workshops chart demonstrating workshops

What is a workshop?

Workshops are designed as a forum for the public to work together and identify community objectives, desired outcomes, specific problem areas, and solutions to problems. Interactive public workshops and meetings that include facilitated group discussions are among the most common venues for community visioning. When they are successful, it is due to careful planning and follow-through. Well-organized and executed public workshops can be valuable opportunities to vet ideas and obtain meaningful public feedback. Exercises may include a variety of activities such as brainstorming, marking up maps, discussing pictures, playing games, or rating issues.

Who can implement it?

Localities can use public workshops to identify core principles by which a community will abide. In workshops, participants can identify preferences and priorities for future growth. As with all of the community engagement tools, the results from public workshops can be incorporated into comprehensive plans or policy documents.

What are the keys to success and potential pitfalls?

Facilitation: Public citizens who attend workshops may be passionate and arrive with expectations to advocate for a specific issue. Strong facilitators can help participants focus on the overall issues of discussion, and steer the conversations and activities to attain valuable feedback. Facilitators should remain unbiased and encourage all present to provide their thoughts to ensure all perspectives present have been noted. Facilitators must take care to accurately record comments and discussion points.

Preparation: Properly planning and organizing the timing and set-up of meetings can be a fruitful investment. It is important to adequately prepare for public workshops. Carefully designed exercises and discussions will help participants to voice their opinions and provide meaningful feedback. Setting a meeting date, time, and place well in advance of the event will allow for the most outreach. Advertising the event is crucial as workshops with only a few participants may not cover all viewpoints of the community.

Reporting Results: Participants will want to know how the results of the workshop will be used. As a courtesy for their effort, meeting facilitators should understand the role of the workshop in the overall planning process or plan development. After the workshop, the results should be incorporated into a meaningful summary.

Where has this strategy been applied?

Examples in Montana

  • The Richland County Planner Office, the City/County Planning Board, and the Richland County Health Department work together annually to conduct a "State of the Community" County-wide Conference. The Conference is a tool used to keep the Growth Policy "alive" by identifying ways to implement recommended policies and to gather data and other useful information for future growth policy updates. Conference attendees provide input on the community's needs, issues, and challenges in the areas of: Housing, Physical Health Resources, Educational & Cultural Development, Natural Resources, Youth Opportunities & Development, Transportation & Public Facilities, Public Safety, and Economy & Community Development. The conference is typically well-attended (the January 2009 conference had more than 100 participants) and six standing "action groups" have been formed in an effort to help address and implement actions to address identified issues and needs. Conference proceedings are well-covered in the local newspaper and notes from past conference sessions are posted on the county's website.
  • A number of rural communities in the state have utilized a Resource Team Assessment process sponsored by the Montana Department of Commerce in cooperation with the Montana Economic Developers Association (MEDA). The assessment process employs a Resource Team focused on economic and community development; health; housing; workforce development; education; land use planning; grant writing; telecommunications; financing; emergency management services; and strategic planning to work with each community. The Resource Team typically spends one or two days interviewing members of the community to help determine the community's strengths and weaknesses, its problems and challenges, and to identify desirable short-term and long-term projects. The Resource Team typically presents the findings of the assessment process at a community workshop and provides a report with suggestions for accomplishing the identified goals.
  • The recent update to Missoula's Long Range Transportation Plan relied on public and stakeholder workshops to foster community dialogue about transportation goals, linkages to land use and travel demand, and transportation investment priorities and to help develop and compare possible future land use scenarios. The Envision Missoula Workshops comprised a public visioning process intended to solicit public input on the desirability of different land use and transportation patterns. Three open public workshops were held that included interactive mapping exercises that asked groups of participants to create a scenario that represented the desired transportation system and development pattern to ensure mobility and quality of life for a future Missoula area population of about 200,000. Each group was asked to build their vision on maps that incorporated transportation routes and considered various modes, open space, nodes of focused development, commercial and office areas, and residential areas in the community. The Missoula Growth Workshop solicited input from knowledgeable private and public sector professionals about current development trends in Missoula. The input resulted in different concepts for the type of transportation system the community may need at full build out (represented by a doubling of the area's population).

Examples outside of Montana

  • Gaming exercises are a creative approach that has been employed across the country. In Charlottesville, Virginia, a "Dot Map Game" was used to engage people in a regional planning initiative workshop. Each player selected a different alternative future theme for the area. The themes, named after old television shows, represented overarching descriptions of how the region could look and function in the future.
  • In Fort Worth, Texas this technique was used as part of a transit corridor project. Participants were given a set of game pieces corresponding to different land uses along with a price tag, allowing them to think of development concepts within budget constraints. Similar "dot map" gaming exercises have been used scenario planning initiatives across the country.

Case studies

How can I get started?

Determine the purpose of the meeting.
An important first step is to decide on the purpose for the workshop. Is it to share information, seek advice, or solve a problem? Once that is decided, planners should then choose the appropriate structure and organization that best carries out the objective. To avoid misunderstandings, it is important that all notices indicate clearly the nature of the meeting and the expected outcomes.

Build relationships with participants in advance.
Another step in planning for public participation involves identifying and involving the key stakeholders. One of the first things a meeting organizer can do to effectively include those with an interest in an issue is to cultivate a relationship with key stakeholders in advance of the public meeting. Relationship building among representative participants and meeting planners may help build trust and confidence that will reduce hostility at the meeting.

Have a draft agenda.
Before any meeting takes place, a draft agenda should be developed. This agenda is very important because it serves as a guide for the facilitator to keep the group moving toward accomplishing their goals.

Consider the meeting space.
Meeting planners should identify an appropriate location and room arrangement. The arrangement most often recommended is either a semicircle or a U-shape because it allows participants to be face-to-face and their attention can also be directed to the area where flipcharts are being utilized to record the meeting. In potentially contentious situations, participants should perceive the meeting space as neutral territory.

Have a follow-up plan.
Another aspect of the planning process is to have a strategy identified for following-up once the meeting is completed. Following up with participants helps to prevent spending too much time reviewing what happened at a previous meeting, if additional meetings are required.

Where can I get more information?