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:

  • Underrepresented people chose to participate. Younger Americans, lower-income people, racial minorities, women, individuals who do not attend religious services, and people with weak or no partisan affiliations were more likely to participate–in contrast to elections, when all of these groups are less likely to vote.
  • The discussions were substantive, civil, and well-informed. Participants liked them.
  • Participants’ opinions of the politicians with whom they deliberated rose dramatically. Participants also came closer to agreeing with these politicians about the issue under consideration. They were more likely to vote in November (compared to the randomly selected control group), and more likely to vote for the politician with whom they had deliberated. Thus the payoffs for politicians were very favorable–in contrast to the results of last summer’s “town meetings,” which verged on disastrous.

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.

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