Town Hall Overhaul

9/21/2018

STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE | September/October 2018

Town Hall Illustration

It’s Hard to Engage With Your Constituents When Everyone’s Shouting

By Larry Schooler

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “town hall meeting”?

If it involves explaining some controversial legislation, I’m guessing you feel some combination of anxiety and dread.

You may have stood before angry constituents in a packed gymnasium, trying to answer questions or respond to their concerns, only to be drowned out by the crowd’s reactions. In those situations, some legislators have questioned their physical safety and wondered whether the presence of uniformed or undercover security personnel would help or hurt.

Attendees come in the hope of sharing their views, of getting questions answered or even of influencing policy decisions; often, they leave disappointed on all counts. Some legislators may hesitate to share their perspectives if they fear a crowd will turn on them, and some constituents may feel the same way, resulting in incomplete and even inaccurate information about constituents’ views.

If legislators want to serve their constituencies and support legislation that resonates with their own beliefs, the current iteration of the town hall meeting isn’t quite doing the trick. Many legislators feel that at these events they hear only from those with enough self-confidence to speak in front of a large, sometimes angry group, those willing to risk the ire of the crowd if they ask a question or voice a concern that isn’t popular with those who showed up.

Here are three ways you can hear from more constituents in more productive ways.

1. Know Who You Represent.

Legislators certainly know the boundaries of their districts, but effective public engagement means “mapping” districts in different ways: learning where your constituents assemble, what events they attend, what organizations they support, what sources of information they rely on.

Constituents, for example, benefit when legislators regularly visit a specific media outlet—a weekly radio show, for example—for a conversation driven by voter concerns. A trusted and neutral third party (the host) can foster mutual respect by keeping the conversation on track and safe for all points of view to be expressed.

Face-to-face meetings or encounters at popular hotspots, like farmers markets or cultural events, can give legislators a better understanding of what the public is thinking. For one thing, attendance at these events exposes the legislator to a broader array of constituents than those who self-select to show up at a massive town hall meeting with a single microphone. Small-group discussions often are more appealing to both the speaker and the listener.

2. Know Your Purpose.

We know legislators are supposed to talk to constituents, but an effective public engagement strategy should include a clear agenda and a set of objectives for every event you conduct. Ask yourself: What are we here to accomplish? What do we want to share? What do we want to learn? How do we want to respond to the information we hear? The answers to these questions can help inform the meeting’s agenda and its design—how the discussion happens and how decisions are made.

Consider using social media, your website, flyers and other means to let the public know what to expect at your meetings—the topics for discussion, format, their role, plans for next steps and so on.

3. Know What You Need.

Besides finding a suitable meeting space, legislators need to delegate specific roles to staff and professionals, including:

  • Greeting guests and finding out what they are interested in to help maintain contact with them after the meeting ends.
  • Working with reporters and media outlets to ensure their needs are met.
  • Providing subject matter expertise in response to questions beyond a legislator’s knowledge.
  • Capturing constituent concerns that cannot be fully addressed during the meeting.
  • Finding a neutral facilitator who can focus on the process of the meeting and ensure all participants are respected.

Delegating these tasks can allow legislators to focus on sharing their perspectives on the issues of the day and listening to their constituents.

Lawmakers who lack the resources or staff to carry all this out can take baby steps. Start with a town hall the way you’ve done it before but distribute a printed, defined agenda to keep you focused. Add different formats as you gain team members. If the purpose of your gathering is to gain an understanding of constituents’ viewpoints and convey information back to them, then the venue must be appropriate. Conversation held around a single table, in a smaller group, with the help of a facilitator who keeps the group focused on its agenda and mindful of its discussion agreements, could yield far better results than a large, loosely organized gathering.

Research conducted by the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona suggests a strong link between “deliberative democracy,” which emphasizes discussion rather than speeches, and a more “civil discourse,” in which participants feel comfortable sharing their views, even if they are unpopular or not widely held.

Ultimately, your constituents expect a lot from you—and they should. It’s your job to respond to their concerns. But, just as constituents have a legitimate need to feel heard, and see their concerns addressed and questions answered, legislators have a legitimate need to feel safe, whether security personnel play a role at public meetings or not. In the end, we’ll satisfy constituents’ and legislators’ needs only if we can change the conversation.

Larry Schooler is the director of community engagement and consensus building for the public policy strategy firm Engaged Public and a senior fellow at the National Civic League. He has spoken at several NCSL events. For more, read “Deliberative Practice and Its Impact on Individuals and Society.”‚Äč

Additional Resources

NCSL Resources