On Bad Public Meetings

There are two divergent visions conjured by the idea of a “public meeting.”

First, there’s the ideal: a rich discussion of views and values; a robust exploration of a problem and collective reasoning about solutions; diverse communities thoughtfully engaging together in the hard work of associated living. Such a public meeting is not unlike an idealized college seminar – everyone contributes, everyone grows, and the co-created output of this public work is far better than anyone would have created on their own.

Then there’s the all too common reality; the reason so many of us avoid public meetings in the first place. The inefficient use of time, the yelling, the talking over and past each other, and – if you have the same pet peeves I do – the people who seem to feel the overwhelming need to hear the sound of their own voice, who feel compelled to speak before taking the time to consider what value they are adding to the conversation.

My friend and civic colleague Josh Miller recently pointed me to one such epitome of terrible public meetings, captured in the Milwaukee Record under the headline Lake Park’s Pokemon Go Meeting Was Boring, Livid, and Gloriously Absurd.

To be fair, those adjectives could easily be used to describe many public meetings on a wide variety of topics.

As author Matt Wild described, “Yes, last night’s meeting was the sound of a ridiculous situation taken to its ridiculous extremes. It was the sound of two sides possessing both reasonable concerns and defiant inabilities to listen to one another. It was the sound of privileged people droning on and on and on. It was the sound of people who always seem to have obnoxious Qs during Q&As asking those obnoxious Qs.”

I can’t tell you how many public meetings I’ve been to in my life which fit that description.

So perhaps it seems strange that I cling to the ideas of collaborative public work, of productive public dialogue. Perhaps such an idyllic vision is too much to ask for and far too much to expect: after all, let’s not pretend that those leafy college seminars always go off without out a hitch.

And I make no denials that such a vision of public collaboration is hard. It is very hard. That is, perhaps, why Harry Boyte’s term of public work seems so apt even for the process of dialogue. Real deliberation is work.

But I find it a noble effort; a work worth engaging in even if the results come up short.

We must then ask ourselves – why do so many public meetings go so horribly awry?

For one thing, we must think carefully about the structure of such meetings. The common structure of most public meetings is designed to maintain the power of public officials. Public officials discuss, deliberate, invite expert testimony, and finally, in a nod to democracy, allow for public comments. Then the officials discuss and deliberate further – putting the matter to a vote or requesting further study of the issue at hand.

“The public” does not attend with the role of deliberator or authority, but is relegated to 60 minutes of anecdotes no one really wants to listen to.

There are reasons this structure might be good – society must be protected from the “trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd,” as Walter Lippmann wrote. Perhaps it is wise not to give “the public” too much power.

And while I would far prefer to see public meetings which truly embraced the role of the public – which invited residents as stakeholders and experts to talk together and collaborative address public problems – the current model seems like possibly the worst of all worlds.

Wild describes the many failures of the Pokemon Go meeting:

The meeting was clearly flawed, with far too much time given over to the panel members, and precious little time given to concerned Pokemon players. If more minutes had been dedicated to audience remarks and general Q&A, perhaps the pro-Pokemon contingent would have gotten their cries of “I LOVE POKEMON AND THIS IS BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER” out of the way and focused on the main problem at hand: How does a residential park that wasn’t designed to handle thousands of people congregating in a relatively small space seven days a week for three months straight suddenly handle thousands of people congregating in a relatively small space seven days a week for three months straight?

Urban planner Bent Flyvbjerg argues that “power is knowledge,” that “power defines what counts as knowledge and rationality, and ultimately…what counts as reality.” This observation comes precisely from his work in public space planning: decisions are made, implicitly or explicitly, behind closed doors and public information is shaped and shared in such a way as to create the illusion of public participation while ensuring the outcome preferred by those with power.

This dynamic creates a self-enforcing cycle of public disaffection and civic defeat. As Lippman argued in 1925, “the private citizen today has come to feel rather like a deaf spectator in the back row …In the cold light of experience he knows that his sovereignty is a fiction. He reigns in theory, but in fact he does not govern…”

And thus we find ourselves with disastrous Pokemon Go meetings, with enumerable public meetings in which a disaffected public rouses itself to share various concerns, where some find it to be their duty to speak out, to try to engage in the process, while the rest of us sitting at home – reading the recap in the local paper, rolling our eyes, and wondering with a discontented sigh, where did it all go wrong?

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