Town hall meeting

Channel description: 

A Town hall meeting is a single public event at which participants meet in a public space, typically indoors, such as a town hall or a community centre to learn about and discuss a given topic such as a grid project. It can take different formats, ranging from expert panel discussions with a Q&A session, to “fish bowl discussions” with representatives from the participants’ side, to the division of the participants into working groups. 

In the context of grid development projects, Town hall meetings can be a powerful communication tool for constructive interaction between the project developers and the affected local stakeholders. This is particularly the case if strong, uncompromising views on the grid project have not arisen yet and if the local affected stakeholders’ input can still be integrated into the project plan. These conditions make Town hall meetings especially appropriate for early project stages. If the Town hall meeting is held before the beginning of the Spatial planning process when several corridor options are still on the table, workshops held as parts of a Town hall meeting are a good tool to collect local input and potential concerns at a very early stage of the project.

Town hall meetings require an early preparation in terms of relationship building and preliminary meetings with key multipliers. To avoid confrontations during meetings that could hamper a constructive outcome, TSOs should invest time in building and maintaining relations with important national stakeholders. Also, briefing important (local) multipliers in advance (Local elected officials, local NGOs etc.) encourages locally known people without a particular background in grid development to actively take part in the Town hall meetings, as they know what to expect from the TSO and the event as such.

Strong relationship building tends to be particularly important between the TSO and the Regulator, Permitting authorities, energy producers as well as national politicians and NGOs. This relationship building is crucial for the TSO to know to understand at all times the concerns of other stakeholders. One of the main ideas behind this toolkit is that all stakeholders should actively live up to their responsibilities in the context of grid projects. They should assume their roles in the stakeholder dialogue process. For example, policy makers should explain the directions of energy policy that ultimately lead to a specific grid development project. It can make an important difference for the overall acceptance of a project if relevant stakeholders represent their roles in the stakeholder dialogue and assume responsibility for specific communication topics. Good relationship management can help in encouraging everyone to actively participate in the stakeholder dialogue overall and in important events like Town hall meetings in particular. 
The meeting should be designed in a way to give participants enough space and opportunity to voice their opinion and start a dialogue with the project developers. Organisers of the event should ideally integrate small-group workshops and break-out sessions into such meetings or any kind of interruption of large-audience formats, in order to give people the chance to speak out and voice their opinions in smaller groups.

Audiences: 
Usual patterns: 

Adjacent communities, their Local elected officials and Land owners are typically directly affected by a grid project. They wish to be informed early and comprehensively on the project. 

Experience from past projects shows that these stakeholders often feel that their concerns and ideas were not fully respected and considered in a grid project. A Town hall meeting – with its participatory elements such as small group workshops – can typically help to address these concerns or doubts appropriately and it can be the early starting point of a sustainable and long-lasting dialogue. Also, the Town hall meeting – with its big audience presentations – is a good way to transparently inform Local stakeholders of the overall process of grid development and the upcoming procedure. It is a good opportunity to show that there are several ways for local stakeholders to also take an active part in the overall process.

Local stakeholders should therefore be encouraged to take the opportunity to enter into a constructive dialogue with the project proponents.

Town hall meetings bear the advantage of enabling the organisers to address the entire audience of people affected by a grid project under development. It is thus important to invite all citizens of the Adjacent communities (i.e. entire towns/villages) to such events for example via several ads in local newspapers, making clear that every member of the Adjacent community is welcome. The advertisements should also inform about the main agenda of the event, about the ways the participants can contribute and thus why their attendance is appreciated and worthwhile. A good side effect from inviting all kind of stakeholder groups to the meetings can be the opportunity for them to network and discuss the project not only with the TSO but also with one another. Therefore, the closing plenary session should, if possible, be followed by an informal get-together with food and drinks. Sufficient time and space for these conversations are crucial.

When inviting local stakeholders via a broad advertising campaign, the organisers should carefully analyse the public interest and the resulting number of participants that is to be expected. For a brief discussion on managing high numbers of participants, please see the section “Potential audience size” below.

Further project-specific questions: 
  • Who are the most affected members of the Adjacent communities?

  • How much information has already been conveyed to the Adjacent communities? 

  • Have the Adjacent communities already voiced opposition to the grid project?

