Monday, November 09, 2009

Reading :: Online Town Hall Meetings

Online Town Hall Meetings: Exploring Democracy in the 21st Century
By David Lazer, Michael Neblo, Kevin Esterling, and Kathy Goldschmidt with Collin Burden

Someone recently pointed me to this report, suggesting that it provided a positive alternative to face-to-face town hall meetings in the aftermath of this year's health care protests. In this project, funded by the NSF, the researchers conducted a series of experiments in connecting constituents to issues.

The experimental groups participated in an "online town hall" in which they used software (Adobe Acrobat Connect or Microsoft LiveMeeting) to submit questions to a moderator; the moderator passed questions to the Member of Congress or Senator holding the town hall; and the representative answered each question over VOIP. All participants received two-page materials on the topic beforehand. Representatives were from both parties.

One control group received the same materials, but no session. The other received no session or background materials.

Results were characterized as positive:
The key findings from the town hall meetings were that:
  1. The online town halls increased support for participating Members of Congress.
  2. Members persuaded constituents of their position on the issue discussed.
  3. The town halls increased policy knowledge of constituents on the topic of discussion.
  4. The sessions attracted a diverse set of constituents.
  5. Participation in the town hall increased citizen engagement in politics.
  6. The discussions were of generally high deliberative quality.
  7. The positive results of the smaller sessions were also seen in the larger session.
  8. The sessions were extremely popular with participants. (p.11)
And indeed I can see why they would be positive results from the perspective of incumbents, because this format seems custom-made for helping incumbents persuade voters - as finding 2 above intimates. In fact, "no matter which side of the issue they were on, the Members dramatically moved their constituents to their perspective" (p. 16). In the specific issue - immigration - if the Member, say, supported making illegal immigration a felony, s/he persuaded constituents of this position. If the Member opposed making illegal immigration a felony, why, s/he persuaded constituents of that position. Constituents, in fact, appeared to capitulate to the superior knowledge of their Member:
As one constituent stated, “As we move to the upper echelon of politicians, things get more complicated. There are just so many outside variables that we as normal citizens just do not consider or see. You don’t realize that until you participate in something like this.”
So constituents were willing to forfeit previously held positions on the belief that the Member knew the complicated issue better and therefore should make the decisions.

As Michel Callon once said, to represent someone, you have to stop them from speaking. The online town halls do this quite well - literally, since the Member speaks to the constituents, but they can only type questions to him/her, questions that are selected by a moderator and not brought into a genuine dialogue. One constituent stated without any apparent irony that "It was great to have a Member of Congress want to really hear the voices of the constituents" - when in a literal sense, only the Member was allowed to project a voice.

So, yes, this forum was much more effective than the messy, conflict-ridden live town halls that erupted in August. The Member could be the sage on the stage, without any possibility of interruption. The constituents were put in the place of asking questions, not making statements or demands. The moderator made sure to prioritize questions from different constituents rather than follow-up questions from the same constituent, minimizing any chance of dialogue. Constituents learned that their place was to be persuaded by their own representative and to capitulate to their representative's judgment in strategic as well as tactical issues; their role was not to set direction or express their own objectives. And according to the results, they learned their lessons well.

I'm not surprised that incumbents are enthusiastic about this format. But I am not so sure that I would characterize it as "deliberative" - or "positive."


Christa said...

The boundary between what's "deliberative" and what's "epideictic" in collaborations like these is hardly discernible.

Clay Spinuzzi said...

I thrash around for paragraphs, then you nail it in one sentence. Nice work.