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  • What is a public hearing?

  • Why conduct a public hearing?

  • When do you conduct or testify at a public hearing?

  • How do you conduct a public hearing?

  • What is a public hearing?

Different people have many different ideas about what constitutes a public hearing, so keep that in mind whenever you're talking about these things with other people. For the purposes of this section, we're going to define public hearings in two ways:
  • A public hearing may be a formal meeting for receiving testimony from the public at large on a local issue, or proposed government action. Testimony from both sides of an issue is usually recorded for public record, and a report summarizing the key points is generated. All levels of government hold public hearings - from city on up to the national level. Sometimes, formal public hearings are mandated by law (on the environmental impact of a proposed highway project, for example). In other cases, government officials use them to gather information that will help them in making decisions or drafting legislation.
  • A public hearing may be less formal - it may or may not be sponsored by a government body - and it doesn't require that both sides of an issue get time to speak. You may choose simply to have a panel of people discussing an issue, with or without a question-and-answer period.
Public hearings are sometimes also called accountability sessions or study sessions. In official, formal hearings, laws may require high standards of fairness and the whole thing may feel more like a courtroom.

Why conduct a public hearing?

There are a number of reasons why you may want to hold a public hearing; for example:

  • To open discussions about the issue and your advocacy campaign.
  • To communicate and clarify needs.
  • To communicate a sense of community concern about an issue.
  • To increase community awareness about the issue
  • To attract media attention
  • To bring more of the public over to your way of thinking
  • To recruit new members
  • To show your side of controversial issues
  • To re-open public dialogue on issues that have fallen out of the public mind
  • To counter your opponents' arguments against your group or initiative
  • To find a solution to a community problem or issue
  • To gather information
  • To take the pulse of the community
Public hearings generally don't cost a lot in terms of staff time and money, and they're a great way for your organization or initiative to get your message out to the public, the media, and elected officials.

When do you conduct or testify at a public hearing?

A public hearing, if you have any control over when it happens, is best saved for a time when you really want to attract some attention to your cause or need to hear from many different viewpoints to help you decide what to do in an upcoming activity or campaign. You should not hold these events too often because attendance tends to fall and their impact is diluted when they happen too frequently. Also, convening a public hearing lends your group an aura of authority and credibility, and holding them too often may tarnish that image.
 
You may have no control over when a public hearing happens - for example, your city, county, or state government might decide that a public hearing should be held on a particular issue (for example, a utility rate increase) and then ask you to take part in it. If you are not asked, but you believe that you have something to offer, you should try to be listed as a witness.
 
At other times, you might be able to put together a public hearing to bring attention to an issue or proposal in which your organization or initiative is involved. This can take place at the start of an initiative, organization, or program. It can be tied to an upcoming or current event or done at a time when your issue is receiving a lot of public attention. Or you might call for a public hearing at a time when your opposition is garnering a lot of attention, in order to present your side of things.

How do you conduct or testify at a public hearing?

Let's say that you're working on a proposal to enact a citywide one cent sales tax increase, the proceeds of which will go to establishing after-school workshops, midnight basketball, and other youth programs. The city commission has agreed to consider the issue and calls for a public hearing. You are asked to represent your side, and representatives from local merchants who say the tax could hurt business are your opposition. Or let's say that the city hasn't called for an official hearing, but you want to organize a public hearing on the issue to raise public awareness and help you decide what your stance should be.
  • Before the public hearing. Generally, you'll want about a month to plan something like this and get the word out, but if the date is being determined by another party you might not get that much time.
  • Get on the agenda. When there's a hearing on your issue, no matter how inconveniently it's scheduled or how peripheral your group may be politically, you should do your best to make sure your stance is represented in the testimony. As you appear at every one of these things, the people in power get to recognize and then know you: if you have good things to say and are knowledgeable, they may even come to depend on you. Showing up is very important.
  • If your organization or initiative hasn't already been asked to provide testimony at a public hearing, you should make sure you're on the agenda. Call whatever organization or institution is sponsoring the hearing - for example, if it's a municipal hearing, call City Hall - and then find out who you should talk to about being included in the testimony.
  • Getting on the agenda may not be easy. If the hearing is time-limited, the folks conducting it have probably already chosen their presenters, and to get yourself included - or chosen in the first place - may be well-nigh impossible, or extremely political. You may have to know the right legislator or power-broker, or simply be known as someone who's a royal pain in the neck when you're left out.
  • In that kind of situation, you still have some options: (a) see if your political friends can get you included; (b) see if the chosen spokesperson for your issue will include you or your point of view in his or her presentation; (c) talk to the media and anyone else who'll listen about your exclusion (keep in mind, though, that this one's a tough call, because it makes enemies).
A somewhat more common situation is that in which a hearing goes on for a long time -- several hours, or sometimes even days -- and you have to sign up to speak. Supposedly, everyone who wants to gets heard, and everyone gets a set amount of time to present, usually two to five minutes. In actuality, what often happens is that the people with friends on the committee or group conducting the hearing get to sign up days in advance, come with slide shows and dancing bears, and take an hour and a half. This means that, unless you're particularly savvy and call in days in advance (even if it says that they won't take any sign-ups till the day of the hearing, you usually can sign up in advance if you're persuasive), you end up being number 240 on the list. Even if they honor their commitment to hear everyone you could end up speaking to an empty hall at 2:30 a.m. One way or another, either by using your political connections if you have them, or by getting to the hall at 6:00 in the morning on the day of the hearing, you've got to get your name in early.
 
