Public Involvement Techniques
2.A.c - Conferences, Workshops, and Retreats
What are conferences, workshops, and retreats?
Conferences, workshops, and retreats are special meetings
to inform people and solicit input on specific policy issues, plans,
or projects. In size and importance, they range from a subset of
a larger meeting to a large multi-day event.
A conference is a highly-structured program of presentations
and discussions. Conferences usually have an overall theme,
with multiple related sessions throughout the day. They can have
presentations or panel discussions followed by questions. Top officials
or panels of recognized experts help boost interest in attendance.
Conferences often have plenary sessions attended by all participants,
followed by breakout sessions on various elements. Conferences are
as short as half a day or as long as three days. The Kansas and
Pennsylvania DOTs held all-day conferences on their long-range statewide
transportation plans. Workshops dealt with specific issues of the
A workshop is a task-oriented meeting organized around a
particular topic or activity. Typically, it involves a relatively
small group (2040) and addresses aspects of a narrowly-defined
topic. Workshops are usually one to three hours in duration for
small groups to work on specific agenda. Because they are relatively
short and task-focused, workshops can be part of a larger meeting,
conference, or retreat. The Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Planning
Commission includes workshops at the beginning of every meeting
to provide information and discussion on specific topics to be handled
later in the meeting.
Retreats are workshops held in non-traditional settings without
distractions. A retreat is especially useful to work on personal
conflict resolution and communication. Participants give their undivided
attention to specific issues without interruptions for phone calls
or everyday distractions. Like workshops, retreats are typically
task-oriented and work on focused topics. Because of the complexity
of an issue or topic, a retreat may require one full day and sometimes
Conferences, workshops, and retreats have several common characteristics.
- Are special events, publicized separately from other events;
- Highlight specific aspects of issues;
- Are applied in either planning or project development;
- Set the stage for plans or projects;
- Showcase and refine specific aspects of plans or projects;
- Provide focus and direction to participants; and
- Often require advance registration or are invitational.
Why are they useful?
Conferences, workshops, and retreats are useful at any stage
of a process. As special meetings, they are used early to set
the stage for formulating plans or projects. They are used mid-process
to showcase and refine specific aspects of plans or projects, resolve
conflicts, and work toward consensus. Near the end of a process,
they demonstrate findings and conclusions of the work effort. The
Albany, New York, MPO scheduled conferences at the beginning, mid-point,
and end of development of its long-range plan.
Special meetings allow people to better understand a project
or plan. They help individuals see the viewpoint of others.
They give a "snapshot" of community concerns and reactions
to proposals. The Portland, Oregon, Metro conducted mode and alignment
workshops that generated good ideas from community residents. Participants
worked on maps to illustrate their concerns and place proposed alignment
Special meetings offer a way to zero in on specific issues and
concerns. They deal with a single topic and its ramifications,
or focus on notable impacts of concern to individuals or groups.
They provide an opportunity for detailed discussion on a wide variety
of elements of a plan or a project. The Massachusetts Highway Department
sponsored a series of conferences on the future of Route 128, Bostons
beltway. One metropolitan-level conference included presentations
by experts from around the country, while the other two focused
on State and local concerns.
Do they have special uses?
A conference helps "kick off" a planning process or
project development. Agency or elected officials add credibility
to a process by being on the program to discuss their hopes for
A conference provides a forum to discuss statutes and regulations.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a public conference
called "The Right Route: Pollution Prevention and Transportation
Planning in New England." National leaders from EPA and the
Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) first addressed plenary sessions
dealing with the implications of the Intermodal Surface Transportation
Efficiency Act (ISTEA,) the Energy Policy Act, and the Clean Air
Act. Workshops were scheduled for late morning and afternoon to
deal with issues and develop a list of potential outcomes to be
reviewed by a panel of regional policy leaders at the closing plenary
Conferences are used to celebrate the successful completion
of a process. Local residents and agency staff come together
to review and evaluate a process and its product. Local officials
and participants may officially bring closure to a successful process.
