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Making the Town Hall Work

The “ambush” of US Congressional representatives over the summer of 2009 by the foes of national health care reform did little to endear expanded citizen participation to those who bore the brunt of bullying and disruption at so-called “town hall” meetings on the subject.

Several issues concerning good governance and useful deliberation were exposed by those chaotic events. The surprise on the part of the officials who convened those events and the media who covered them provides something of a teachable moment for those devoted to citizen conversation.

Among some of the possible lessons are that many of our public officials have a fundamental misunderstanding of what goes into useful deliberation and how to achieve it. It appears to many that public officials are mostly concerned with the fact that these events “got out of control”. That language itself suggests that they would not know meaningful citizen governance deliberation if it bit them in the behind. Given that these are supposedly experienced people, their naiveté is almost shocking and their embarrassment at being out-hustled and out-organized obscures not only their lack of preparation on the policy but on the process.

These events were not “town hall” meetings. The town hall meeting has fairly precise meanings and usages in the jurisdictions were it is available. They have the benefit of continuity and certain civic habits. They can certainly provide forums for passionate debate, but they do follow process and they can provide follow-up and adjustment. The noisy events in question might be better characterized as “listening sessions”, though the angry statements issued seemed more geared toward political theater than reflection and deliberation.

There are thoughtful and deliberative Congressional representatives who have been holding productive listening sessions for years on the big picture of health care. They were less susceptible to ambush and have left their constituents with a much clearer picture of their stance on the various ways health care reform might be approached.

Those calmer heads and clearer minds tell us something about how helpful citizen interactivity might proceed on contentious issues:

  • Useful citizen conversation gets out in front of emerging issues and helps everyone understand the issues and interests at stake.
  • Citizen conversation relies upon continual cultivation of civic habits and civility—making sure that there is as much listening as talking going on.
  • The whole community is responsible for the civic literacy that is required to keep citizen conversation on a rational and well-informed basis—thus being resistant to misinformation and manipulation.
  • Citizen conversation should include feedback loops and ways for citizens to  monitor developments and participate in later stages of governance discussion where possible.
  • Those responsible for citizen conversation events must take their responsibilities seriously and organize and conduct them in ways that build community and create positive deliberative experiences—not further spread the feeling that “nothing works”.

The town hall meeting in the 21st century can rely on many new tools, but it will be helpful to approach these tasks with common sense and sensitivity older than the town hall itself.

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