From Kristen Smith, Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce.

I go to a lot of meetings, and serve on a lot of committees.  But most of the meetings are part of my job and I think board service is an important part of being a community member.

But in recent discussions at the municipal level, there has been a lot of talk about “community engagement” and “citizen input.”  How do we gather it? How do we incorporate it?  And I worry that the first response seems to be, “Let’s create a steering committee” or “We should host a public information meeting.”

But I think the key question needs to be:

How do we engage more citizens WITHOUT more meetings and more committees?

Why am I asking this? Because most of the current meetings and the current committees are leaving a lot of people out of the conversation.

A recent meeting intended to bring folks together to discuss the planning around an important crossroads was four hours on a Saturday.  There were significant issues to debate and key plans to update.  However, it’s a luxury to have that kind of time to spare.

What happens to the parents that need to shuttle their kids, the people that need to care for aging parents, or the folks that work a second job on the weekend?  When do they get to weigh in?

Here’s two ideas – and they’re not new ones:

  • [We need to] Use technology tools: We have access to incredible tools that can help include a broader audience.  Let’s think about how we can use Skype or SurveyMonkey, Twitter or Tumblr, to allow folks to express their opinion on these decisions at a time that fits with their schedule.  Many of the exercises at the meeting I mentioned before could easily be made into an online survey and I tried tweeting photos of the plans so other citizens could say what they liked.
  • [We need to] Meet people where they are: We keep on creating separate meetings that require folks to carve time out of their schedule to attend. What if we try to catch people where they are? The Town of Chapel Hill has tried to do this by hosting sessions at University Mall to catch shoppers or disseminate information with a notice on trash cans.  What if the meeting that was held, was held when the library was OPEN and we invited library patrons young and old to give their two cents after they check out their books?


It is not my intention to diminish the efforts of tireless volunteers – those who host and plan these meetings or staff and participate in these committees.  I am grateful for and applaud their service and commitment.  But we’ll get more ideas – and a better product – if we learn how to invite more people to the table,

By putting that “table” online. Or maybe even bring the “table” to them.

Kristen Smith is the Vice President for Advocacy & Engagement at Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce