Ever since the first authentic experiment on Electronic Town Meetings (The Minerva Project conducted by Amitai Etzioni in the early 1970s), each new one has tried to use one or several electronic media to enhance discussion and to empower citizens to arrive at a decision by voting on it. Thus, it is fair and accurate to define ETMs by having these essential qualities: (a) citizens vote on an issue after (b) information and discussion usually facilitated by electronic means.
These are the most fundamental characteristics and this most simple form is closely related to many of the projects and experiments described above as voting from the home by phone or computer, deliberative polling, and/or computer-assisted democracy.
What follows are some of the most advanced and intriguing ETM experiments either recently done, presently under way. Either go directly to individual projects by clicking on the titles below, or read the following brief discussion on what ETMs are and are not.
Choosing Our Future
Houston Electronic Town Meeting
Community Design Exchange / Sustainable Racine (1997-1999)
Reform Party of Canada ETM on "Physician Assited Suicide": Calgary (1994)
Electronic Town Meeting Company (ETMCo)
The Public Agenda Foundation
United We Stand America Electronic Town Halls (ETH)
The Electronic Referendum of Ted White, Reform MP from Vancouver, B.C.
Americans Discuss Social Security (Pew Charitable Trusts)
What ETMs Are Not
The entire concept of the New England Town Meeing, that of Electronic Town Meetings, has been grossly distorted by American politicians and the American media over the past 20 years or so. In a very real sense, those with political and media power in the United States have -- either through gross ignorance or clever manipulation of the concept -- applied the notion of "town hall meeting" to DISEMPOWER American citizens while further empowering themselves.
We believe that Jimmy Carter was the first to do this. He went around the country, as President of the United States, holding "town meetings" in the late 1970s. But they were hardly that. What they were, instead, were simply informal hearings or forums, whereby citizens could ask questions of a political leader. They did not vote. They had no power. They did not set the agenda. Carter had all the power and called it a town meeting in order to make it appear to be something more important than it was. Good public relations. Bad American history.
The media went along with the ruse. And numerous politicians at all levels of government since then have also cropted the image, but not the heart, of this venerable American institution. All of this is not to say that such forums, where citizens get an opportunity to listen to and question political leaders is a bad thing or has no value. They have value. However, THEY ARE NOT TOWN MEETINGS! And when they are covered by a TV station, or when citizens can call in questions by telephone, or if the political leader has his image teleconferenced to several remote sites ... they do not become ELECTRONIC town meetings. They are, no more and no less, Electronic Forums.
What ETMs Are
Electronic Town Meetings, though, intend to empower the citizens participating in them either directly, indirectly or at least experimentally. There must be information presented, deliberation of some sort, and voting. And, in many of the major experiments that have been done over the years, several electronic media are employed either simultaneously or one after the other to convey data, expand deliberation and/or make home voting more convenient.
So, the most primitive form of ETM format is that where, say, a TV news show presents a mini-documentary on an issue, has a few experts give their opinions on that issue, and then asks the public to vote on it for a period of time. Another simple ETM might bring together a group of citizens to discuss an issue and vote on it in face-to-face groups but use electronic hand sets to vote anonymously during the process. Facts + Opinions + Deliberation + Voting + Use of Electronic Media = ETM.
Some of the more interesting and more complex ETMs have a more sophisticated recipe and add such ingredients as: (a) scientific deliberative polling; (b) computer-assisted democracy; (c) an extensive electronic media mix; (d) conflict resolution techniques leading to as large a consensus as possible and (e) best of all: maximizing their impact on actual political decisions.
Choosing Our Future (COF) was a national, non-profit and non-partisan organization that was formed in 1981 and worked for 7 years to revitalize democracy and society through Electronic Town Meetings, "Earth commercials" and other innovative uses of the mass media, particularly broadcast television. Briefly, here are the highlights of its work related to "teledemocracy."
