CHEERS & JEERS - Seoul Town Hall Meeting

by Korea4Expats, 16/12/2009

CHEERS are due Seoul City for organizing a Town Hall Meetings for the foreign community since 2000. The idea of giving foreign residents a forum where they can communicate directly with the city regarding their quality of life has been commended by many. However, the city has earned JEERS for the way it has conducted these meetings in recent years, in particular the one held last week (11 Dec 2009).

To clarify, a town hall meeting is normally an informal public meeting that is open to everyone in a community and that provides an opportunity for the public to voice their opinions and to hear responses from elected or public officials.

Although billed as an event  “where expats can make suggestions on improving the quality of life in Seoul” and where “all foreign residents are welcome”,  the reality was something different entirely. The ‘invitation’ sent out presented the meeting in these words “This special event reflects the city's endeavor to create a better surrounding for both Koreans and foreigners by providing a floor for free exchanges of ideas and practical discussions.” Both the invitation and the application form mentioned “selected 80 participants”. There was also a November deadline for applications to be submitted, although an announcement was posted in English newspapers just before the meeting date.

Those who were ‘selected’ to attend spent 75-80% of their time at the meeting listening to presentations, primarily by city officials, much of which involved reading the power points on the screen.
Suggestion: Print the presentation and let us read them ourselves. In that way, foreign residents attending will have time to ask their questions and express their concerns, in accordance with the definition of a town hall meeting.

The Town Hall Meeting was originally scheduled for mid-afternoon on a Friday, a time that would make it almost impossible for parents with school-age children to attend – even though the focus of the meeting was to be on topics of particular interest to them: leisure and housing. CHEERS to the city for changing the time to 10-12 on Friday the 11th.  That said, weekday meetings are almost impossible for foreign residents, who are working, to attend.
Suggestion: Since the city holds two town hall meetings a year, schedule the Spring one for a Weekend afternoon and the Fall one for a Weekday morning. That way, it won’t be necessary to ‘select’ participants to ensure diversity, it will happen naturally based on the meetings being accessible to a wider range of foreign residents.

When Seoul launched the first Town Hall Meetings, they were organized as a series of workshops with short presentations by 4-5 expats followed by time for discussion and comments/questions by all participants. Foreign residents also had a direct input into the organization of the meetings, including input into setting the agenda, etc. When the Seoul Help Center was created (in part to respond to some of the concerns raised at the Town Hall Meetings, Advisory Councils, etc) , it’s staff became responsible for organizing the ‘Seoul Town Meetings’, a task that was passed on to its successor, the Seoul Global Center.

Rather than “providing a floor for free exchanges of ideas and practical discussions”, the meetings appear to have become primarily occasions for city officials to ‘inform foreigners’ and to limit comments and questions. Only 5-7 of the foreign participants had the chance to ask a question, express concerns, or share ideas.  Fortunately, a foreign student who spoke did raise important housing issues that affect all foreign residents, with the exception of diplomats and executives employed by large multinational companies. However, by the chair was obliged to end the meeting, there were still many hands in the air - people still wanting to ask a question.

CHEERS go to the city, and especially the 3 mayors who have supported the idea since 2000. However, JEERS to those officials who prevented the Seoul Town Hall Meetings from being an event  “where expats can make suggestions on improving the quality of life in Seoul” and where “all foreign residents are welcome”.

Note: For more on the community's feedback to the meeting, see this Joongang Daily article.

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