21st Century Town Meeting
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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 AmericaSpeaksAmericaSpeaks' 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.ncdd.org/rc/item/tag/21st-century-town-meeting (for all 21st Century Town Meeting resources archived on the NCDD site)