Town Hall

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Definition

A Town Hall is a meeting where members of a community come to discuss relevant issues and concerns, with a public official, government representative or decision-maker of some sort [1]. Participants are able to ask questions of officials, and officials have the opportunity to learn about the community’s concerns and feedback [1]. It is essentially a question and answer session, and does not include in-depth discussion or deliberation.

 

A Town Hall is loosely related to New England Town Meetings and 21st Century Town Meetings. In the latter formats, participants are able to take decisions directly by voting on local legislations or proposals and can be considered a form of governance. By contrast, a Town Hall forum does not necessarily incorporate decision-making on the part of participants. Instead, it is an opportunity for information provision, expressing opinions and collecting feedback and this format is the focus of this entry. In practice, the terms are often used interchangeably, and the term ‘town hall meeting’ can be used to refer to a New England style meeting with deliberation and decision-making, as well as the variation described in this entry.

 

The Town Hall format has been used in different settings including Presidential debates, by Congresspersons in their districts, and as an internal communication method for organisations; they are frequently used by universities in the US for senior management to communicate in person with both faculty and students.

Problems and Purpose

Town Halls may be held on a regular basis - as in Nigeria where a large Town Hall is held quarterly in Abuja - or they may be held to specifically respond to a new proposal or to discuss a pressing issue or concern [1].

 

In contrast to a New England or 21st Century Town Meeting, the primary purpose of a Town Hall is to provide information and give an opportunity for the audience to share their views, comparable to a Public Hearing or Q&A with experts and officials.

History

Town Halls were established in the United States as far back as the 1600s in New England [3]. Town Hall Meetings have also been used for centuries in parts of Central and South America, known as Cabildos Abiertos. However, the New England Town Meeting and Cabildo Abierto, which still exist in their original form today, are generally limited to local and regional governmental matters, and importantly, local participants are able to actually deliberate and vote on proposed legislation. The New England format has been updated with the 21st Century Town Meeting which uses technology to enable voting. A Town Hall is descended from the New England format but has departed in form [2]. Participants have the opportunity to listen to and ask questions of public officials, but do not make decisions directly.

 

The Town Hall format has spread beyond local politics. It has been used as a format for Presidential debates, reimagined as participatory theatre and as a method of internal communication within businesses and other organisations. Town Halls have been held around the world in various settings. Quarterly Town Halls were held in Abuja, Nigeria where the Minister for the capital meets with up to 1,000 residents and meetings were broadcast live.

 

In the US, the format was first used for Presidential communication in 1977 by Jimmy Carter [4]. It gained renewed popularity in 1992 with George Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot participating. The Town Hall format marked a departure from more formal presidential debates, meaning that ‘candidates couldn’t easily stick to their talking points and instead had to react to questions culled from the crowd. It also created a way for the public to see how candidates performed in a more informal environment’ [3]. The more informal atmosphere favoured Clinton who was accustomed to Town Hall forums with constituents in Arkansas, and the incumbent Bush came off badly, criticised for appearing too formal [3]. The Town Hall format has been used ever since for Presidential campaigns, as well as traditional formal debates. More recently, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton also struggled with the format. The nature of the Town Hall means that candidates have to respond to unexpected questions from the audience, and can come across badly to an audience if they fail to connect with individuals asking questions [5].

Participant Selection

Town Halls are typically open to the public [1], meaning that participants self-select to attend. The recruitment of an audience for a Presidential Town Hall may be different: in the 1992 forum with Bush, Clinton and Perot, the audience was selected by a polling organisation and was specifically made up of undecided voters [3]. This is not the case with the majority of Town Halls. For meetings held within organisations between employers and employees, different policies may apply for participation.

 

The speakers at a Town Hall are usually public officials or government representatives. However, they are also held by organisations such as universities so speakers may include employers or senior management figures.

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

Prior to the meeting, a clear objective and possibly an agenda is usually established by the organiser [1]. The precise format of a Town Hall will vary in practice: some will focus more on presentations or speeches by the speakers, followed by a question and answer session [6]. Others may be more informal with more opportunity for exchange between audience and speakers.

 

The main point of interaction is in the question and answers between audience and speakers. Some Town Halls are filmed and broadcast to a wider audience. This is most obviously the case with the US Presidential debates, but other Town Halls that have been broadcast include the Abuja Town Hall Meetings in Nigeria, and recent US Town Halls on healthcare being widely covered by media.

 

Town Halls require a moderator or chair to facilitate discussion and questions from the audience, and keep the meeting on time. In contrast to the New England format, decisions are generally not made by the audience or participants at a Town Hall. Instead, the main purpose is for speakers to share information and collect feedback from the community [1].