Celebratory events reinforce the value of an inclusive planning
process and give agencies an informal way to thank community members
for their time and effort.
Workshops are particularly useful for smaller groups of people
who want to participate intensively. A small number of participants
gives each a way of being heard and registering thoughts and opinions.
Small groups allow a greater appreciation of others views
through opportunities for more extensive interaction. Stanford University
in Palo Alto, California, used workshops to ascertain local concerns
and demonstrate how the concerns might be met, largely through urban
Workshops and retreats are inherently participatory and
encourage a "working together" atmosphere. The informality
encourages discussion and give-and-take. By focusing on narrow topics,
workshops allow time for every participant to express a viewpoint.
They are easily integrated into a larger participatory process.
The North Dakota Consensus Council, a public-private partnership,
sponsors forums on issues ranging from education to local government
services. Facilitators elicit diverse views, using consensus-building
techniques to resolve conflicts and find common ground. (See Facilitation.)
Workshops and retreats make it easier to participate without
"going on the record." Typically, participants can
speak out without being quoted at a later time. Questions are asked
to glean information. Participants raise and discuss points without
formal attribution, and the "trial balloons" that are
a positive feature of negotiation are floated. The Rochester, New
York, Telephone Corporation held workshops to solicit concerns and
views about potential deregulation of the telecommunications industry
in that city.
Retreats are used to develop details of a transportation program.
The Georgia DOT held a two-day retreat with 40 representatives of
transportation users, operators, customers, and groups to "tell
us what the public involvement process should be." The University
of Georgias Institute of Community and Area Development was
retained to organize, conduct, and facilitate the meeting, resulting
in short-term recommendations that have been implemented by the
Retreats can "clear the air" on contentious issues,
bringing disputants together to hear all sides of an issue and work
out differences. They can work on thorny problems and look for elements
of agreement. With a neutral facilitator, retreats provide an off-the-record
means of stating and working on issues between opponents. The process
of addressing difficult issues helps loosen adversarial relationships
and creates the possibility for compromise and consensus.
Who participates? And how?
Special meetings target specific stakeholders for presentations
and discussions. Conferences, workshops, and retreats help deal
with specific local concerns. They help garner suggestions and support
by explaining a proposal thoroughly. The State of Washingtons
Western Area Power Administration used workshops to develop and
select strategies of its plan for future power needs using customer
Conferences, workshops, and retreats can be tailored to subsets
of groups or constituencies who do not normally participate.
The level of impact on specific portions of a community may warrant
establishing specific meetings for them. (See Ethnic,
Minority, and Low-income Groups.) Over time, it may be appropriate
to add workshop sessions to incorporate local concerns into planning
or project development. Costa Mesa, California, organizations sponsored
"living room dialogues" among small groups to air feelings
and issues about day laborers gathering in a park and shopping center
while waiting to be hired. Discussions resulted in establishment
of a hiring center for day workers and a new human rights commission.
Conferences are customarily open to the public. Workshop
and retreat participants come from the entire community or by invitation.
Special efforts are needed to assure that all potential stakeholders
are aware of the event. Invitations can be extended to business
leaders and active members of civic clubs or organizations, along
with agencies and interest groups. Inviting elected officials to
special meetings is always appropriate. Certain conferences are
attended by invitation only. The Minnesota Metropolitan Council
invited key players in business, government, and education to a
conference on regional economic strategies as part of a plan to
build council identity.
Knowledgeable people should be part of each special meeting.
For conferences, experts in specific fields serve as speakers or
presenters of information. For workshops and retreats, resource
people are essential for providing information and answering questions.
Agency people ordinarily act as individuals in the meetings, unless
specialized questions are asked. For breakout sessions, workshops,
and retreats, a trained facilitator acts in the neutral, central
role of leading the meeting and keeping it on course.
Workshops and retreats can target specific groups. The Edison
Electric Institute held a two-day retreat to improve communication
between industry and consumer groups. A group of 20 to 24 people
were invited, chosen by their demonstrated ability to effectively
present a position for their groups. Time was allowed for socialization
to encourage personal relationships and dialogue among the participants.
