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Facilitating Confidential Public Meetings

Our work has a special niche – we work with government, quasi government and community clients. In every state and with every client, there is a requirement that meetings be open to the public. That means the meeting is publicly noticed (social media, newsletters, websites), anyone can attend, often is recorded, and many times the public is allowed to comment within guidelines. The laws were enacted to ensure transparency, accountability, and equity in decision making.

As geeky government strategic planning types, we LOVE that our meetings are public, because we do believe, as Ken Blanchard said, “None of us is as smart as all of us”. But as professional facilitators, we also believe in creating space and opportunity for open, honest, awkward, and uncomfortable conversations to happen.

As a facilitator, what do you do when a confidential conversation, in a safe and protected space, needs to happen….but the meeting is required by law to be public?

The two seem contradictory, right?

Well, yes….but also no. We see three main opportunities to narrow the gap between a confidential conversation with selected participants, and a public meeting open to anyone.

Preparation Methods

During your kickoff meeting with the client, make sure you discuss this in detail – every client has a different rule and regulation. In some states, we literally read a three minute statement about public meetings out loud. The goal here is three fold:

1) Understand what you as the facilitator can expect during the meeting

2) Understand what has and has not worked well in the past

3) Understand what the client wants in terms of public involvement in the project and process

Pre Meeting Methods

This is where you craft opportunities to engage one on one with your meeting participants, BEFORE the meeting, to build rapport and gain a deeper understanding from them. We have used:

  • In person/Zoom/email confidential conversations based on strategic questions.

  • Online anonymous surveys.

  • Small group meetings that do not violate open meeting laws.

Note: this can apply to the public as well – we have found that when they are involved early and often, they feel informed and more comfortable with the process and the outcomes.

Facilitation Methods

During the actual meeting, where members of the public (or journalists, or anyone at all) may attend, there are many techniques to use. We have found the key here is to set great ground rules, find ways to involve the participants that still allows confidentiality, and offer information to the public that makes sense. Some ideas include:

  • Ground rules that clearly outline participation.

  • Discussion around deliverables – the notes from the meeting being shared with all attendees and participants, any photos that might be taken during the meeting, sharing the Power Point or any handouts and so on.

  • Ensure attendees know when they can be involved and share opinions at a public meeting, by email, or other methods defined prior to the meeting.

  • Engagement activities that allow for confidentiality such as:

  • Small group breakout rooms

  • Writing confidentially on 3 x 5 cards and turning them in

  • Creating themes instead of specific “quotes”

What else have you seen, or have you done, that can bring these two seemingly contradictory needs together to craft the desired outcomes?

Just call or email me if you would like to connect! I love to share information and always learn from other facilitators, so please do reach out. I hope you have a great day!

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