21st Century Town Meeting



21st Century Town Meetings are Town Meetings as open fora for citizens to deliberate and decide on political issues employing modern communication technologies.


The 21st Century Town Meeting format was pioneered by the group America Speaks as an attempt to 'update' the New England Town Meeting format for the digital age by integrating the use of technologies such as Audience Response Systems. Originally appearing in the mid-1990s, the 21st Century method has been used by numerous government and non-government bodies all over the world. 

Participant Recruitment and Selection

Participants in 21st Century Town Meetings are usually ordinary citizens who have no particular expertise in the topic under discussions. They are not stakeholders or professional lobbyists.

Demographic targets for participants are set, according to census or other relevant data. Outreach and registration is implemented by AmericaSpeaks in partnership with grassroots organizations, service providers and community leaders. Free meals, childcare, transportation, and translation are offered to overcome typical barriers to participation.

At the start of a 21st Century Town Meeting, voting keypads are used to measure the demographics of attendees and publicly compare participants with that of the community.

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

The 21st Century Town meeting was designed in an attempt to realize the full potential of the Open Town Meeting method: to enable every participant to meaningfully contribute during the deliberation and decision-making process. To this end, participants are sat in round tables of 10-12 to encourage discussion and equal participation. Each of these groups is moderated by a trained facilitator and a designated scribe records the procedings on a laptop. Since wide-spread participation is sought in these meetings, each discussion group is linked by information and communications technologies (ICT) to create a larger conversation of thousands of people.

A succinct overview of the process is as follows:

First, small groups follow the same agenda of discussion so that conversations run in parallel.

Second, the entire session is led by a single host or 'master of ceremonies'.

Third, each participant is given a wireless keypad. Periodically throughout the event, the host takes straw polls and votes so that the views of all participants can be tallied and displayed.

Fourth, each table is assigned a scribe who records table discussions on a laptop computer. Using group-ware, the contents of table conversations are collected in real time and processed by a central “theme team” that attempts to discern the main viewpoints, positions, and themes that emerge at all of the tables.

Before the meeting ends, organizers create a report that contains results and recommendations that they distribute to participants, decision-makers, and media. Through this method, organizers aim to create a short term encounter in which participants can learn about complex issues, develop their own views on those issues, and make collective decisions in a deliberative way.

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

While the method is not institutionalized and, therefore, does not carry the same legislative power as official New England Town Meetings or other local forums, it has provided an adaptable process which, if organized and executed by trained facilitators, promises to acheive some or all of the following:

  • Informed participation through highly accessible materials that frame the issues in a balanced way and provide a baseline of information to begin discussions.
  • Facilitated deliberation to ensure all voices can be heard and each participant can play an active role in the deliberations.
  • Shared priorities are the endgame, so the process is designed to foster a high level of agreement among participants’ common priorities.
  • Link to action is achieved through active involvement from decision-makers and key leaders throughout a project.
  • Large scale meetings (500 to 5,000 participants) enable the outcomes to have greater visibility and credibility with policy-makers, the media, key stakeholders, and the public as a whole.
  • Sustaining citizen engagement in the policy-making process – through opportunities to take action – develops civic leadership and enhances implementation of public priorities.

The recommendations that emerge from 21st Century Town Meetings are provided by AmericaSpeaks to decision-makers as advice and a kind of public consultation[1].

Analysis and Lessons Learned

The following analysis comes from a report by Carolyn Lukensmeyer, Founder and President of AmericaSpeaks:

"Given its technological features and an elaborate preparatory process, the 21st Century Town Meeting is a resource intensive process. Those organizations without access to financial resources would not be able to replicate the method in their local settings. On account of past and perhaps futile or fruitless experiences with traditional methods of government consultation, many participants may feel sceptical about the outcomes. Overcoming this deep rooted distrust between citizens and their government is often not an easy task. Some [o]ther crucial challenges include providing adequate information as fairly represented and as unbiased as possible; dealing with the complexity of political environments and policy regimes; gaining support of political leaders owing to the criticality of their involvement and commitment; being watchful of special/vested interest groups occupying the center stage and subverting the process; and implementing a well targeted outreach plan to ensure a diverse mix of participants with special reference to those who are generally marginalized" (Lukensmeyer, 6).


Secondary Sources

Susan Rosegrant, "Listening to the City: Rebuilding New York’s World Trade Center Site"

Carolyn Lukensmeyer. "A Town Meeting for the Twenty-First Century" The Deliberative Democracy Handbook: Strategies for Effective Civic Engagement in the Twenty-First Century. John Gastil (Editor), Peter Levine (Editor). June 2005

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