During a special meeting, participants ask questions and add
their points of view to the discussion. They challenge agency
reasoning on projects or plans. They discuss alternative uses of
Agencies hold meetings in local areas convenient for participants.
Planning for the Central Valley water project in California included
public workshops at disparate locations held every four or five
months over a three-year period. The project involved four rounds
of meetings throughout the valley.
Participants need preparatory information prior to a meeting.
An agency sends information to potential participants in advance
to let them choose whether or not to attend a special meeting. (See
Mailing Lists.) A
conference agenda or brochure displays topics, speakers, and opportunities
for participation in discussion. A telephone number or agency contact
helps participants find further information.
How do agencies use conferences, workshops, and retreats?
Special meetings send a message of agency commitment to public
involvement and enhance agency credibility in a process of planning
or project development. A conference held in Atlanta, Georgia, helped
define new interagency approaches to fostering public participation
of people affected by transportation investments. The conference
was jointly sponsored by the Federal Highway, Transit, and Rail
Administrations and the Environmental Justice Resource Center at
Clark Atlanta University.
They give plans and projects a high profile and attract interest.
By focusing events and presentations on a single proposal, an agency
attracts many participants, including the media, to an event where
they can be guided toward presentations or discussions that interest
Conferences give in-depth information about a project or plan.
The complexity of a planning effort or project development can be
portrayed at a conference where detailed information can be obtained.
A conference includes sub-meetings and presentations on a variety
of topics. A conference program has several topics presented at
the same hour in separate rooms, allowing participants to choose
Special meetings provide input to a plan or project. Agencies
obtain new ideas in response to their proposals. Participants have
an opportunity to offer suggestions for policy changes or for alterations
in details of a project. Special meetings provide an opportunity
for participants to debate the issues with one another.
Who leads them?
A conference may require specialized organization and leadership.
The scope of a conference, involving many presentations and break-out
sessions, may be challenging for existing staff to manage. An agency
conference manager may be needed. Consultant staff may be required
to manage the event.
A conference can be co-sponsored by more than one agency,
thus broadening the range of concerns and attracting new participants.
The Missouri Highway and Transportation Department has had successes
with co-sponsored conferences.
Conferences with few speakers may be managed by a small staff.
Organizing date, place, time, and speakers is manageable if the
event is uncomplicated.
A workshop is led by an agency staffer or community volunteer,
if the size of the group is manageable. A large workshop requires
special skills to moderate the event and keep it on target. An agency
project manager may attend a workshop but usually should not lead
the session if issues are highly controversial, since that may compromise
the objectivity of the process. Workshops may be led by citizens
themselves. The Puget Sound Regional Transit Project has financially
supported citizen-initiated workshops. This alleviates the issue
of government control and promotes community leadership.
Retreats require a neutral moderator. Agency staff members
may be able to lead the session but are seen as biased if they are
involved in the process or project. A neutral moderator should remain
unbiased in soliciting ideas and comments from all participants
and should direct the proceedings toward the goals of the retreat.
What are the costs?
Initial costs include renting meeting space and breakout rooms,
if necessary. Conferences require staff for entrance and registration
areas and preparation of individual rooms for specific presentations.
They include arranging for speakers or presentations, including
costs for hotels and food if out-of-town speakers are used. Costs
frequently include refreshments for participants. For a full-day
conference, it is wise to arrange for lunch for the speakers and
A few conference costs are offset by registration fees.
The fee ordinarily covers only the costs of printing and refreshments.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a community organization, charged
$15 for a conference to inform people about transportation issues,
the importance of public involvement, and new opportunities for
involvement. The conference included skills workshops dealing with
gaining media exposure, influencing decision-makers, and building
a coalition. The Albany, New York, MPO charged small fees to cover
meals for its conferences but provided scholarships for low-income
Workshops are less costly than conferences. A workshop usually
requires only a room and a staff person to manage materials, welcome
participants, and document the process. Fees for a workshop or retreat
are usually not appropriate, because they can discourage people
A retreat requires a room and a facilitator. The facilitator
must be neutral and not a proponent of an agencys agenda.
