The following text was submitted to NCDD by Lars Torres, Researcher at America Speaks. It is part of our Models & Techniques feature, at http://www.thataway.org/resources/understand/models/models.html.
What is America Speaks* 21st Century Town Meeting?
America Speaks* 21st Century Town Meeting* creates engaging, meaningful opportunities for citizens to participate in public decision making. This unique process updates the traditional New England town meeting to address the needs of today*s citizens, decision makers and democracy.
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.
Under what kinds of circumstances is the model most successful or appropriate? America Speaks has extensive experience applying the 21st Century Town Meeting in the areas of policy-making, agenda setting, planning and budgeting. The 21st Century Town Meeting is ideally suited to policy-making climates in which decision-makers actively seek policy advice on real issues impacting the quality of live for citizens. For citizens who want to participate and decision makers who want to engage their constituents, the 21st Century Town Meeting provides the following benefits:
- The meeting provides an effective way for general interest citizens to have a voice in the public decisions that impact their lives.
- The scale of these meetings attracts substantial attention from the media and political leadership, often increasing momentum and interest in a proposal, process or issue.
- The format gives citizens an opportunity to learn more about important public issues, hear a diversity of perspectives and understand critical trade-offs.
- The use of technology provides an effective, efficient way to measure the degree of public support for proposals.
- The report, distributed at the end of the day, immediately identifies priorities, areas of agreement and specific recommendations.
- The process of developing a 21st Century Town Meeting can significantly increase capacity in effective citizen engagement techniques.
More about America Speaks Since 1997, America Speaks has conducted forty-five 21st Century Town Meetings in 31 states around the country and in the District of Columbia. Meetings have addressed local, state and national decisions on issues ranging from social security reform to regional planning.
Our 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.