  • Have there already been attempts to address the concerns/demands?

  • To what extent can compromises be reached regarding the demands of the Adjacent communities and the TSOs?

  • How high is the general local interest in the event?

Usual patterns: 

If there are relevant LCIs in the area of a given grid project opposing either this or related projects, inviting them can be a good idea to send a positive signal and begin to create an atmosphere of trust and cooperation. Their direct invitation should, however, be carefully planned and their participation and integration into the event prepared in order to facilitate constructive dialogue. LCIs often participate effectively and constructively in Town hall meetings. However, in cases where there is not yet an atmosphere of relative trust and understanding between, primarily, the TSOs and the LCIs, a coordination meeting between the two can help to avoid surprises for both sides.

Further project-specific questions: 
  • What exactly are the concerns/demands of the Local citizens’ initiatives?

  • How is the atmosphere between TSO and LCI? Is there a constructive dialogue?

  • What position and appearance of the LCI is to expect at the Town hall meeting?

  • Could a pre-coordination meeting between TSO and LCI be helpful?

Usual patterns: 

If available, Power producers that are directly associated with the grid development project should be invited to the Town hall meeting and could even be considered as panellists or speakers. They can often credibly bring forward strong arguments for the need for grids, e.g. due to the integration of renewables.

Further project-specific questions: 
  • Are there any Power producers directly associated with the grid development project?

  • Are any Power producers willing to act as speakers or panellists to explain the project from their view and answer specific questions from the public?

Usual patterns: 

In case they are available, it can be worth inviting or even officially involving representatives from Permitting authorities in events related to stakeholder participation such as Town hall meetings. As an active part, representatives from Permitting authorities can interact with other participants of the events and answer questions related to the role of Permitting authorities and the related procedures. The same holds true for the Regulators and National policy makers: They should be invited to a Town hall meeting so they can interact with other participants and answer questions related to their role over the project cycle.

Further project-specific questions: 
  • Are relevant Permitting authorities available to attend the Town hall meeting?

  • Are representatives of the Regulator available to attend the Town hall meeting?   

  • What National policy makers could be interested in the event? Are there any parliament delegates from the surrounding area who are familiar with the issue?

Usual patterns: 

Environmental NGOs are often invited to participate in public project events in order to gather their input. This participation in public events may complement individual meetings, and may allow Environmental NGOs to present their views in front of the public, in order to inform the general debate and increase transparency. As many Environmental NGOs have experts for power grids and energy networks themselves, they can usually provide very valuable input to the discussions and workshops of a Town hall meeting. Also, Environmental NGOs can act as important multipliers to the greater public, diffusing information about grid development and associated environmental issues. 

If available, other experts may participate in the meeting to provide an independent view on critical and controversial issues. In some cases they might even be considered as panellists or speakers.

Further project-specific questions: 
  • What Environmental NGOs could be invited to the event?  

  • Are there any experts available that could be invited for the event?

  • How can they be included into the event? Are they interested in presenting or holding a speech?

Usual patterns: 

For local/regional media institutions, Town hall meetings are typically attractive events due to the high public interest associated with them. They can spread the information and atmosphere of the Town hall meeting to the greater public and hence act as a crucial multiplier. Media should be given enough opportunities to ask questions, make interviews, take pictures etc. A press conference before, during or after the event can be a crucial success factor. The conference should be held for the media only.

All local and regional media institutions should be informed about the event. A press release and a separate press conference – e.g. before the actual town hall meeting – can be helpful as well.

Further project-specific questions: 
  • Who are the media entities potentially interested in the Town hall meeting? 

  • Have media entities already taken a position on the grid project?

Potential audience size: 
Usual patterns: 

A Town hall meeting can address a relatively big audience compared to other means of in-person communication. However, the group that can actually attend a Town hall meeting is limited by the size of the meeting venue. 

Before sending out invitations and advertising the event publicly, the TSO together with local multipliers should carefully analyse the general public interest in the event. The overall advertisement as well as the planning of the event as such should depend on how many local stakeholders are likely to show up. Past events have shown that a high number of participants (several hundreds of participants are usually too much) can quickly jeopardise a cooperative and constructive atmosphere as relatively fewer TSO speakers are available to answer specific questions and concerns, while at the same time more people will have a greater number of questions to ask. This will also lead to longer plenary sessions, at the cost of having less time for the workshops. This can be regarded as a disadvantage, as the small group workshops have proven to be much more effective in initiating a constructive dialogue between different stakeholders.