COF was designed and organized as a non-partisan and non-profit organization ("Bay Voice") to co-sponsor Electronic Town Meetings in the San Francisco Bay area by Duane Elgin and Ann Niehaus. It negotiated an historic agreement with the NBC-TV station in San Francisco for producing prime-time Electronic Town Meetings, with editorial control vested in the community organization. Although nearly launched, this ETM project was placed on hold because of a lack of funding (1988-1989).
Prior to that COF, developed a pilot Electronic Town Meeting in cooperation with the ABC-TV station in San Francisco and the League of Women Voters in the Bay Area. The Electronic Town Meeting enabled a pre-selected, scientific sample of citizens to cast six "votes" during the hour-long program that was seen by over 300,000 persons in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1987. This demonstrated the workability of rapid and relevant feedback from a representative sample of citizens, and it was Replicated in a real political situation with real political impact in 1994.
Its work includes 1) giving talks/speeches on how the communications revolution can also revolutionize citizen participation in our democracy and culture, and 2) consulting on the design of Electronic Town Meeting processes and organizations.
Note: Duane Elgin is the well known author of Voluntary Simplicity, 2nd ed., NY: Morrow, 1993 and The Awakening Earth, Morrow 1993.
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Thousands of Houstonians participated in a citywide, prime-time televised Electronic Town Meeting (ETM) in September 1994 to review goals for Houston's future. The goals were created by volunteer citizens particpating in the Imagine Hoston process.
The televised program, broadcast live on network affiliate KHOU-TV garnered a 12% share of the television audience, reaching 250,000 citizens in a city of 2.5 million. The ETM was structured as a two-way communication tool. Citizens at 5 community meeting sites around the city were linked by satellite with a studio panel for an hour long interactive program. After the initial televised portion, the community meetings ranked 50 preliminary goals that had been previously developed by citizen task forces. Thus, the major components of this ETM process were:
The report on the results of this process has become a blueprint for action in the future. It is a citizens blueprint for future policies. According to the Director of Planning, Donna Kristaponis, "Houstonians have been clear that they do not wish to be regulated from the top down. In Imagine Houston, we are seeing the enthusiasm and energy people have when they are part of a process that focuses on the neighborhood areas where they live."
This project was conceived by the Community Design Exchange.
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Community Design Exchange is a non-profit company that has been a leading innovator in the field of Electronic Town Meetings for the past several years. It has been in the business of participatory planning and urban design for 25 years.
Its main contribution to this field has been in blending a wide variety of electronic media with face-to-face community meetings in order to develop a broad-based vision of the future. Community Design Exchange calls this process: Teleplanning. According to Ron Thomas, CDX's founder, "The Electronic Town Meeting uses technology to expand the ring of participation in a vision and goal setting process."
One of the important features of CDX's Teleplanning process is to involve major governmental and media leaders. With their support, the teleplanning process is eventually incorporated into future development. Another key aspect of this teleplanning process is that the community meetings are conducted by trained facilitators whose job it is to help bring the various neighborhood members into some agreement on where they want the community to go in the future.
CDX has designed and run two major projects in the United States in the past few years. One was the Savannah (Georgia) ETM and the other was the Houston (Texas) ETM. Both of these have been highly successful, including the professionalism of the coordination; the degree and level of enthusiasm of community participation; and--according to the city officials that commissioned these ETMs-- having a real impact on the planning process of the city and region.
Mr. Thomas has put his experiments into writing by preparing a casebook on ETMs for the American Certified Planners Association (Chicago, Illinois) and the ACPA has also a video on that subject starring Mr. Thomas and his colleague from Canada, Mike Hollinshead.
1997, Mr. Thomas was appointed Executive Director of Sustainable Racine, funded
by the Johnson Foundation of Racine, Wisconsin. Essentially, his job was to utilize
his method of ETMs to develop a long range plan for
the City by involving many citizens and neighborhoods in the process.
The project ran for two-plus years. For a full description of how this
project worked, just click on the Sustainable Racine logo.
