The town meeting meets the national dialogue

AmericaSpeaks is staging a national conversation about the U.S. economy that combines small-group discussions with video link-ups

AmericaSpeaks, a nonpartisan group that organizes public discussions on federal, state and local policy issues, has developed an approach that seeks to blend the online national dialogue with the traditional town hall meeting.

The organization is setting up meetings scheduled to occur simultaneously at 20 sites around the country June 26 to discuss the federal budget and the national economy. Each meeting will have from 50 to 500 participants, who will be divided into smaller discussion groups, each with a facilitator.


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Ideas that emerge from the small groups will be sent to a theme team, whose members will sort through and group the ideas into larger themes that are then displayed on a projection screen. Individuals will have a chance to vote on the themes using keypad polling technology.

The consensus reached at each meeting will be available to all the other meeting participants via satellite video and webcasts. The goal is to retain the face-to-face deliberation of the town hall meeting while using technology to broaden the discussion to the national level.

One of the primary benefits of that approach is demographic diversity, said Joe Goldman, vice president of citizen engagement at AmericaSpeaks. In addition to broad geographic representation, the event organizers are working hard to ensure diversity in terms of age, income level, race and political ideology.

“We think putting a high value on reflecting the demographics of the community ensures that you are not missing a certain perspective,” Goldman said. And policy-makers are more likely to pay attention to the outcome of a discussion if they feel their constituents are represented, he added.

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John S. Monroe is the editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week.

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