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October 27, 2009

the right way to do a town meeting

Last summer, Democratic Members of Congress fanned out across the country to conduct "town meetings" on health care. They already knew which policies they supported, so these events were not actually the public deliberations that the term "town meeting" implies. They were opportunities for highly motivated individuals to sound off, one at a time, with an elected official in shouting range and cameras rolling. This was a disaster waiting to happen, and not only for the Democratic politicians who organized the "town meetings." I presume that most of the citizens who attended--including the most conservative ones--were pretty dissatisfied as well.

Not long before, the Congressional Management Foundation and a crack team of researchers had conducted an entirely different kind of congressional town meeting--on the equally controversial topic of immigration. People were randomly invited to participate, so as to create a representative group. Balanced materials were provided, and the discussions were moderated. Members of Congress participated but did not moderate. Everything took place online.

The researchers evaluated this experiment carefully, using a randomly selected control group. Here are the findings that I found most striking:

Use a sham process, and you will pay a price. Risk a real discussion, and people may agree with and respect you.

Download Online Town Hall Meetings: Exploring Democracy in the 21st Century here. And here are some related blog posts by me and others: why have town meetings at all?, responses of the deliberation community to last summer's events, and another important academic study by the authors of the new "Online Town Meetings" paper.

October 27, 2009 8:25 AM | category: deliberation | Comments


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