21st Century Town Meeting®

August 31, 2020 Patrick L Scully, Participedia Team
February 15, 2020 Jaskiran Gakhal, Participedia Team
February 7, 2019 Scott Fletcher Bowlsby
September 6, 2018 Scott Fletcher Bowlsby
June 28, 2018 Lucy J Parry, Participedia Team
November 12, 2017 Arfung
July 29, 2009 Arfung

21st Century Town Meetings® are public forums that use modern communications technologies to allow large number of participants across various locations to simultaneously deliberate on the same issue in small groups.

Problems and Purpose

The 21st Century Town Meeting method was developed by AmericaSpeaks to increase the number of participants without decreasing the quality of dialogue and deliberation. The method was conceived in an attempt to 'update' the New England Town Meeting format for the digital age by integrating the use of Audience Response Systems and similar connective technologies.[1] 

Origins and Development

AmericaSpeaks was founded in 1995 by Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer “to serve as a counterweight to the influence of special interest groups in affected public policy.”[2] From its inception, AmericaSpeaks developed and tested the 21st Century method with its first large-scale application coming in 1998 during the two-year ‘Americans Discuss Social Security’ initiative.[3] 

Participant Recruitment and Selection

Like regular Town Meetings, which are generally open to all members of the voting public,[4] 21st Century Town Meetings as run by AmericaSpeaks are open to all those interested. However, unlike the traditional Town Meeting model, AmericaSpeaks undertakes a rigorous process of community outreach to ensure demographic targets -- set, according to census or other relevant data -- are met.[5] Participants in 21st Century Town Meetings are intended to be ordinary citizens with no particular expertise in the topic under discussions. They are, generally speaking, not stakeholders or professional lobbyists, which AmericaSpeaks engages through using the Stakeholder Summits methodology.[6]

Participant outreach and registration are performed by AmericaSpeaks in partnership with grassroots organizations, service providers and community leaders.[7] Compensation in the form of free meals, childcare, transportation, and translation are often offered to overcome typical barriers to participation.[8]

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.[9]

How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making

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.[10] To this end, participants are sat in round tables of 10-12 to encourage discussion and equal participation.[11] Each of these groups is moderated by a trained facilitator and a designated scribe records the proceedings on a laptop.[12] Since widespread 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.[13]

Process Overview

The 21st Century Town Meeting follows a four-step process similar to other public consultations or deliberative policy forums.

  1. Recruitment & Organizer Preparation
  2. Information & Learning
  3. Town Hall Meeting (Discussion and Vote)
  4. Reporting[14]

Phase I: Recruitment & Organizer Preparation

In some instances, the Town Meeting is open to the public while in others, participants are randomly selected using stratified sampling to ensure demographics are representative of the population.[15] The latter may be used when the population contains “hard to reach” groups or individuals.[16]

Phase II: Information & Learning

Participants will then receive information material by post or electronically before the discussion day in order to become familiar with the subject. The materials are designed to be balanced and non-partisan.[17]

Phase III: Town Hall Meeting (Discussion and Vote)

The core of the procedure is the town hall meeting: 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. All participants come together at a set time, in-person at one or more locations. Meetings which take place across several locations transmit the intermediate and final results of the other events over the Internet or directly via satellite transmission.[18] 

The entire session is overseen by a single host or ‘master of ceremonies’. The participants are distributed on tables of 10 to 12 participants each and discuss the topics / questions prepared by the organizer under the direction of an independent moderator. Each group follows the same agenda of discussion so that conversations run in parallel. Alongside the moderators, each table is assigned a scribe who records table discussions on a computer linked to a networked system. 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.[19] The summaries of the results are available to all participants for comment and voting using individual electronic keypads which are distributed at the beginning of the process. The use of electronic keypads or ‘audience response systems’ is a defining feature of the 21st Century Town Meeting format. ASR allows the host to take period straw polls and votes throughout the event, and responses are not only tallied, but displayed on screens to give participants and organizers immediate feedback.

Phase IV: Reporting

Before the meeting ends, organizers create a report that contains results and recommendations that they distribute to participants, decision-makers, and media.[20]

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, organized and executed by trained facilitators. According to a blog post by AmericaSpeaks on the National Coalition of Dialogue & Deliberation’s website, the method promises to deliver on some or all of the following: 

  • “Diverse Representation: AmericaSpeaks is committed to ensuring that the rich diversity of the community is well represented in the process. We will tailor a strategy in collaboration with our local partners, to recruit participants and reach our established targets.
  • Informed Participation: AmericaSpeaks will work with local partners to provide participants with accessible materials that frame the issues involved and provide a baseline of data upon which participants may begin their discussions. This framing process may involve identifying a series of “tough choices” that must be made by the public in order to address the area’s challenges.
  • Facilitated Deliberation: Every person who participates in an AmericaSpeaks town meeting plays an active role in the deliberations. Every voice is heard and no ideas are lost. The AmericaSpeaksteam will recruit and train skilled table facilitators to ensure high quality dialogue.
  • Clear Priorities: AmericaSpeaks’ town meetings foster consensus among participants and identify shared priorities. Our use of technology will support participants in identifying community-wide priorities out of a true discussion. As themes emerge from the discussions, they will be reported back to the group on large screens and voted on using keypads.
  • Link to Action: AmericaSpeaks designs our citizen engagement initiatives to create the conditions needed to produce meaningful action and change. The AmericaSpeaks team will craft the scale, composition and design of the citizen engagement strategy to build credibility with policy makers, the media, key stakeholders and the public as a whole.”[21] The process has been used to engage over 165,000 people in dialogues ranging from city planning to budget setting in all 50 states in the contiguous US.[22] The process has also been replicated by other organizations and bodies, such as the UK Department of Health.[23] While not all of these Meetings have resulted in policy change or government action, they have helped communities set priorities and come to a shared understanding of various issues.[24] 