In case the organisers of a Town hall meeting expect the number of participants to exceed the capacity of the location and/ or the overall concept of the event, they should consider either splitting the event up into several small events or booking a different location and adjusting the concept of the event. As a last resort, the organisers could consider artificially limiting the number of participants on a first-come, first-served basis by requiring advance registration. However, they should be very careful in doing so, should be transparent about their reasoning, and should make this decision clear from the first day of their advertising campaign. Past experiences have shown that limiting the number of participants can quickly lead to the public perception that TSOs are unwilling to confront themselves with the concerns of the local population.

Further project-specific questions: 
  • How many people are among the affected stakeholders in the region of the grid project?

  • How many people would fit into the space designated for the town hall meeting? 

  • How high do local multipliers and the TSO estimate the public interest in the project to be?

  • How many people are likely to show up? Does the location provide enough space and opportunity for an informal get-together of an audience of this size?

  • In case the number of participants is very likely to exceed the capacity of the booked location, are there any alternatives?

  • Is limiting the number of participants a necessary option? If so, how can this be communicated carefully without creating the impression that the TSO is avoiding contact with all local stakeholders? Is splitting up the event into several smaller events possible?

Cost/required resources: 
Usual patterns: 

A Town hall meeting is a relatively costly channel to use for project proponents such as TSOs. Costs are incurred not only for renting the venue, technical equipment, catering and security but also for the time-consuming preparation of the meeting. The number of possible Town hall meetings for a given grid project is therefore limited. 

Despite the relatively high costs, TSOs should ensure that the location and setting suits the planned activities. Past Town hall meetings have proven that inviting all kind of stakeholder groups can have the side effect that all stakeholders can network and discuss the project not only with the TSO but also with one another. Therefore, the event location should be suitable not only for a big plenary session and several small group workshops, but also for informal get-togethers across the entire group. The meeting can proceed into such get-togethers during breaks, and the closing plenary session should, if possible, be followed by an informal get-together with food and drinks. Sufficient time and space for these conversations are crucial.

A cost plan should contain all relevant expenses and should be drafted well in advance. Opportunities for cost-sharing should be contemplated, e.g. municipal administrations could make the venue available at their expense to enable the TSO to organise several small meetings in interested towns instead of just one centralised one.

Further project-specific questions: 
  • How much will the rental of the town hall and equipment cost, including catering and security?

  • How much time and money will the organisation and preparation of the Town hall meeting require?

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Type of communication: 
Information
Dialogue
  • Information can be conveyed from the project developers to the audience, for example through Presentations. One or several Presentations held by the TSO should be an essential part of the Town hall meeting. The Presentations should include comprehensive and new information which makes them worthwhile for already informed people to make the effort of participating. The plenary Presentations should be moderated by an independent moderator hired by the TSO or the municipality, e.g. from an external communication agency. This moderator should introduce himself as independent, introduce potential expert presenters and organise the Q&A sessions during which participants can have their questions answered by TSO representatives or other stakeholders whose role it is to answer a certain question.

  • To establish a dialogue, a Town hall meeting can typically offer a good setting through small-group workshops with different stakeholders and TSO experts. These workshops should be an essential part of the event and aim to identify, collect and start discussing specific concerns of the participants. Also, participants might be less intimidated to ask specific questions in the small workshops than in the big plenum. The workshops can try to bring out these questions and specific concerns, collect them and discuss them. In a way, the participants should hence be enabled to drive the agenda setting of the workshop – especially when the event takes place at very early project stages, e.g. before Spatial planning. The participation of TSO experts (technical, legal, planning, project management etc.) in the workshops is crucial as they are most suitable to fully answer specific questions and also to directly receive the participants input themselves: If, for example, the participants give input regarding a potential local planning obstacle, a planning expert will know best what questions to ask and how to interpret the input. 

