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21st Century Town Meeting

Developed by AmericaSpeaks in 1995, the 21st Century Town Meeting is an updated version of the traditional public forum that brings together a large number of people, organizes them into small discussion groups, and uses technology to provide instant feedback. The process can be tailored to tackle issues of local, regional, or national scope. Its success lies in meticulous planning and organization, which facilitates increased citizen involvement, generates media attention, and increases the participation and commitment of decision-makers.

AmericaSpeaks_LogoThe 21st Century Town Meeting is a trademarked process developed by the non-partisan nonprofit organization AmericaSpeaks, which closed its doors in January 2014. It is a public forum that links technology with small-group, face-to-face dialogue to enable hundreds to thousands of people to deliberate simultaneously about complex public policy issues and express a shared message to decision-makers.

Through a combination of keypad polling, laptop computers using groupware, large screen projection, teleconferencing and other technologies, 21st Century Town Meetings enable people to simultaneously participate in intimate discussions and contribute to the collective wisdom of a very large group.

The 21st Century Town Meeting aims to create a level playing field on which citizens can be fully engaged with each other in policy and planning discussions that are directly linked to decision-makers and real governance processes.

As each meeting begins, participants talk about why they attended. They also use their keypads to provide demographic information, thus indicating how accurately the target population is represented. A representative group of participants is important to ensure the results are legitimate to the community and decision makers.

Over the course of the day, participants sit at round tables of ten and participate in substantive small group discussions led by trained volunteer professional facilitators. Each table has a laptop computer that serves as an electronic “flip chart.” These computers allow participants to quickly record ideas and responses to discussion questions.

Each table’s submissions are sent to a central computer and reviewed, real-time, by a group of issue experts and community leaders known as the Theme Team, which identifies the key messages and themes coming from all 300 tables in the main hall. Each participant also has his/her own wireless polling keypad that allows them to vote anonymously on key concerns and issues. Results of each vote are displayed instantly on large projection screens visible to everyone in the hall.

A professional facilitator leads the program from a stage at the front of the hall, ensuring that all tables are working on the same agenda. She/he clarifies tasks and discussion questions, helps to synthesize the results from each discussion phase to create continuity throughout the day, and helps ensure that when citizens find agreement on important issues, the decision makers responsible for these topic areas are present in the room and publicly respond to what they’ve heard from the public.

Throughout the day, a writer stationed at the “Theme Team” tables composes a short summary of themes, messages, and quotes from each discussion period. At the end of the day, a three-page summary report is prepared and copies are distributed to each participant by volunteers before the participants file out of the convention hall.

By the end of the day, decision-makers hear clearly from citizens about their priorities for action. In closing comments, speakers from the decision-making bodies are sometimes asked to talk about how the day’s events will guide their actions. Participants sometimes have an opportunity to consider their own next steps and connect with other participants who want to collaborate on implementing the meeting outcomes.

What is AmericaSpeaks’ 21st Century Town Meeting?

The 21st Century Town Meeting focuses on discussion and deliberation among citizens rather than speeches, question-and-answer sessions or panel presentations. Diverse groups of citizens participate in round-table discussions (10-12 people per table), deliberating in depth about key policy, resource allocation or planning issues. Each table discussion is supported by a trained facilitator to ensure that participants stay on task and that each table has a democratic process. Participants receive detailed, balanced background discussion guides to increase their knowledge of the issues under consideration.

Technology transforms the individual table discussions into synthesized recommendations representative of the whole room. Each table submits ideas using wireless groupware computers and each participant can vote on specific proposals using a polling keypad. The entire group responds to the strongest themes generated from table discussions and votes on final recommendations to decision makers. Before the meeting ends, results from the meeting are compiled into a report, which is distributed to participants, decision makers and the media as they leave. Decision makers actively engage in the meeting by participating in table discussions, observing the process and responding to citizen input at the end of the meeting.

The 21st Century Town Meeting marks a dramatic departure from traditional public engagement methods, such as public hearings. Compared to traditional methods, the 21st Century Town Meeting is responsive, transparent, and empowering for citizens, community leaders and elected officials.

How is it done?

The 21st Century Town Meeting developed by AmericaSpeaks operates on six key principles:

  1. Diverse representation ensures the community is accurately represented in the process. Tailored outreach strategies are developed to recruit participants who match the demographic characteristics of the local population.
  2. Informed participation provides participants with highly accessible materials that frame the issues neutrally and provide a baseline of data upon which participants could begin their discussions. The meetings are designed to balance information sharing, discussion, and immediate feedback cycles on key policies and priorities.
  3. Facilitated deliberation makes sure that citizens play an active role in the deliberations. Skilled table facilitators are recruited to ensure high quality dialogue at each table. The town meeting agenda is designed to help participants work through the complex policy issues or other issue areas and to help develop a common agenda for action.
  4. Shared priorities are the endgame of each of these meetings. 21st Century Town Meetings foster a high level of agreement on common priorities among participants. Ideas from discussion tables are entered into networked computers, then “themed” into a list of ideas that were most frequently mentioned. Keypad polling prioritizes these ideas and is also used to measure the group’s overall support for proposed policies and actions.
  5. Link to action is the goal of these citizen deliberations. Involvement of decision-makers and key leaders throughout the project is central to the success of these initiatives. Convening a meeting on a large scale (500 to 5,000 participants) enables the outcomes to have greater visibility and credibility with other policy-makers, the media, key stakeholders, and the public at large.
  6. Sustaining citizen engagement in the policy-making process develops civic leadership and enhances implementation of public priorities. The process of organizing a public engagement meeting is a starting point for on-going support, tools and opportunities for citizens to take effective action on issues they care about. The town meeting method can be extended to multiple sites in which all participants are linked via satellite or web-cast and participate in the meeting simultaneously regardless of location. This technological feature helps cover a very large geographic area such as an entire state or a region, or strategic locations around the country. There are instances in the past where projects have linked as many as 10 sites by satellite and 16 sites through web-cast.

