The Profound History of Public Hearings and Why We’re Devoted to Documenting Them

A look back at the origins of civic participation in the U.S. and how City Bureau’s Documenters program is testing a new mode for civic engagement

Facilitators wait for the arriving crowd at the Firehouse Community Arts Center in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood, the site of City Bureau’s second Town Hall forum in November 2015.

I think about public meetings often these days. They’re not the shiniest object to dwell on but, in the context of civics and journalism, they’re the crown jewel. You could argue that civics and journalism both hit their stride at the public meeting—public meetings are the bedrock of civil society and the cornerstone of good journalism. They’re the most direct and accessible mode of leveraging power in any county, city or state. They’re often the first bridge between policy and civic action, the site of municipal decision-making and protest alike, and a place where many of the biggest and impactful news stories begin.

Which leads to a question I’ve often wondered, and one that I’m finally taking the time to reflect on: What’s the origin of the public meeting, and how is it reflected in modern-day civic participation?

A (Brief) History of Civic Participation

According to participatory planning expert John Forester, the use of public hearings, or town meetings—as we know them today—began after the enclosure of public lands that occurred in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. You could draw a direct line from those meetings to the use of public hearings in dealing with public land and private property in the U.S. today. (I know this firsthand, having reported on many such meetings in the past).

Rendering of a New England Town Hall.

Public hearings are found in cultures around the world, but the U.S. has a relatively robust history of them. Ever since the New England Town Meetings in the 1600s, during the nascent years of the U.S. colonies, various forms of participatory, representative and inquiry hearings have been written into federal and local law. (While the U.S. democratic process has included public hearings since its origin, those early forms of civic engagement were closed to and often resulted in devastating outcomes for native Americans, people of color, women and other marginalized groups. The colonists accomplished this largely by only allowing entry to registered voters.)

Today more than 97 percent of local governments hold public hearings, open by law to all U.S. residents, from Chicago’s Police Board, which decides disciplinary cases involving allegations of police misconduct and nominates the city’s top cop, to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which regulates commercial nuclear power plants. The same basic premise is as true as it was in 1630: Public hearings are “the purest form of democracy that ensures that all policy decisions are in the public interest since no intermediaries are placed between the voters and the public decisions.

Another finding that holds true nearly 400 years later is worth remembering: Participatory public hearings provide effective monitoring and control of local affairs even when attendees aren’t managed by committees, sub-committees and even elected boards—public bodies that often produce opaque processes, non-binding agreements and poorly marketed meeting announcements. Take it for what’s it worth, but the New England style of town meeting served as early inspiration for the American Revolution.

Journalists as Media-Based Organizers

Studs Terkel called it the “vox humana,” the Brits and American broadcasters just call it “vox pop,” but “the voice of the people” takes many forms in terms of formal civic participation, from attending public meetings to writing elected officials and giving money/time to political campaigns. Journalists take that voice and filter it through their own experience and perspective while providing context and analysis via the voice of the “expert,” research and prior journalistic articles, etc. That’s the traditional role of the journalist—but it isn’t the only one. More and more, we’re seeing journalists as conveners, repairers and media-based organizers.

But this blog post isn’t about journalists or journalism, really, it’s about people and what people need in order to leverage power in their communities.

Attendees take notes and respond to questions at City Bureau’s October 2015 public launch event on Chicago’s South Side.

City Bureau’s Documenters program is aimed at tackling this need directly, not by making people into “citizen journalists” but by democratizing skills that journalists use, creating tools that support transparency in political processes and paying people an hourly wage to document exactly what goes on at local public hearings. We’re designing the program to address major gaps in modern-day civic participation by enlisting people as contributors to broader societal goals, making politics more equitable by engaging marginalized groups and reforming society by mobilizing the next generation of civic participants.

You can become a City Bureau Documenter by enrolling here.

What Is a Tool Without Anyone to Use It?

In 2018 we’ll pilot our Documenters program in Detroit in partnership with WDET, and we’ll begin by talking to locals about their experiences with local public hearings to identify gaps in outcomes, processes and information. At the same time, we’ll continue work on our public meetings aggregator through design, user testing and the addition of information on Detroit public meetings. When it’s complete, the aggregator will standardize, structure and share information on local public meetings in Chicago and Detroit, all on a single, searchable website.

In the end, a tool is just a tool, but we’re hoping the Documenters program can bring the tool to life by training and deploying locals to record and document public meetings. Meanwhile, the aggregator will allow users to filter public meetings by department, time/date, location and topic to a destination of their choosing, whether that be recurring emails, tweets, Facebook event pages, RSS feeds and a variety of other outputs. Either way, the aggregator will help us and our partners more easily deploy Documenters, who’ll in turn bring information on those meetings back to their communities.

To us, that’s a worthy role for a group of journalists navigating a changing media landscape from Chicago’s South Side.