  • Establish goals for the hearing. First and foremost, you should know what you want to accomplish with this event. Knowing your goals will also help you choose the best possible people to testify.
  • Of course, if it's a public hearing your main goal is probably to get your message across about whatever issue or problem is being discussed. This might mean convincing the city commission to vote in your favor on a public issue, or convincing the general public to vote a particular way in a referendum. You may decide that you have other goals, as well- for example, to attract new volunteers or increase local media coverage of your cause. You might also have the goal of increasing understanding between your side and the opposition.
  • Whatever your goals may be, it's important to keep them in mind when planning your hearing because that will help you select the speakers who are best suited to your purposes and it will help you stay clear about why you're doing this throughout the process.
Example: Forming goals for a hearing
Jose is the head of the coalition we mentioned earlier that is working to establish a one cent sales tax increase to raise funds for youth programs. The city commission has called for a public hearing on the matter, and a referendum will send the issue to the voters the next month. Jose and the other leaders of his coalition take this into consideration when forming their goals for the hearing. Here's what they come up with:
 
  • Goal 1: To show that there is a need for the proposed youth programs.
  • Goal 2: To show that the sales tax is needed in order to fund them.
  • Goal 3: To show that the sales tax won't be a burden on citizens.

Find people to testify and prepare them well.

You have to carefully pick the people who can best gear their testimony to your message, whether they're highly articulate experts in the field or program participants with compelling real-world experience of the issue. You'll want to find folks with whom you feel comfortable as representatives of your cause, because they're likely to be seen that way, even if they're not involved in your organization.

Keeping your goals in mind at all times, look for different kinds of testimony - a mixture of expert opinion (for example, a scientist who specializes in your issue or topic) and personal narratives (stories from people who are directly impacted by the issue) works much better than having only one or the other. If at all possible, it's best to have people that represent a cross-section of the community - people of different ages, ethnic backgrounds, and socioeconomic status.
 
If this seems like it might be hard to do, some creative thinking might be in order. For example, let's say your initiative is working to establish a senior center in your town. You might think that means you can only have senior citizens testify, but think about including others who care about that population - e.g., a teenager who has helped take care of an elderly relative.
Example: Deciding what kind of people should testify
 
Keeping the goals in mind, Jose set out to choose people to testify. He came up with several possible testifiers:
 
Goal 1: To show that there is a need for the proposed youth programs.
  • Youth who can talk about how they need things to do to keep them from getting into trouble
  • Experts who can show the benefits of youth programs, such as child psychologists, teachers, counselors
  • Parents who are concerned about their kids not having positive things to do
Goal 2: To show that the sales tax is needed in order to fund them.
  • Representatives from various agencies and organizations that work with youth who can explain why they don't have enough funding to put together these kinds of programs themselves
Goal 3: To show that the sales tax won't be a burden on citizens.
  • Local business people who feel the tax won't drive away customers
  • Local financial experts who can point out that the town is in good shape economically and looks like it will stay that way for some time
  • Someone from the Chamber of Commerce or another merchants' association
Rehearse anyone who's not used to public speaking (people who are will do their own rehearsing). Make real sure that anyone who testifies is ready to blow them away. Using Personal Testimony, can help you prepare people who will be testifying for your side of the issue.
 