  • It is helpful to have an (ideally independent) moderator to open the Town hall meeting, to introduce the presenters and the project team and to explain the rules of the Q&A session and the workshops (e.g. switching off mobile phones, letting each other finish, and making constructive criticism). Also, all workshops should have a (independent) moderator to ensure the constructive dialogue and to encourage all workshop participants to engage in the discussion.

  • Due to the large number of participants, working on specific aspects of the grid project and shaping specific project decisions is typically not feasible.

Content to be communicated: 
Usual patterns: 

At a Town hall meeting, the organisers (typically TSOs) should ensure as much transparency as possible regarding the grid project in order to enter into a constructive dialogue with the affected stakeholders. Moreover, contents should not only be communicated and presented but also discussed in small group workshops. 

The Presentations should include the planned location of the grid as well as alternative routes, the project context (such as the embedding of the project in the larger grid), project benefits to stakeholders, Technical details and Information on the project developers. Where decisions have already been made, e.g. regarding the technology of the project, these should be clearly explained to the Town hall meeting participants, especially in terms of why they were better than the respective alternatives.

The presenters at a Town hall meeting should bear in mind that the audience will at least in parts consist of stakeholders without any background in grid development. Therefore, they should give a good introduction into the field, using Presentation slides that are easy to understand and avoid as much technical language as possible (e.g. regarding legal processes of spatial planning or permitting). Moreover, they should ensure not to overload their Presentations with information and keep them concise.

A good starting point for small-group workshop discussions is to equip the rooms with different maps, e.g. showing the planning ellipse, the current assessment of social and environmental sensitivities, a map of the region around the project (e.g. to show power generation from renewables). Moreover, flipcharts should be available. 

In addition to maps and flip charts, each workshop should have a formal minute taker who will keep the minutes of the workshop. The minutes could be published on the project’s website for maximum transparency.

The TSO may decide if it lets the workshops be moderated by an external person or have them moderated by members of the TSO’s communication team. This can for example make sense in case the TSO expects rather specific and technical questions and concerns that an external and independent moderator could not address and discuss as well as an internal moderator. It is part of the moderator’s role to clearly explain the “rules of the game” for the workshop discussions in advance (e.g. switching off mobile phones, letting each other finish, and making constructive criticism). Furthermore, the workshop moderator should be joined by various members of the TSO’s project team who can represent different areas of expertise (e.g. environmental issues like bird protection).

Further project-specific questions: 
  • How much information exists so far regarding the planned Project location?

  • Can a strong and waterproof connection be established between the overall need for more and better grids (e.g. for the integration of renewables) and the specific project?

  • Can a strong and waterproof connection between the grid project and concrete benefits for the (local) stakeholders be drawn?

  • Which pieces of technical information are most relevant to the grid project?

  • Which pieces of information on the project developers are most important for the (local) stakeholders and the grid project?

     

Usual patterns: 

In order to maintain transparency and provide the possibility of an ongoing, constructive dialogue on the grid project, the TSO should provide information on the Project timetable and further events related to the project, as well as contacts for further information and exchange.

Further project-specific questions: 
  • Are further events related to the project already scheduled?   

  • Who is in charge of dealing with stakeholder questions/input?

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Project stage at which best employed: 
Usual patterns: 

At the Project preparation stage, the TSO can typically already convey concrete information and strong, uncompromising views have typically not yet arisen, which makes this stage ideal for a Town hall meeting. This also gives local affected stakeholders the chance to voice their concerns at a stage at which they can still be included in the project plan. At this stage, the TSO typically develops and presents first corridor options which can and should be discussed with other stakeholders to learn about local sensitivities before the opening of official spatial planning and permitting procedures. A town hall meeting is a good framework for these discussion, especially when they take place in small-group workshops.

Further project-specific questions: 
  • Is the project’s progress at a stage at which the citizens’ concerns/doubts/ ideas can still be integrated into the project? 

  • Has there already been strong local opposition voiced?

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Usual patterns: 

A Town hall meeting can also be an appropriate channel for the Spatial planning phase, especially if the final decision on the route of the grid line has not been made yet. The Town hall meeting can then especially be useful to get a full picture of the concerns/doubts/ideas of affected communities. 

Further project-specific questions: 
  • Is the project’s progress at a stage at which the citizens’ concerns/doubts/ideas can still be integrated into the project?

  •  Has there already been strong local opposition voiced?