Neighbourhood meetings 1
This is a resource file which supports the regular public program "areol" (action research and evaluation on line) offered twice a year beginning in mid-February and mid-July. For details email Bob Dick email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
... in which a highly involving form of consultative process, based on local meetings in local homes, is described
- The overall rationale
- Neighbourhood meetings in detail
- A typical neighbourhood meetings
Neighbourhood meetings 2 are semi-informal meetings of a small group of neighbours. They are hosted by one of the neighbours, who has been approached and briefed on the task for the meeting.
These meetings provide an approach which can achieve real participation for a very high proportion of the stakeholder community. It can also generate high levels of involvement, and often identify "quiet achievers" who are a valuable addition to the committees and other mechanisms set up.
If the purpose of the activity is to collect or exchange information, and time and resources permit, this is my preferred option for community consultation. It generates levels of community involvement well beyond most other methods. By attracting a wider range of community members, it yields less biassed information. Further, a high proportion of the community are more directly involved as the hosts of the neighbourhood meetings.
In short, wider and more representative involvement gives you better data. It also builds more commitment to any decisions taken.
The use of resources is actually low for the involvement produced. It is much less expensive of money and other resources, for example, than group interviews would take to reach the same number of people. Most of the expense comes about from the high response rate: in some communities more than 60 per cent of people respond.
The overall rationale
The overall strategy is simple. Some proportion of the local stakeholders are approached directly, or by mail or telephone. They are asked to invite other stakeholders to a small meeting held in their home.
Prior to their meeting, they are provided with butcher paper, felt pens, and a brief description of how a meeting can be run. For more elaborate versions, they may be invited to attend a prior meeting which explains the purpose and outlines a process.
It is usual to encourage the hosts to run the first part of the meeting as an open-ended discussion. The second part then seeks answers to more specific questions. Key points arising in both early and late discussions are written on butcher paper, which is returned to the organisers.
Most of the remainder of this section describes in some detail how neighbourhood meetings might actually be set up.
Neighbourhood meetings in detail
This description is intended as one example of the way in which neighbourhood meetings might be organised. Many variations are possible. Here is the example in step-by-step form...
1 Decide the catchment area
Decide the catchment area appropriate to the issue.
2 Prepare resource materials
To speed up the process, this can take place at the same time as the following two steps. Assemble the butcher paper, felt pens, and other material required for the neighbourhood meetings.
You might decide to run some small meetings yourself, to gauge the reactions of local stakeholders. This can then be videotaped. The edited videotape then provides a useful briefing device both for the hosts and their guests. 3 In any event, you will want to provide on paper a brief and clear account of how a neighbourhood meeting can be run.
If the meetings are being used for an exchange of information, you will also require other briefing materials for the information to be given.
3 Identify the stakeholders within the catchment area
Provided your interest is with people of voting age, this is often most easily done from electoral rolls. Those people on the electoral roll, and within the catchment area, are identified. On the other hand, if an issue is extremely limited and local, door-knocking may yield better results.
Note that the method identifies local stakeholders only. Neighbourhood meetings, at least in their usual form, do not involve stakeholders from areas outside the catchment area. You may want to include in your briefing information some details of the attitudes of non-local stakeholders. (There are also more elaborate possibilities which I will not go into here.)
4 Select the hosts
Decide the proportion of stakeholders you will approach as hosts. To do this, you have to make some estimates of response rate, and decide the best size for the meeting.
Let's assume an overall response rate of about 50 per cent, as the higher response rates were obtained in more cohesive communities. For an eventual meeting size of about 8 (1 host and 7 guests), approaching about 8 per cent of the people on the list is appropriate.
( 5 Optionally, provide a briefing session for hosts)
This is most effective when the interest is highly localised, and volunteer hosts can be used. It is more easily done for an identifiable group of stakeholders (such as parents with children at a particular school) than for more dispersed people; but it may be feasible for very local proposed changes, for example in road design and similar issues.
An effective way of running a briefing meeting is for the hosts to take part in a neighbourhood meeting run by facilitators (or skilled local people who were approached and instructed for the purpose). An overall explanation is given first. Those present then break up into groups of 8 to 12 (facilitators can presumably handle larger groups than might otherwise be desirable). A neighbourhood meeting is held. All participants reconvene to raise questions and discuss the process.
6 The meetings are held
A description of a typical meeting is given below.
7 Collate the results
To ensure community ownership of the results, this is best done with help from some of the hosts or other community members. If the information is to be conveyed to some design authority (as will often be the case), it will be helpful to have one or two of their officers present as observers.
Hosts send in the replies from the neighbourhood meetings on butcher paper. These replies are combined, and the number of meetings recording each of them is noted. It is often useful to prepare a typed list in order of priority: that is, with the most often mentioned items at the top of the list.
If you can do so without colouring the results, it is also a good idea to provide a one- or two-paragraph summary of the main responses.
8 Feed the results back to the community and the users of the data
In all community consultation, your relationship with the community is your most valuable asset. This will be maintained more effectively if you always provide prompt and accurate feedback to anyone taking part in any consultation activity. It also provides a check on your interpretation of the results.