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In keeping with their electoral promises of 1992, when they won about 15% of the seats in Parliament, the national Reform Party of Canada decided to experiment with an "electronic town meeting" (ETM) in Calgary in the fall of 1994 on the important issue of physician-assisted suicide. There were some highly innovative aspects to this ETM. Here is the design:
There are five parliamentary districts in the Calgary area represented by members of the Reform Party. They all agreed to pick a random sample of at least 400 constituents from each district and to ask them to become televoters in an ETM to be broadcast on TV on the next Sunday. Each televoter got a set of 8 telephone numbers to call: 1 for yes, 2 for no, and the other 6 were for the degree of agreement or disagreement. They also received a brochure with some information about the issue and the voting procedures.
Perhaps the major innovation in this project was that each Reform MP stated in advance of the process that if a significant consensus of their constituents voted in favor of this issue (that physician assisted suicide should be legal in Canada under certain circumstances), that even though these MPs were personally opposed to such, they would be bound by the vote of their constituents.
That Sunday, there was a debate on the issue with experts from all sides of the issue. Preston Manning, President of the national Reform Party, plus 4 other Reform MPs took part, but did not dominate the debate. At one point, the Televoters from all districts were asked to vote by phone, which they did. The results were that approximately 70% of the Televoters in every district were in favor of the proposition, i.e., to legalize physician-assisted suicide. This, plus similar results from other polling methods used by the Reform Party in these districts, were sufficient to bind the MPs to this position.
Vote in Parliament: up to March, 1996, that vote had not yet been taken. When the vote is taken we will update this report.
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The Electronic Town Meeting Company (ETMCo) is a commercial corporation formed under the laws of the State of Washington in 1995, after completing its business plan with the help of the Markle Foundation (NYC) at a conference in Snowmass, Colorado, in October 1994. Its purpose and mission is to conduct and coordinate comprehensive ETMs at the local, state, regional or national levels. These ETMs include the following components:
Random samples of 500-1000 Televoters receive written materials on the issues under consideration and have as much time as they need to deliberate on the issues. They remain on-line over time with the Televote staff and receive extra information that they request throughout the process. This is an advanced version of the prototype "deliberative poll" which has been revised to include discussion through the following components:
ETMCo's process is based upon much of the relevant, authentic experimentation in deliberative polling, computer assisted democracy, and ETMs over the past 20 years and includes many of those researchers as consulting partners. It also includes a number of phases including: agenda and priority setting, decision-making, and implementation. Each phase is designed to be conducted thoroughly in a 6-month long module. ETMCo is willing to conduct a full 18-month process, from agenda setting through implementation, or any one of the three major modules by itself.
ETMCo has chosen to be a commercial company, rather than a non- profit, because it believes that the best way to sustain this type of organization as an independent, impartial entity is via the free market system--particularly given the financial exigencies confronting governments and nonprofits at this period of time. It also believes that the public is amenable to purchasing a wide range of services and products produced by the company through its ETM process. These include 900-call ins, videos, newsletters, telemarketing of related products and membership in an affiliated citizen organization that supports the objectives and practices of ETMCo.
What is needed
At this point in time, ETMCo seeks sponsors for programs (governmental and/or corporate), strategic partners and contributors of all sorts who would like to help develop ETMs using the ETMCo design. For further information or input, please call Larry Greene, the president of the company at the above numbers. Or you may contact Ted Becker, vice president of design and coordination at email@example.com. The goal of ETMCo is to improve both the representative and direct democracy processes.
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New electronic media have the potential to help citizens move beyond their role as passive recipients of political advertising and programming, to participate actively in political discourse. So far, most examples of this have taken the form of radio or television call-in shows. The call-in format has served well to allow citizens to express their opinions, query public figures, and comment on common problems. It has, however, been less effective at helping them learn more about the facts behind an issue, explore the pros and cons of various solutions, and come to consensus about what to do.
