Elected Officials Need to Re-embrace Face-to-Face Constituent Meetings: Tips for Holding Town Hall Meetings

The debacle that occurred last Saturday over Congressman Mike Coffman’s constituent meeting is a sign of things to come as the country transitions to a new presidential administrations and policies such as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are in play.

According to the Denver Post, Rep.Coffman typically books space at a public venue, and then meets with individuals for approximately five minutes each. This approach has both pluses and minuses. On one hand, this is a very smart way of engaging with constituents, because each person gets their own time to share their thoughts with the Congressman. On the other hand, the Congressman does not have time to engage in a lengthy conversation with constituents thereby avoiding any public confrontations on controversial issues such as the ACA.

We at Engaged Public understand why elected officials avoid the traditional “Town-Hall” meeting as it often devolves into an unpleasant experience for all of those attending. Constituents feel frustrated that their opinions are not heard or because they are not getting information. Elected officials often are greeted by a public that can be impolite, disrespectful, and not entirely informed or cognizant about the complexity of the issue.

However, as important and divisive issues such as the ACA, climate change, foreign policy, and others are debated in Congress, there must be parallel conversations taking place in local communities. Elected officials need to re-embrace face-to-face constituent meetings (we deserve to see our elected representatives often), but should consider these tips:

  • Use an outside facilitator(s) to help design and moderate the meeting. A good facilitator not only moderates and focuses the meeting, but can help clarify the purpose of the meeting and propose an appropriate structure. Is it just to inform the public of a decision that has already been made or are they honestly looking for input? People appreciate honesty and authenticity, even if they don’t like the message.
  • Present factual information from more than one credible source so that all of the attendees have some of the same information, and consider using an outside subject matter to present that information.
  • Utilize technology such as allowing attendees to vote or demonstrate their support for issues via text message. Not only will more people get to participate, it adds some much needed pizazz, and dare I say fun, to the meeting. The elected official and the participants get a better idea of what the actual opinions are of the attendees and not of just those that are the loudest.

There are many excellent facilitators and public engagement experts here in Colorado. I think I can safely say that many of us would be pleased to lend a hand in order to make sure that these necessary conversations take place and that the public is given ample opportunities to participate and influence the policy making process.

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