Overcoming Meeting Fatigue

By Susan Charland, AICP

How to Overcome Meeting Fatigue

We have all experienced meeting fatigue, particularly in the context of public engagement. But what causes meeting fatigue? Many of my clients, colleagues, and partners point to a variety of reasons: There is meeting fatigue, they say, because there are multiple initiatives and planning projects happening at the same time. Stakeholders get confused. They don’t want to participate in so many initiatives and so many meetings.

In my years consulting local governments about public engagement, I’ve observed that members of the public rarely get tired of being engaged in important local government decisions that impact their lives.

What wears people out is constant, ineffective and unclear public engagement. People get tired of being told “we need your input!” only to feel like their input is then ignored. What looks like fatigue is actually frustration, disappointment, and cynicism. It’s a completely reasonable response to how we typically engage the public in public decisions.

What causes public meeting fatigue?

Meeting fatigue sets in when there is a significant gulf between the public’s perceived and actual influence on a decision.

Let’s say a local government is undertaking a project to improve Main Street. Local officials host a meeting to ask the public for “input” on the proposed design. Some members of the public say they want a 10-foot bike lane. Others say they want more trees. Some say they want mid-block pedestrian crossings. Still others say they want more on-street parking in front of their businesses. That’s all great input. But it turns out that Main Street is actually a state highway subject to state design standards. The total right-of-way width, lane configuration, and pedestrian crossings are subject to state design requirements. Those items aren’t up for debate. Those are givens.

As a result, people who took the time to come to the meeting and provide their input were understandably frustrated when, a few weeks later, they saw the revised design that did not appear to incorporate any of the public’s comments.

How do we prevent meeting fatigue?

Avoiding meeting fatigue is all about setting clear expectations for the public. This concept was first introduced to me by the International Association of Public Participation’s decision-oriented framework. IAP2 says for public engagement to be possible, there must be (1) a decision to be made and (2) an opportunity for influence. Defining these two things is the key to setting clear expectations with the public.

Clarify the decision to be made

Clarifying the decision involves answering three questions (1) what is the decision to be made? (2) who is making the decision? and (3) by when? This lays the groundwork for clear messaging to the public and helps you and your team better understand how the public can (or can’t) influence the decision. I write more about how to clarify the decision in another post here.

Define the public’s role (what can the public influence?) 

In our business, we say that if the public cannot influence any aspect of a decision, then we’re not really “engaging” the public at all. In that case, it’s really public relations (I don’t claim to have any expertise in public relations). But in most cases, there are aspects of a decision that the public can influence. The trick is to clearly define what those things are…and what they are not.

Here’s how I like to think about the scope of influence:

If there’s nothing in the middle of this Venn diagram, then you have no reason to engage the public.

If we do not adequately communicate the scope of influence in a decision, the public is forced to make a guess and/or fill in the blanks. Usually the public’s best guess involves a much bigger universe of concerns, hopes, and ideas than what can be addressed as part of a single public decision. (Consider neighbors who show up to a public meeting about a new playground and want to talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions). Without a clear scope of influence, it may also appear as though the decision-makers are asking for permission, rather than asking for input.

Take the time to go through this exercise and make a list of items that fall into the middle of the Venn diagram. That is a great starting point to communicate with the public. Start small and resist the temptation to put things in there just to make the process appear more participatory than it is. If you are able to add things to the list as the project goes on, that’s a bonus.

 

 

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