At the same time, a preliminary report to the user can be provided.
9 Final report to community and the user
If necessary, revise the results in the light of the reaction from the community. Circulate the revised report, perhaps in the form of a feature article in the local newspaper; the editor may permit you to write it, to ensure accuracy. Send a copy of the report to other stakeholders, such as the user (perhaps a design authority).
A typical meeting
A typical arrangement might be as follows. Again, this is just one example of how it might be done. You will of course modify this process to suit the actual situation...
6 The meetings are held6.01 Greeting guests
To allow for latecomers, the first 15 minutes is treated as an informal gathering. Guests are served with coffee (not alcohol) and perhaps nibbles when they arrive.6.02 Opening the meeting
The meeting is opened. It is kept informal, but butcher paper is taped up in a prominent position, and the host is encouraged to stick reasonably close to the agenda.
The purpose of the meeting, and the agenda, are explained. So is the use of butcher paper, and the overall timing for the evening. Guests are invited to help in staying close to the agenda and timetable. The uses to be made of the resulting information are clearly described. The reasons for using neighbourhood meetings are explained. It helps if the host very briefly explains her motives for being host.
If there is to be a later provision of information, or a visitor from elsewhere, it is important to say so at this point. Guests may otherwise suspect some ulterior motives.6.03 Introductions
Each guest is asked to introduce herself in not more than one or two sentences. (For example: What you prefer to be called, and something about yourself as a person.) It can be helpful for the host to begin, thus modelling a brief and personal introduction.6.04 Thinking time
Guest are given about five minutes, without discussion, to collect their thoughts. They are encouraged to take notes if they wish to do so.6.05 Open discussion
An open discussion is held: people are asked for their points of view on the issue being discussed. The host encourages short speeches by asking for regular six-word summaries to record on the butcher paper. Views are sought from those who might not otherwise have a chance to speak.
When people differ, the host thanks them for their frankness, states that it isn't necessary to reach agreement, and asks for a way of recording all views on the butcher paper.
At the appointed time, cut short the open discussion and move on to the next phase.6.06 Possible input
If there is to be an input of information, or comments from another guest, or the like, there is a choice. It may be done now, or after the more specific questions have been answered. Here is a rough rule of thumb... If the information is required for people to answer the specific questions, introduce it now. Otherwise, leave it until later. Your intention is not to distort people's reactions.6.07 Specific questions
The host announces the number of specific questions, and the time therefore available for each. The guests discuss each question in turn. About one or two minutes before it is time to move on to the next question, the host asks something like "What can I write down which will capture faithfully all of the points of view which have been expressed?".
The answers to each question are captured briefly and legibly on butcher paper.6.08 Possible input or visitor
If there is to be an input of information or a visitor after the detailed discussion, it occurs now.6.09 Revision of lists
Guests may wish to add to, or revise, their ideas in the light of the extra information. If so, they are given a few minutes to capture any additions or variations on butcher paper.6.10 Closure
The host thanks guests (and visitors, if any) and closes the official meeting. She indicates when the feedback of results is expected, and how it will be done.
Many guests, if invited, will take the chance to continue an informal conversation for some while afterwards.
A number of variations suggest themselves...
- If the neighbourhood meetings are staged over some weeks, the results of the early meetings can be fed into the later meetings for a reaction. If so, I strongly recommend that this is done part way through a meeting. It is important that people have a chance to voice their own opinions before they hear the results of other meetings.
- Instead of choosing the hosts at random, you might call a local meeting. Those attending might be asked to volunteer for the task. This does sacrifice one feature of the selection at random. When people are selected randomly, they seem to find it easier to act for the community as a whole rather than pursue their own vested interests. However, this is partly a matter of how well briefed they are. Most people respond well to a clear invitation to use their energies to involve others rather than to work for a particular outcome.
- Meetings might be attended by officers from the organisation using the data, for example, or stakeholders from beyond the local area. In most instances, this is best done by asking them to arrive at some point during the meeting, and to remain as observers until invited to comment or respond to questions. The participation of the locals may otherwise be inhibited.
- Neighbourhood meetings might be combined with other consultative methods. For example, if text media such as newspapers are used to notify people of some event, neighbourhood meetings might be used to collect information on reactions to the event.
- A modified extract from my 1990 resource document, Processes for community consultation (Brisbane: Interchange and the Department of Transport). [ back ]
- I am indebted to my friends at the Centre for Continuing Education, especially Alan Davies, for information about some of the details of this approach. [ back ]
- When I was in Canberra on study leave in 1984, I assisted Alan Davies with some community consultation in a school community in Canberra. This helped me greatly to understand the process for organising and holding neighbourhood meetings. [ back ]
Copyright (c) Bob Dick 1990-2000. This document may be copied if it is not included in documents sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are included.
This document can be cited as follows:
Dick, B. (1997) Neighbourhood meetings [On line]. Available at
Maintained by Bob Dick; this version 1.04w last revised 20000103
A text version is available at URL ftp://ftp.scu.edu.au/www/arr/localmeet.txt