 

Some general guidelines regarding the organisation of a Town Hall include:

  • Planning and preparation in advance to establish a focus and agenda, arrange a venue, invite speakers and promote the meeting to potential participants.

  • Having a good moderator who is able to keep the discussion on track, ensure that no speaker or participant dominates the meeting and encourage participation.

  • Considering a follow-up to the meeting, such as a report that can be circulated to attendees [1]. In Abuja, communication channels were set up to collect feedback and monitor any outcomes from the Town Halls.

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

The influence and outcome of a Town Hall will depend on the aim and follow-up of the organisers. Organisers should ideally make it clear what kind of outcome may arise from a Town Hall, if any. In Nigeria, the outcomes of meetings were documented as action points by decision-makers, and the meetings contributed towards a stronger culture of participation in the city.

 

The perceived performance of candidates in Presidential Town Hall debates has generated significant debate and commentary. Whilst Bill Clinton emerged as the clear ‘winner’ of the 1992 Town Hall with Bush and Perot, it is not clear what this lasting effect of this might be, if anything.

 

Town Halls held on healthcare in the United States have been sites of conflict and controversy. The National Centre for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) suggested back in 2009 that a lack of trust between the public and government was contributing towards anger and disruption at Town Halls over proposed Democratic healthcare reforms [2]. In 2017, it was the proposed repeal of healthcare legislation that led to further anger at Town Hall Meetings. In the same year, it was reported that there had been a decline in the number of Republic Congresspersons holding Town Halls, despite the fact that they are traditionally thought of as ‘very politically safe’ [7].

Analysis and Lessons Learned

NCDD have suggested that the Town Hall format does not work, because it does not offer the opportunity for citizens to have their voices heard [2]. This is partly compounded by a lack of trust between citizens and government, whereby not only do the public not trust government, but officials do not trust the capacity or ability of citizens to consider complex issues [2]. Town Halls are focused on the speaker [8] with little room for in-depth discussion or deliberation over policy issues. There is thus no opportunity for learning or development of views [8].

 

Because audience members for a Town Hall are usually self selected, it is possible that those who attend are people who are already politically engaged, or those who have a particular stake or interest in the issue at hand. This leaves the door open for interest groups to effectively hijack a Town Hall and dominate meetings [2]. Lukensmeyer and Brigham (2002) argue that as a result, decision makers do not get a complete view of citizens’ concerns. Instead, they proposed the 21st Century Town Meeting as an update to the New England format, retaining the original features of deliberation and decision-making on the part of participants.

 

However, Town Halls may on occasion provide an important opportunity for citizens to question officials. In February 2017, a Town Hall was held in Florida on gun control, following a school shooting at Parkland. At the forum, government officials were pointedly questioned by young people, parents and the local community over the issue. In this case, the meeting afforded an opportunity for school students, those directly affected by the issue and whose voices are not usually the most prominent in political debates, to have a platform and direct connection to decision makers. At the time of writing, it is too early to draw any conclusions about the lasting impact of this meeting.

Secondary Sources

[1] American College of Emergency Physicians (n.d.) Chapter Guide to Organizing, Planning and Executing a Town Hall Meeting. Available at: https://www.acep.org/uploadedFiles/ACEP/advocacy/state/Guide%20to%20Hosting%20a%20Town%20Hall%20Meeting.pdf

 

[2] National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (2010) Resource Guide on Public Engagement. Available at: http://www.ncdd.org/files/NCDD2010_Resource_Guide.pdf

 

[3] Mansky, J. (2016) The History of the Town Hall Debate. Smithsonian.com. October 6, 2016. Available at:https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/history-town-hall-debate-180960705/

 

[4] Ryfe, D.M. (2001) Presidential Communication as Cultural Form: The Town Hall Meeting. In Hart, R. & Sparrow, B. (2001) Politics, Discourses and American Society: New Agendas. London; Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield International.

 

[5] Frizell, S. (2016) What the Town Hall Debate Showed About Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton's Campaigns. TIME. October 10, 2016. Available at:

http://time.com/4524512/presidential-debate-clinton-trump-town-hall-format/

 

[6] Gwinnett United in Drug Education, Inc. (n.d.) How to Organize a Town Hall Meeting A Planning Guide. GuideInc.org. Available at:https://guideinc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Organizing-a-Town-Hall-Meeting.pdf

 

[7] Rabinowitz, S. (2017) Did Trump and the GOP Kill the Political Town Hall Meeting? The Hill. July 12, 2017. Available at: http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/national-party-news/341710-did-trump-and-the-gop-kill-the-political-town-hall

 

[8] Lukensmeyer, C. & Brigham, S. (2002) Taking Democracy to Scale: Creating a Town Hall Meeting for the Twenty-First Century. National Civic Review. 91(4), pp. 351 - 366.

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