In 2009 we worked with Ron Thomas, Mary Means, and Goody Clancy to help plan and run a large 500+ person visioning event in the town of Shreveport. We set up the event the night before with computers at every table for brainstorming and a keypad polling system providing each participant with a handheld device for voting and prioritizing strategies in the region. We had a tech table set up next to the audio/filming crew, a group that was very helpful in getting us what we need to set up. We tested everything, including making sure the keypads registered when voting from the far corners of the convention space.
The next day the meeting started well. Then came the time to conduct the first keypad vote. We started with demographic questions to learn more about who was at the meeting and to give us the ability to do cross tab analysis of the polling data to see how different groups voted. I explained how to use the keypads and then asked people how long they had lived in the area. A vote counter in the corner of the screen indicated how many votes had been cast. To our horror, the count petered out at 190 to 210 even though we knew there were at least twice that many people in the room. My crew scrambled to figure out what was wrong. We reset the vote but again, less than half the room’s votes were coming in. We switched over to the brainstorming exercise in the hopes that we could fix the problem with the keypads in the meantime. Only a few minutes into the brainstorming exercise, however, hands started going up with complaints that computers were no longer linked to the network. I went over to Ron Thomas and said, “that’s strike two, in events this big you don’t get three strikes. Time to go old fashion pen & paper.” What caused the problem was hard to determine but several theories emerged. Some wondered whether all the equipment of the AV crew caused interference with wireless used by the keypads and computers. Another theory was that the Caddo-Bossier Office of Homeland Security, nearby, was working with some new technology that interfered with the wireless. Also possible? We simply needed a more central/elevated antennae structure for the wireless keypads to accommodate the size of the room and the number of people using the space. Regardless of the reason, the most important thing was that we had a Plan B and a Plan C for backup.
That’s one example of equipment failure, we have also had events hampered by 2 feet of snow falling the night before, and meetings where angry protesters started chanting and yelling, trying to shut down the process.
“What to Do When Public Participation Goes Terribly Wrong” is the title of a session PlaceMatters is facilitating at APA next month. As a non-profit with a mission to spread the use of tools and techniques effective in improving land use planning and community development, this means sharing the tough situation stories as well as the successes. Holly St.Clair from Boston’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council and John Fernsler from WRT (the first firm to win APA’s new Professional Excellence award) will also be joining us and sharing some of their experiences and how crisis was averted.
The plan is to also share stories submitted to us. Comment on this post or send Jason Lally your stories, videos, and/or pictures. It can be just a sentence or two just to give us a feel for the situation. If we select your story, we may ask you for more details. If you have any near misses or actual disasters in public planning/facilitation, please send them our way. We’d love to include your story. We will send $20 gift cards to the top 2 submissions. And join us in Boston at APA, April 10 from 1-2:15PM (S456)!