  • Book a location and set a date and time for the event. Of course, if this is an official public hearing, your local government may determine this for you and you can skip this step. If it's up to you, however, it's important to choose a good time and an appropriate venue for the event.
Early in the evening on a weeknight will probably make for the best attendance, as most people work during the day. Try to find a location that can accommodate an audience, but don't pick a place that is too big, either. A room that is too large will end up making it look like very few people were there in any photos or videos taken by reporters.
 
If at all possible, the hearing should be held in the neighborhood or area that is being affected by the issue - this will draw in more local folks who are really invested in the issue. For example, if the hearing is related to hate crimes in local high schools, holding it in a high school will have more emotional impact and bring in more people who really care about the issue than if you had it at a hotel conference room somewhere downtown.
  • Make arrangements to ensure accessibility. Do you have a sign language interpreter for this event? Is the building accessible to people who use wheelchairs or other assistive equipment? If there are going to be any written materials handed out, will you have large-print or Braille copies available for people with visual impairments? In any publicity materials you send out (see step 6 below), be sure to mention any steps you've taken to make this event accessible.
  • Choose a facilitator. This is another step that you might not have to worry about for a public hearing - if others are organizing the event, they will probably be facilitating it as well. However, if you are making all the arrangements, you will want to designate a facilitator. This person should not be one of the panelists and, if both sides of an issue or problem are being represented, he or she should be an impartial party not affiliated with either side. The facilitator's job is to introduce the speakers, guide the discussion, and make sure that all participants are heard.
Some tips for the facilitator:
  • If any of the speakers are folks you don't know, get acquainted. Call them up a couple of days before the hearing and chat for a few minutes to get a feel for who they are. Doing this will help you find out any information you need for your introductions and help you remember who's who when the hearing takes place.
  • Familiarize yourself with both sides of the issue. Talk to the leaders of both sides and know what their main points are and where they stand.
  • Be fair, and don't be afraid to be assertive. If it's an especially heated hearing, you may have to step in to make sure both sides get a chance to be heard and you may have to break in if things degenerate into a shouting match.
  • Keep time carefully, especially if the time for the hearing is limited. Make sure that people don't run over their allotted time, if that's an issue, and that both sides get approximately equal exposure. Let participants know how much time is left, or how much they have left as they get close to the end.
  • If there are questions from the audience, you're the gatekeeper. Watch for overflowing hostility, questions that deal in personalities rather than issues, etc. Try to maintain a tone of respect for everyone
Publicize this event well! Send out a press release to the local media alerting them about this event. If you have enough time, you should also try to arrange for public service announcements about the hearing on local radio and television statements, and put up flyers about the event. If you have any contacts in the press, get in touch with them personally and ask them to consider covering the hearing. The Related Sections list at the end of this chapter will help you find more information in the Community Tool Box on how to do these things.
Example: Publicizing a public hearing
 
When the city informed Jose about the upcoming hearing, he only had about three weeks to get the word out. He sent out a press release the following day. He didn't have time to use many of the usual methods of getting the word out, but he did send a short "live copy" public service announcement about the hearing to local radio stations, got the city newspaper to allow him and the leader of the opposition to write point-counterpoint guest columns and made up fact sheets on his coalition's position to distribute to the audience at the hearing.
  • Try to ensure a supportive audience. This is particularly important for a public hearing, because people will be paying attention to how many people show up for either side and your opposition is bound to have a lot of people there, too.
In addition to just making your side look good, having a lot of people there is also helpful for the people who are testifying. Speaking out publicly about a community issue can be frightening, especially if anyone is talking about a traumatic personal experience such as illness or discrimination. Having as many friendly faces in the crowd as possible makes it easier.
 
Get the word out to people involved in your organization - call people on your phone list, send out e-mails, or both - and encourage them to be there to support your side.
 
Pack the audience with your people. Bring as many of your troops as you can, and make sure they know what your salient points are and applaud when you make them. Also make sure they know the counterarguments to and embarrassing points in your opponents' plans, and prime them to ask questions that will highlight those. If the hearing or part of the hearing is broadcast or reported on, this is the kind of stuff that will make the news.

 

At the public hearing

The day of the hearing, you should not only be prepared - you should be incredibly over-prepared, especially if there are questions on the agenda. You need to know all your facts cold, understand the arguments for and counterarguments to your and your opponents' positions, and be able to answer any question with more than rhetoric. If you can appear relaxed, and have the answer to anything anyone brings up, you 're going to look good, which means your issue will look good.