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.”[25]

One of the benefits of 21st Century Town Meetings compared to individual, small group deliberations is its ability to produce a coherent set of goals or vision among a large group of people. After the ‘Listening to the City’ 21st Century Town Meeting on New York’s post 9/11 development, President of the Regional Plan Association, Robert Yaro, praised the process, stating that “[t]here had been smaller meetings of neighborhood residents and of families, but it was the first time that all of the stakeholders had a chance to be there and to listen to each other [...] You began to see an emerging consensus on what the priorities needed to be in rebuilding.”[26] In her analysis of Listening to the City for Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government Case Program, Susan Rosegrant supports Yaro’s observation. She notes that, while clear differences in beliefs existed between participants at the outset of the process, “[a]s conversations developed through the day, however, a surprising degree of agreement emerged regarding priorities and values that should have guided the reconstruction effort, but that apparently didn’t.”[27]

While AmericaSpeaks is clear that 21st Century Town Meetings are ‘linked to action’,[28] the process is not institutionalized and its participants are not given decision-making power. Indeed, according to Rosengrant’s report on Listening to the City, “despite the strong consensus of the group, and the genuineness with which officials appeared to listen, many participants doubted that anything had been accomplished. When asked at the end of the meeting whether they believed decision makers would take their input seriously, only one-third of voters said they were confident or very confident they would do so.”[29] However, the lack of decision-making power granted to participants and the non-binding nature of the decisions on policy makers are overcome through several design features of the process. According to AmericaSpeak’s Carolyn Lukensmeyer and Steven Birgham in their article “Taking Democracy to Scale: Large Scale Interventions - for Citizens,” the influence of a 21st Century Town Meeting on public officials largely a function of process design. According to their article, “the overall strategy developed for a town meeting must incorporate ways to prompt and track systemic change among decision makers and a renewed sense of agency among participants. There must be an avenue by which a citizen can continue to pursue the issue.”[30]  

See Also


New England Town Meeting

Shaping America's Youth 21st Century Town Meetings on Child Obesity


[1] “21st Century Town Meeting,” America Speaks. Retrieved from

[2] Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer and Steven Brigham, “Taking Democracy to Scale: Large Scale Interventions - for Citizens,” The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 48, no. 1 (March 2005): 54,

[3] Participedia contributors, "Americans Discuss Social Security," February 6, 2019,

[4] The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Town Meeting | United States Local Government.” Encyclopædia Britannica, August 5, 2013.

[5] Lukensmeyer and Brigham, “Taking Democracy to Scale,” 54,

[6] “21st Century Town Meeting,”

[7] D&D Resources. “AmericaSpeaks.” NCDD Resource Center, March 2, 2014.

[8] Citation needed. 

[9] Ed Blakely et al., “Listening to the CIty Report of Proceedings,” Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York, 2002, 6. Retrieved from

[10] Lukensmeyer and Brigham, “Taking Democracy to Scale,” 51,

[11] “21st Century Town Meeting,”

[12] Lukensmeyer and Brigham, “Taking Democracy to Scale,” 52,

[13] D&D Resources, “21st Century Town Meeting,” NCDD Resource Center, December 24, 2008,

[14] Lukensmeyer and Brigham, “Taking Democracy to Scale,” 51-53,

[15] Koop, Alexander. (2018). 21st Century Town Meeting. Retrieved from 

[16] Admin User. (2016). 21st Century Town Meeting. Retrieved from [DEAD LINK]

[17] Lukensmeyer and Brigham, “Taking Democracy to Scale,” 52,

[18] D&D Resources, “21st Century Town Meeting,” NCDD Resource Center, December 24, 2008,

[19] Lars Torres, “Twenty First Century Town Meeting,” Process Arts, Retrived from

[20] Lukensmeyer and Brigham, “Taking Democracy to Scale,” 53,

[21] D&D Resources, “AmericaSpeaks,”

[22] “Projects,” AmericaSpeaks. Retrieved from

[23] “Civic Engagement - 21st Century Town Meeting,” Building Change Trust Blog, February 2, 2015.

[24] “21st Century Town Meeting,”

[25] Carolyn Lukensmeyer. "A Town Meeting for the Twenty-First Century" The Deliberative Democracy Handbook: Strategies for Effective Civic Engagement in the Twenty-First Century, eds. John Gastil and Peter Levine (Hoboken: Wiley, 2005), 6. 

[26] Susan Rosegrant, Listening to the City: Rebuilding New York’s World Trade Center Site, (Exton, PA: John F. Kennedy School of Government Case Program, 2003, 10. Retrieved from

[27] Rosegrant, Listening to the City, 17. 

[28] D&D Resources, “AmericaSpeaks,”

[29] Rosegrant, Listening to the City, 19. 

[30] Lukensmeyer and Brigham, “Taking Democracy to Scale,” 52,

External Links


The Community Foundation - 21st century town meetings: