21st Century Town Meetings bring together between 500 and 5,000 people, to discuss local, regional or national issues. By using technology, this method combines the benefits of small scale face-to-face discussions with those of large group decision making.
This method uses technology to overcome the common tradeoff between the quality of discussion and the size of the group. The participants are split up into groups of 10-12 people, where they have facilitated small-group discussions. Each facilitator uses a networked computer to instantly collate ideas and votes from the table. This information is sent to a central point where a team summarises comments from all tables into themes that can be presented back to the room for comment or votes. Each participant also has a keypad which allows them to vote individually on themes or questions. The results of these votes are presented in real time on large screens for instant feedback from participants. The computers and voting pads generate volumes of useful demographically-sortable data. This information is often quickly edited into a report which is printed and given to participants, decision-makers and journalists at the end of the event.
The whole process can either take place within one room, or groups can gather in many locations around the country or the world. Often, the participants are selected to be demographically representative of the whole population.
The interchange between the small- and large-scale dialogues is powerful as it allows participants to discuss the issues in a small manageable setting, whilst maintaining the legitimacy of a process involving large numbers of people. The immediacy of the vote also creates transparency during the meeting
These meetings are especially useful for engaging citizens in planning, resource allocation and policy formulation. They have been used to create recommendations around a number of different issues, including:
• The redevelopment of the World Trade Center site in New York.
• The rebuilding of New Orleans following hurricane Katrina.
• Assessing the state of healthcare in California.
• Balancing the U.S. federal budget.
One of the key distinguishing features of 21st Century Town Meetings is the high number of participants involved.
Most events are open to all citizens, although it is often necessary to target hard-to-reach sectors of the population to ensure a representative group of participants.
A 21st Century Town Meeting is a very intensive process. Designing, planning and coordinating an event involving hundreds, or even thousands, of people requires a substantial budget. Furthermore, the individual tables need to be run by skilled facilitators and the use of technology adds to the cost.
Approximate time expense
The scale of the events and the amount of information generated, which needs to be ordered and then presented back to the room, requires a lot of staff time and planning. The high profile of most 21st Century Town Meetings also means that there are additional tasks in dealing with the media and decision makers.
• Combines a large number of participants in considered dialogue
• Gathers clear and instant information on what participants think about an issue, including demographic data on what different groups feel
• Immediacy and scale of the event can energise the participants
• Can capture the imagination of the media and the public more widely
• High cost
• Can raise expectations to unrealistic levels if not managed well
• Reliant on technology
• Works better on salient issues
The 21st Century Town Meeting Methodology was developed by the US nonprofit organisation AmericaSpeaks in 1997. Since then they have delivered 21st century Town meetings in all 50 states and in other countries.
"21st Century Town Meeting" is trademarked by AmericaSpeaks.