The Public Agenda Foundation was founded by social scientist and pollster Daniel Yankelovich to study how the public becomes informed about issues and how an individual's "off the top of the head" opinion about a complex issue evolves into a considered, informed "public judgment." For many years, Public Agenda has conducted research to determine which issues the public believes to be most important, how the public views those issues, and how their views differ from leadership's views of the same issues. These studies have led to the creation of issue guides, television programs, and other materials that provide citizens and experts with accurate, unbiased information about an issue and possible solutions to help them work through inconsistencies in their thinking. Public Agenda has also worked with local media around the country to experiment with new ways of presenting policy issues at public forums to help the public consider solutions to common problems.
In its current project, Public Agenda is exploring how communications technology can expand and enhance the deliberation that occurs in its focus group forums. Using health care as the common topic, the Public Agenda Foundation has designed and conducted six electronic town meeting experiments. All meetings will use technology to enable citizens to learn more about an issue, debate alternative solutions, and explore areas of agreement and disagreement. They use a variety of technologies, including television broadcast and interactive cable television. The lessons of each meeting will be drawn to refine the process for the next one.
The goal is to develop a useful model for electronic debate that goes beyond the types of gatherings or television programs currently identified as "electronic town meetings." The project aims to identify elements of meeting design that promote real deliberation and understanding of policy options and their implications. The explicit goal is to improve the citizens' input in the representative process.
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We consider this to be an ETM experiment, and not just a Computer-Assisted Democracy experiment, because its develops a novel, nation-wide citizen voting/consensus building model that could be adapted to making all sorts of national and even transnational political decisions from the grass roots up. In addition, other media are used via the computer, including televised discussions, videos, etc.
According to its inventor, Dr. Billy Koen, its primary purpose within the UWSA context, is to help choose the best quality President of the United States in 1996 and to be a 'watchdog" on the major political parties in the U.S.
Here's how it works:
First the basic technology is the computer as communication tool. In fact the UWSA/ETH project is essentially a computer information, discussion, and voting system.
Second, citizens who participate come together in face-to-face meetings around the country. Koen suggests that 90% need not to be "computer literate". Only one out of ten needs to know how to use the computer and particularly the internet. the largest of his experiments so far was in August of 1995, when 200 or so Americans came together around 26 computer sites in 20 states.
Third, in this ETH, specific questions were generated in Dallas and were passed down the computer "tree." Then discussions were held in all the small groups around the nation. And by using a "consensus focusing" method called National Group Technique (NGT) -- a consensus was formed and passed back "up the tree" within 45 minutes.
Fourth, "Throughout the entire ETH, a video camera connected to the computer using the video-conferencing software, Cu-SeeMe. This was focused on the computers managing the root node and people throughout the United States, who were equipped with the appropriate software, could watch the proceedings on their own computers."
According to Dr. Koen, "An important conclusion of this experiment, is that it engaged all who participated and produced sound, mature, credible answers."
Actually, the basic internet format of this process is called IRC (Internet Relay Chat) ... a multi-user, multi-channel chatting network. Also according to Dr. Koen, " ... At any time of day, typically 16,000 people from 60 countries are chatting over 5000 channels maintained by 100 operators." Thus, this would seem to provide the basic infrastructure for Transnational ETHs or ETMs on major global issues. (Andreas Gross, Transnational Europe)
Dr. Koen also believes that the ideal number for the face-to-face groups can expand to about 30 people per group, about the maximum size for a focus group. He also notes that if these people and all the groups are chosen randomly, that it is quite possible to develop opinion within a plus or minus 3% for such a scientific ETH. Plus, if one adds the consensus-building strategy as well, one would get a scientifically valid and 'worthwhile result.'
For a full description and analysis of this system, you can reach Dr. Koen at the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Texas, Austin. His recent technical paper on this is obviously the work of a person who holds his Ph.D. from M.I.T., but anyone with some college under his or her belt will be able to get a lot out of it.
