Program Planning

Conducting Public Forums and Listening Sessions

Nothing ensures the success of a program more than community participation in assessing their perceived needs, strengths, and hopes for the future. Programs can use this resource to plan and coordinate their community assessment. It provides insight into public forums and listening sessions. Learn how to conduct them to engage your community in identifying and solving problems.

What Is a Public Forum?

In a public forum, also referred to as a town meeting, community members discuss a wide range of important issues. They are often held to identify and solve problems. In this well-publicized meeting, facilitators lead a discussion of various aspects of the issues, including the community's strengths and potential problems, areas for growth and improvement, and their vision for their community. A transcript of their ideas about the dimensions of the issues and what can be done to solve problems and preserve strengths provides a basis for subsequent planning.

Why Conduct a Public Forum?

Public forums can:

  • Offer your group valuable insights into the community
  • Provide a database for guiding and explaining actions
  • Offer valuable information for developing new services and ensuring that existing services meet community needs
  • Help link your group with people who are able and willing to help
  • Provide the group with feedback

Public forums are open to everyone in the community. These public meetings offer people from diverse backgrounds a chance to express their views about key issues of concern to them and what can be done about them.

What You Need to Get Started

  • Meeting place
  • Community members
  • Easel, newsprint, and markers
  • Facilitator
  • Recorder
  • Willingness to listen carefully

Questions Worth Asking

Issues and Concerns

  • What are the problems?
  • What are the consequences?
  • Who is affected?
  • How are they affected?
  • Are there related issues of concern?
  • Are these issues of widespread concern?


  • Who or what might oppose efforts to prevent or solve the problem?
  • Can they be involved effectively?
  • What are the other limits on effective prevention or treatment?
  • How can the barriers and resistance be overcome?

Resources for Change

  • What resources are needed?
  • What local people or groups could contribute?
  • What monies and materials are needed?
  • Where might they be obtained?

Alternatives and Solutions

  • What are alternatives for addressing the problem, given the anticipated barriers?

Organizing a Public Forum

  • Hold meetings at different sites to get real representation. Be sure to address language needs if the community has a large population of non-English speakers.
  • Schedule the forum at an easy-to-find, public location that is accessible and comfortable (e.g., a library, school, or church).
  • If possible, hold the forum in the evening to avoid time conflicts with work and school.
  • Publicize the forum as widely as possible. Fliers, advertisements, public service announcements, press releases, and social media can all be used. Make sure the date, time, location, and purpose of the meeting are included.
  • Personally recruit community leaders and diverse community members to attend the meetings. Ask them to recruit others as well.
  • Provide transportation to the meeting, if necessary.
  • Serve light refreshments if possible. They encourage mingling and set a friendly tone.

How to Conduct a Public Forum

  • Designate a discussion leader or group facilitator who is known and respected, neutral on the topic, has good listening and group process skills, and can keep things moving and on track.
  • Introduce the leader of the community initiative and the discussion leader. If time and group size allow, let all participants introduce themselves.
  • Agree upon an ending time and keep to it.
  • Try to keep working groups to smaller than 30-40 participants.
    • If over that number, divide into smaller groups.
    • Designate a recorder for each group.
  • Provide information about your own organization, if appropriate. You can also pass around a sign-up sheet for participants to join a mailing list or help out in other ways.
  • Consider allowing time to address each of the following topics
    • Issues and concerns
    • Barriers and resistance to addressing the issues and concerns
    • Community resources for change
    • Alternatives and solutions
  • Use newsprint to record the discussion on each of the topics.
  • Conclude with a summary of what was achieved and a preliminary plan of action. Announce the next meeting, if possible.
  • Prepare a written summary of brainstorming ideas and mail to all participants, with thanks, and with mention of opportunities for further involvement.