposal and the process of public review.
(See Video Techniques.)
When are they most effective?
An open house effectively disseminates information, either at
an early stage or prior to decision-making. Input to decisions
or plans is also collected. Additional events update information
and obtain further public input. The Montana DOT uses an open house
or walk-in session to disseminate information, frequently in tandem
with a traditional hearing.
An open forum hearing is useful at the location or design stage
for gathering information. The Montana DOT uses it when it is essential
to register opinions from many subgroups.
For further information:
|Georgia Department of
| Montana Department
|Nevada Department of
| New Mexico Department
|South Carolina Department
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For more information about the TPCB program, contact Michelle
at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls
at FTA (202-366-5362).