The Open House Technique

A Tale of Two Open Houses

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You may remember an "open house" that your family or church or a new local business has held. It's an informal reception-like event. The term is familiar to most people, at least in Minnesota.

As a public participation technique, an "Open House" is an informal setting that allows for one-to-one exchanges between any concerned/interested person and the public officials and professionals involved in the matter. Attendees have the opportunity to mill around, going back and forth among displays of information and materials, familiarizing themselves with the various facets of the proposed plan or action. An open house is also useful in getting attendees' viewpoints and perceptions communicated directly to the public officials and professionals.

An open house may not be appropriate when there is an intense need for group discussion or when project staff, leaders, or decision makers are unwilling to interact directly with the public. While you can collect written comments at an open house, do not mislead attendees to think that it's a vote to determine the final decision.

Do serve refreshments! Do have colorful, interactive, show-&-tell displays!


A Tale of Two Open Houses

November 1997: The Savage Fen Open House

A classic example of a pure open house that went "by the numbers." The issue concerned the future of a rare type of wetland in the developing suburb of Savage, near the Minnesota River.

How the open house fit our objectives: On a contentious issue, we wanted to reach beyond the local officials and neighboring landowners into the wider community of citizens to share information, to answer questions, and to hear their feedback and other ideas.

Adaptation used: Other interested parties were offered their own stations to display their own materials (maps, plans, fact sheets, etc.) and talk one-on-one with attendees.

May and December 1999: The Con-Con Lands Open Houses

A good example of how things can go wrong despite your preparations, and how to respond. How often the open house fit our objectives: On a contentious issues, we wanted to reach beyond the local officials and neighboring landowners into the wider community of citizens to share information, to answer questions, and to hear their feedback and other ideas.

a) An open house gets "hijacked": Some local officials took control of an open house to vent their opinions and perhaps to prevent the contact DNR was seeking with local residents. Some attendees simply left when the low-key open house format was lost.

b) Adaptation for the later round: An unusual hybrid combining an open house with a presentation and a public comment period.

The Morals of This Tale

  • Anticipation and adaptation are two of your best tools in designing a participation strategy.
  • The same tool will not work exactly the same way in every situation.

Tips for Staffing Open House Stations

The two purposes of an open house are to provide information and to collect feedback on a specific project or venture. Visitors are likely to include many people who have very limited knowledge of the topic and very limited access to information sources. Therefore, you can give the greatest assistance to visitors if you provide basic information and focused discussion to help them understand the Savage Fen wetland complex and the management issues for the plan under development.

Room Set-Up

The room will be set up to spread visitors out and to give them a variety of staff to talk with. It also gives many opportunities to those who want to deliver messages before they can listen.

There will not be a single, formal presentation. An open house is an informal setting for information-sharing.

We will have one or two "hosts" to greet visitors, explain the format, and guide them into the room.

Chairs will be provided for you during slow periods, but you will be more effective if you stand up while talking with visitors; being in front of the table would be better yet.

"Workday casual" clothing is recommended, if you can manage it with your schedule. Again, the idea is to make yourself as friendly and accessible as possible.

At the Stations

  • Prepare your thoughts in advance. Think about how you best can help visitors learn about the project and become informed citizens and community leaders.
  • Be friendly, but be attentive to how they respond. Sometimes folks who are intensely disturbed about an issue will interpret a sunny disposition as flippancy about their concerns.
  • Show folks that you are actively listening and want to give them the information they need. If you do not have the information, help them get to someone who does. It may be necessary sometimes just to listen.
  • Please prepare a 1-2 page fact sheet on your topic and bring 100 copies for visitors to pick up and take home. A simple Q&A format will probably be the easiest for visitors to read quickly. Please include the name of the author organization, a contact name, and phone number in case of follow-up questions, and the date it was prepared.
  • Keep your handouts and discussions focused on the Savage Fen wetland complex, because that is the topic for the evening. Issues at a larger or more general scale (such as metro-area transportation policy, urban sprawl, general water management, and so forth) probably will confuse visitors if you do not concentrate on the specifics of the Savage Fen site.
  • Maps and graphics can be very helpful. Visual information can be absorbed more quickly than written information. Take reasonable steps to ensure that the information is presented in a sound and accurate manner and indicate the author and data sources, as applicable.

Adapted From: Lessons from the Field: Real Strategies for Engaging and Informing the Public (8/2/2000)