Like a workshop, a retreat requires only a room and a staff person
to serve the needs of both the facilitator and the participants.
Finding rooms in publicly-owned sites helps keep costs down.
Colleges or universities provide good locations for conferences,
workshops, or retreats. These sites are usually neutral locations
where participants feel welcome.
Supplementary funding sources may be available. The Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, MPO received financial support from a local foundation
to pay for all costs of a weekend retreat for a blue-ribbon panel
reviewing the long-range plan.
How are they organized?
All special meetings are coordinated with the community,
which provides input on what issues to cover and who from the community
should be involved. Publicity is funneled through neighborhood channels.
The community may suggest a place and date for the special meeting.
(See Key Person Interviews;
Civic Advisory Committees;
Public Opinion Surveys.)
Conferences require a rigid structure and agenda for speakers,
presentations, and break-out groups. Preparation for a conference
requires a good deal of staff work to organize the content and publicize
the event to the community.
Agency staff organize a conference, if resources are available.
Agencies should be aware that the resources are significant. Specialized
consultants may be necessary as conference assistants.
Workshops and retreats have a flexible structure. They can
be organized more casually than a conference and are flexible in
selection of date, place, and format. However, they require leadership
to assure that they accomplish the assigned task or goal. Both workshops
and retreats need an agenda, noting the time available for discussion
of agenda elements, and information on what the agency intends to
do with the information from the meeting.
How are they used with other techniques?
Brainstorming is an integral element of conferences, workshops,
or retreats and a useful way to quickly involve many participants
in the process. (See Brainstorming.)
Visioning is advanced by workshops and retreats. A special
meeting can focus on establishing a vision for the future. With
an allotted time period to explore varied aspects, the special meeting
is well-adapted to this use. Oregon DOT used workshops on issues
and visions at six locations along the Pacific Coast in developing
a draft master plan. (See Visioning.)
Facilitation is an important element of special meetings,
especially workshops and retreats. Participants need a facilitators
guidance on timing, focus, and reporting the events of a workshop
or retreat. (See Facilitation.)
Small group techniques are used in workshops to open a meeting
and gain participants interest. They can then be used to set
goals for the meeting and to guide the process. (See Small
Special meetings supplement regular meetings. Conferences,
workshops, and retreats are high points of an overall program of
public participation and cannot by themselves constitute a public
Are they flexible?
Workshops are used in a variety of ways—as a break-out
of a conference or retreat or as special events on their own, to
involve people in discussions and resolution of thorny issues. In
Washington State, Seattles Puget Sound Regional Council offered
a series of community workshops at several points throughout its
Conferences and retreats can include workshops on the agenda.
Large special meetings can have break-out sessions for concurrent
workshops focusing on specific issues.
Special meetings are held on any appropriate days and at convenient
times. The timing of a special meeting is largely up to an agency,
guided by community needs or requests.
The level of effort for a special meeting is flexible. A
special meeting can be devised to meet community needs within the
resources available to an agency. Conferences require the greatest
output of resources, while workshops may expend few agency resources.
What are the drawbacks?
Special meetings require substantial publicity. Agencies
need to be prepared to expend resources to make the community aware
of the meetings.
All special meetings require extensive preparation by staff.
Resources can be quickly expended during the preparation period.
Conferences are often expensive and may be viewed as exclusionary.
Arrangements for space and speakers can be significant. Publicity
must be extensive to attract media and community attention.
A retreat requires a skilled facilitator.
A workshop is ineffective if leadership is unable to keep it
on track. It is not automatically a positive event, unless effort
is expended to assure that staff or experienced personnel are present
to guide its progress.
For further information:
|Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Resource Center, Clark Atlanta University
|Kansas Department of
Council (Minneapolis/St. Paul)
|North Dakota Consensus
|University of Georgia
Institute of Community and Area Development
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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).