How to evaluate the success of a public meeting

Men and women gather in a municipal meeting room to view maps and plans during a successful public meeting

How to evaluate the success of a public meeting

Meetings, open houses, and public input sessions are required for certain local government development processes. Novice and professional event planners alike know organizing and conducting these meetings can be hard, and it can be even harder to know if a public meeting was a success. When evaluating a public meeting, it’s essential to set expectations and acknowledge qualitative metrics as achievements.

Why is it so difficult to measure the success of a public meeting?

A common pitfall is viewing these events as roadblocks rather than important steps toward achieving a goal. People who frequently attend or organize public meetings can fall victim to disillusionment. This makes it difficult to find meaning or purpose in having them at all. Without a clear desired outcome, success can be elusive.

In addition, normal event metrics do not always apply. Corporate events, fundraisers, and festivals have more intuitive measures to gauge success: total ticket sales, gross and net revenues, and number of in-kind donations. Unfortunately, these rarely apply in public meeting settings.

But regarding a public meeting as a box to be checked is a missed opportunity. It’s a chance to share valuable information, create consensus, gather other perspectives, and build momentum for a project. There are other ways to accomplish these goals, of course, but the cost per person tends to be higher and the road to success longer. You don’t want to miss out on an opportunity to connect meaningfully with your stakeholders.

What are some methods to measure a public meeting’s success?

Measuring the success of a public meeting can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. There are some traditional and creative ways to capture the impact of such engagements.

Common Methods

Attendance

Counting attendees is relatively easy, and for that reason it tends to be the default method of measuring success. Attendance can be a helpful metric if your goal is information exposure, but it doesn’t indicate much else. Comparing one turnout number to another is often arbitrary and always reductive. It results in a rigid binary of success or failure when, in reality, events encompass degrees of both success and failure.

Post-Event Surveys

Post-event or follow-up surveys or questionnaires can also be useful to measure success. Surveys may focus on level of event satisfaction, favorite and least favorite experiences, and areas for improvement.

Surveys are prone to several kinds of bias that can skew your measurements, including self-selection bias, non-response bias, and agreement bias. For that reason, it’s important to vary question structure. You can incorporate multiple choice questions and ranking questions to assign numeric values to qualitative information. Doing so also allows planners to track measures of success over time. This makes follow-up surveys especially helpful for recurring events because feedback can be used to improve the next meeting.

Qualitative Measures of Success

Not all measures of success are quantifiable. Maybe a meeting is the first of its kind or establishes rapport with a community. Innovation and relationship-building have inherent value. While that value is difficult to capture in a number, it should be acknowledged as a form of success.

Participation

An engaged audience can change the atmosphere of an event, but it can also produce more insightful results. There might be 1,000 attendees, but if there is no activity amongst them, the meeting will not be fruitful. Without participation, other measures of success cannot be attained. Harnessing not only the attendees’ attention but eliciting a response is a sure step toward starting a conversation that can lead to accomplishment.

Innovation

Trying a new approach to a regular meeting or initiating a completely new event can be a daunting task. There are inevitable risks when there is no precedent for an event; however, successfully mitigating risks and carrying out something new is something to celebrate.

Relationship-Building

Often meetings are one of the few, if not the only, means of directly engaging the public. In the private sector, this is a chance to win over neighbors and avoid controversy in hearing. By listening, you can avoid misunderstandings and adjust your plans to better meet the community’s needs.

Over time, meetings can facilitate relationships that ultimately secure support for a development approval or the passage of a plan. This can bring favorable outcomes in the council chambers. Do not discount even one connection made at a public meeting―this is a success, and it just might determine the fate of your project.

Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion are two of the most difficult successes to measure. The line between engagement and tokenism is delicate, and the mere presence of someone from a disenfranchised group cannot and should not be considered a success in and of itself.

It is important to remember that much of the history around development and planning has omitted the voice of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised groups within our communities. This marginalization means there is a constant, implicit imbalance of power in the room. People may be hesitant to speak up or skeptical of your motives. Distrust and skepticism should not only be expected but planned for in advance.

Breaking down barriers, establishing an authentic sense of security, and empowering people to share can provide new perspectives and will improve your project.

Outcomes

Solving problems, finding consensus, and determining next steps are frequent meeting objectives. It can be easy to veer off course and become distracted from a meeting’s purpose. Staying on track and reaching an outcome is a feat. When the subject matter or issue is more complex, continuing the discussion or follow-up action can be considered success as well. In the grand scheme, progress can be enough.

Planning for Success

Without defining a meeting’s purpose, goals, and objectives, success is unattainable. Let goals guide the event planning process. Remember that meaningful engagement cannot always be measured, and do not leave the outcome of a public meeting to chance. Set goals, and success will always be in reach.

To get help for your next public meeting or outreach event, contact Liza Monroe at (919) 469-3340 or lmonroe@withersravenel.com.