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Imagine this: A national legislator who says openly in his Parliament that most of his colleagues are wrong to rely on Edmund Burke's 220 year old view that a representative should never sacrifice his/her "judgment" to the opinion of those that elected him/her. Why? because ordinary people today are so much better educated and informed, the modern legislator owes the public " ... his commitment to alert (them) to the affairs of government that affect (them) so that they may become informed and so that they may instruct him/her how to represent them."
Okay, this MP talks the talk, but does he walk the walk? Yes, he does and here's how he conducted what he calls his "Electronic Referendum."
MP Ted White, a Reform Party legislator representing the district of North Vancouver in the Canadian Parliament, signed a contract with Maritime Telephone and Telegraph (MT&T) to use their 'electronic teledemocracy system" in his "riding" (district). Then he sent to each registered voter in his district a confidential Personal Identification Number (PIN) which they could use to vote on three related issues over a 6-day period.
Since he did not want to use taxpayers money for this experiment, those who voted (by a 900 number) had to pay about $1.95 to register their opinions. And since the issues involved the treatment of juveniles in the Canadian criminal justice system, MP White also gave PINs to all students in grades 10-12 so that they could cast votes as well. (The local school board denounced the whole idea).
Prior to his "electronic referendum," the voters also received in the mail a pamphlet that included a substantial amount of written and graphic information one the issues, some expert opinion that ranged from pro to con, and some encouragement to "discuss the subject with your family, friends, and co-workers." After the votes were tallied, they seemed quite conclusive...and approached an overwhelming consensus on two issues--including the votes of the students. The majority was well over 90% in favor of changing the law.
MP White, true to his word, held a news conference and broadcast the results. He also promised to use this information, plus a random sample poll of his district, to help write new legislation and to use this information to help persuade other important national leaders to follow public opinion on this set of issues. All of this was consistent with his stated view that "populism is true democracy" and teledemocracy was the wave of Canada's future.
Finally, MP White promised that he would communicate the results of his "electronic referendum" globally. In that regard, TAN+N2 is at his service.
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|American Discuss Social Security (1998-99)
A Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts
Executive Director, Carolyn Lukensmeyer
2001 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20006
This project was a one-shot deal funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, at the cost of $12.5M, to develop and test a national Electronic Town Meeting project. They chose Dr. Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the Executive Director of America Speaks, to coordinate it.
The basic idea was to utilize a variety of electronic and face-to-face techniques to involve a large number of American citizens from coast-to-coast in a detailed, in-depth discussion of many facets of the social security issue facing this country now and in the future. Here were the main elements of the design.
It involved "survey polling, print and radio paid advertising, interactive video teleconferences in 5-10 cities simultaneously (National Town Halls), large city forums (500-750 people), local forums (175-300 citizens) in districts of Members of Congress, and grass roots organizing to sustain citizen involvement over time in communities across the country." (NOTE: Everything in quotes comes from a handbook published by Pew called A NATIONAL TOWN HALL, 1999). The NTH also involved approximately 5,000 college students from more than 100 campuses in all 50 states.
The ADSS project ran for 15 months and involved, according to Dr. Lukensmeyer, "more than 25,000 Americans, who reflect the country's population by age, income, gender, rural-urban environments, and ethnic/racial background. These citizens spent 4-6 hours on a Saturday learning detailed information about the Social Security program as it works today and exploring all the options for reform....(These) forums, were unlike most town hall forums held today, where panels of experts talk for the majority of the time and citizens get to ask a few questions. Our forums were designed to gather people at round tables, each sitting 10-12, to discuss the issues among themselves and to call experts to their table whenever they needed specific information."
Another feature was to link 10 of the large city forums via interactive TV teleconferences. This was covered by local and national TV and thereby was able to reach literally millions of Americans and involve them in the national discussion.
The results of this first nationwide ETM were familiar. First, once again, American citizens disproved the media vision of them as being apathetic and unwilling to participate in complex issue discussions and problem solving. And second, once again, as far as we can detect, the impressive results seem to have been lost on national decision makers and the mass media.