Virtual town halls gaining popularity


With the summer recess turning into a cross between election-year frenzy and an Ultimate Fighting Championship, the traditional town hall is looking less desirable by the day. The recent antics of “tea party” activists and “birthers” have provided incentives for members of Congress on both sides to seek a less vulnerable alternative to face-to-face communication. And there’s a good one: technology.

A soon-to-be-released study of online town halls might persuade the most old-fashioned member to ditch the local armory for a “meeting” with constituents via the phone or computer. The study, slated to be published next month, shows a surprisingly large benefit to virtual … forums, suggesting that pressing flesh may no longer be as important as it once was. The quaint, metal-folding-chair town hall continues, and will continue, to serve a necessary function in member-constituent relations. But the electronic version has a growing role, too.

“The satisfaction levels were unbelievable,” raves David Lazer, director of the Program on Networked Governance at Harvard University and one of the study’s authors.

Though politicians may not be ready to go all-Web all the time, many have been testing the waters with telephone town halls. President Barack Obama participated in his own last week, which was hosted by AARP. In May, the Republican Governors Association hosted one, titled “Tea Party 2.0,” in an effort to spur on the anti-tax activists.

The central benefit of conference-call-style meetings is that they allow a member to reach a significantly larger group of people than the in-person get-together. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) hosts monthly teleconferences with constituents in which his office robocalls 30,000 constituents beforehand.

Grassley tells POLITICO that 3,000 to 3,500 participants usually end up calling in, with 700 to 800 staying on the line for at least a half-hour.

But how effective are these?

For tele-town halls, the best evidence comes from an October 2007 study by the right-leaning Congressional Institute, which found a “dramatic” bounce in the benefits Republican members received. But plenty of Democratic members are willing to sing the praises, too.

“Telephone town halls are an efficient and effective way to communicate with constituents,” says Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Participation is higher than at a traditional town hall — many members have thousands of constituents participate simultaneously from the comfort of their own homes.”

Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, a Democrat who represents the 1st Congressional District from town-hall-happy New Hampshire, adds: “Seniors, families and workers often have a difficult time participating in town halls. Tele-town halls are a great way to reach a broad range of constituents and help ensure that more people are able to participate.”

Lazer is circumspect about the telephonic venue, saying the benefits of these forums are “not clear” and further noting that some anecdotal evidence he’s come across suggests that participants are turned off by how “contrived” the format seems.

A member’s best bet, he says, is to host exchanges online. In 2006 and 2008, the Congressional Management Foundation conducted blind experiments with 20 different online town halls involving members of Congress and constituents.

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