Preparation for a 21st Century Town Meeting is a monumental task. The planning is often done in very tight time frames within which complex tasks must be coordinated between multiple vendors, competing priorities continuously juggled, and decisions made expeditiously. A minimum of two months is needed, but five months is optimal. Fundraising for such a project must begin many months in advance.

There must be a meaningful, transparent link to an appropriate decision-making process and decision-makers. Decision-makers must be present, listening, and publicly committed to considering the outcomes and taking them forward. Partisanship planning and execution of events, the participant mix, and the discussion materials must be insulated from partisanship and any kind of bias.

Once an issue has been identified, the scope and focus for deliberation is determined by a team whose composition is balanced in terms of both the issue experts and stakeholders. The key choices and their tradeoffs are also outlined. Neutral and accessible materials are then developed to provide key information to all participants.

An Event Planner/Manager works closely with Project Managers to ensure effective coverage and management of computer and keypad technology, vendors (such as for catering, equipment rental, A/V and multi-media, security, emergency services, coat check, and signs/banners), facility, audio-visuals, volunteers, registration, and translation and other additional services.

Managing a large-scale town meeting literally involves a crew of dozens to hundreds of staff and volunteers. In the days before the meeting, for example, phone bankers call all registrants to remind them of the meeting time and provide last minute details. On the day of the town meeting several volunteers are required for on-site registration of participants; greeting and escorting the participants; managing long line of participants at the breakfast counters;  distributing lunch bags to tables; delivering missing materials to discussion tables; helping people with special needs; and coordinating the arrival and departure of shuttle vans and buses.

Table Facilitators serve at individual tables because they have a strong background in small-group facilitation and can handle an intensive day-long program. Facilitators receive a two-hour orientation in the days leading up to the event and a final briefing early in the morning of the meeting day. Their job is to follow a very detailed facilitator guide provided ahead of time, supplemented by instructions from the lead facilitator during the day.

Two other types of volunteers require special selection. Theme Team Members must have strong ability to synthesize large number of ideas; work quickly and efficiently; collaborate in a team environment; and represent a diversity of organizations from the community. Area Facilitators troubleshoot throughout the town meeting and support table facilitators, and must be able to solve problems on the spot as best they can.

To increase the impact and engage people across distances, meetings can be held simultaneously in multiple locations by:

  • Using satellite video / webcast to share live programming and feature local meetings via participant interviews.
  • Networked laptops and handheld voting devices allow participants in all meeting sites to be heard as one voice.
  • Webcasts enable those citizens that are unable to attend the meeting to view the program. Online tools provide avenues for discussing the issues, taking action and registering priorities.
  • Community-organized parallel meetings tune in to the webcast and participate in their own facilitated-discussions and submit their views online in real-time
  • Public television viewers follow the programs from their homes

Benefits

  • Strengthens the public’s voice in decision making by creating an opportunity for the general public to give those in leadership positions direct, substantive feedback on key issues.
  • Ensures all voices are at the table
  • Town meetings helps: ensure that: reallocation of public funds and resources are determined by public priorities; generate shifts in public policy; shape official plans; and create community agendas that are driven by multi-sector implementation bodies.
  • Independent evaluations of this process have shown that participants of AmericaSpeaks’ projects gain an appreciation of other points of view, learn new information, change their opinions, have increased trust, and change their personal behaviour.
  • Increases public support for the results of the process and more people feel they have a stake in its implementation.
  • This form of citizen deliberation results in a better informed more involved population and creates the sense of a real opportunity for action.

Challenges

  • Given its technological features and an elaborate preparatory process, the 21st Century Town Meeting is a very resource intensive process. Those organizations without access to financial resources may not be able to replicate the method in their local settings.
  • On account of past and perhaps futile or fruitless experiences with traditional methods of government consultation, many participants may feel skeptical about the outcomes. Overcoming this deep rooted distrust between citizens and their government is often not an easy task.
  • Since the work of the Theme Team is not transparent, participants can sometimes distrust the results of the Theme Team’s work, especially if they do not see their group’s work represented on the large screen.
  • The larger scale of 21st Century Town Meetings are meant to draw media attention and pressure policymakers to incorporate the events’ results in their decisionmaking process, but this strategy is not always effective.
  • Some of other crucial challenges include providing adequate information as fairly represented and as unbiased as possible; dealing with the complexity of political environments and policy regimes; gaining support and commitment from political leaders; being watchful of special/vested interest groups occupying the center stage and subverting the  process; and implementing a well targeted outreach plan to ensure a diverse mix of participants with special reference to those who are generally marginalized.

More about AmericaSpeaks

AmericaSpeaks’ nationally recognized projects include ‘Listening to the City,’ an effort engaging the public on the World Trade Center redevelopment process; Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ ‘Citizen Summit,’ a strategic planning process in Washington, DC; and ‘Americans Discuss Social Security,’ a ground-breaking national dialogue on the future of Social Security.

Resource Link: www.americaspeaks.org

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