With the evolution of online tools for engaging citizens in government business a whole range of descriptors have emerged for this practice. The virtual town hall is one of these but it has its roots in the existing processes of local government which traditionally have engaged the community (well a small and mostly angry part of it anyway!) with the venerable town hall meeting.
At its core, online citizen engagement moves beyond the town hall meeting, allowing government organizations to connect with a much broader cross section of the community than they could previously have hoped to. It also allows them to build community capacity over time and to properly analyze community ideas, stories, views and sentiment.
‘Virtual Town Hall’ or ‘Online Town Hall Meeting’ is a term most commonly used in the USA where the traditional conduit for citizen engagement has long been the ‘open mic’ at local government meetings.
The alternative approach to the virtual town hall is to see it not as a meeting but rather as a community discussion that takes place over a period of time – perhaps 4 to 6 weeks. Set the parameters of the discussion, share all the relevant information (preferably in accessible and engaging formats) and provide means for the community to give feedback that suit the issue, on their own personal timeline. If you are wanting innovation, ask for ideas; with a spatial issue, use a mapping tool; for feedback on a draft plan or strategy, use a discussion forum or survey; to understand how an issue affects the community, ask for their stories.
The ‘virtual town hall’ descriptor is not very helpful. It implies replicating the process of a town hall meeting both in timing and style. An online version of a town hall meeting would have an agenda, would require you turn up at an appointed time and would have lots of procedural rules (so many rules). For the community it would involve lots of listening and not much opportunity to participate. The reality is quite different so why not throw off all the stigma associated with the old style town hall meeting and start afresh as we move towards a more engaged and active community. Our clients around the world have used ‘community voice’, ‘open forum’, ‘your say’ and many other names.
With active promotion and consistent application, online citizen engagement can build capacity in the community; it can change perceptions of government and it can lead to much better decision making. As we move to an era where this practice becomes commonplace let’s not attach the name of an approach that switched off many in our communities from civic involvement in the first place.
A rewrite of an article first published by Emerging Local Government Leaders http://elgl.org/2016/10/14/what-is-a-virtual-town-hall/