  • Start with a brief introduction.If this is a public hearing, this part may be handled by the city or whatever body is sponsoring the event. Whatever way it happens, it's important to take a few minutes at the beginning to give a brief description of the issue, the process that will be used to discuss the issue, and the goals of the discussion. If you're only having a few people testify, you might want to go ahead and introduce them at the beginning, but if you have many, it's probably best to introduce them (or let them introduce themselves) individually just before each one speaks.
  • Allow each side to offer testimony.There are two ways you can go about this. You can either have each side take turns offering testimony, or you can have one side offer all of its testimony and then the other side take its turn. Setting a limit for how long each person can testify can help keep the hearing from becoming too lengthy, if you'd like to do that.  Using Personal Testimony, gives a detailed explanation of how you can prepare people who are going to testify for your cause.
  • Take thorough notes. This means not only taking notes on who testifies and what is said, but also getting a general idea of how many people attended, what prominent or influential people were present (getting some idea of where those folks stand on your issues is always important), and whether anyone from any relevant agencies or other groups that might be interested in your cause were there.

 

After the public hearing

  • Offer support to testifiers, if necessary. If people are going to be testifying about something particularly difficult - for example, the hearing is over funding for a rape crisis center and you plan to have rape survivors speak out about their experiences - you should consider ways that you can offer support to them after their testimony if they need it. You may want to arrange for a professional counselor to be present to offer support to people after they testify. Contact a counselor - one that you know and trust or who is part of your organization or initiative, if possible - and see if he or she will volunteer to provide this service.
  • Deal with the news media. Following a public hearing, your coalition or organization will most likely be approached by the news media for comment on how you think it went. This is your opportunity to put your "spin" on the hearing and present the results in a way that portrays your side of the issue or problem in the best possible light. You should probably focus on things your side said that made a lot of impact. It may seem negative if you only rebut statements your opponents made during the course of the hearing, but if they really seemed to make an impact you should be sure to address them.
In talking to the press about the hearing, keep your original goals for the evening in mind. Media Advocacy, of the Community Tool Box - especially: Changing the Media's Perspective on Community Issues - may prove helpful to you with this.
 
Example: Talking to the media after a public hearing
Shortly after the hearing ended, Jose was approached by a reporter from the local newspaper and asked for his thoughts on the evening's events. Here's what he told the reporter; note how Jose emphasized the points that were his coalition's goals:
 
"Well, I think it was really enlightening for people to hear from some of the kids about how bored they are here in our city and how that boredom can often translate into risky behaviors and criminal activities. And I think that having Dr. Cash from the university and Ms. Carey from the Chamber of Commerce explaining the finances of the proposal made it much clearer for everyone that this is a manageable proposal that won't hurt our economy or discourage business."

Get together with your staff and discuss the outcome.

While you should of course already have some idea of how things went before you talk to the press, it will be in the days following the hearing that you really have the time to sit down and figure out how things went and where to go from there. Did the people who were present seem to understand and support your side of the issue? Did the press? Did the decision-makers?
 
Getting an idea of where you stand after the hearing will help you better decide how to proceed from here. You may want to check out other sections here in Conducting a Direct Action Campaign for ideas.

In Summary

It's often important to testify at or conduct public hearings in order to get your point across, highlight your issue, or get your organization recognized. If you prepare your testimony and testifiers well, publicize the hearing, make sure that your supporters attend, and use what you've learned to help plan your next steps, you can make public hearings work for you and your cause.
 

Online Resources

Public hearings: When and how to hold them. Meinig, B. (1998, August).

Conducting Public Meetings and Public Hearings is a guide put together specific to the state of New York, though much of the information is applicable to conducting public meetings in other states.

Governmental Accounting Standards Board offers information on public hearings, including why public hearings are held and what occurs at public hearings.

How to Conduct a Public Hearing is an article by Clifford Goodall that provides information on conducting public hearings.

Public Hearings: When and How to Hold Them is a detailed guide to holding a public hearing with tips, detailed information, and additional resources.

Print Resources

Bobo, K., Kendall, J., Max, S.(1996) Organizing for social change: a manual for activists in the 1990s. Minneapolis, MN. Midwest Academy.

Heffron, J. P. (1989, March-April). Building consensus in public hearings. Colorado Municipalities.

McKnight, C., Kelley, M., Pursley, P., Wolfe, M., Meister, E., Rasmussen, M. L., Bell, B., Shapiro, N., Mathews, C. (1995). Out against the right: An organizing handbook. New York: The Lesbian Avengers Civil Rights Organizing Project.

National Model Cities Community Development Directors Association.(1975). A guide to meeting citizen participation requirements for community development. Washington, D.C.