I recently had an irresistible proposition for a member of Congress: “What if I could show you a technology which, in one hour, would make thousands of your constituents consider you accessible and fair, increase their trust in your judgement, and triple your approval rating on one of the toughest issues Congress faces?”
He was, of course, very interested, and asked, “What is it?” I showed him — by pointing to his telephone.
The use of telephone town hall meetings by Congress has exploded in the past decade, but the growth and practice has been almost completely under the radar. Social media have been the “sexy” technology lately, and Congressional Management Foundation research clearly shows benefits of these platforms to citizens and Congress. Yet telephone town halls may hold greater potential for allowing Congress and citizens to have more “personal” conversations on difficult public policy questions.
A group of political scientists recently published research conducted with the CMF some years ago. The study was the outgrowth of an experiment we conducted with 13 members of Congress, in which a representative sample of their constituents participated in online town halls. We surveyed the citizen participants before and after the one-hour meeting, and surveyed a “control group” that did not participate, to compare with participants’ attitudes. The results were astounding.
Prior to the meeting, 38 percent of participants trusted the member of Congress to do the right thing “all or most of the time.” After the meeting, 52 percent would agree with that statement. More participants described the legislator as “accessible” — 80 percent, compared to 48 percent of the control group. Additionally, 82 percent said he/she was “fair” compared to 54 percent of the control group.
Probably the most shocking number was the response to this question, which was based on the topic of the meeting: “Do you approve or disapprove of the way your member of Congress is handling the issue of immigration?” Participants’ approval rating of the legislator went from 20 percent to 58 percent . . . after a one-hour meeting. (When discussing this research, I once asked a campaign consultant, “How much would you charge a client for a 38-point bump in approval ratings?”)
So, what’s the magic formula to getting these results? This is what our experiment did that is different than typical town hall meetings, though these changes in format could be applied to any town hall — in person, telephone, online — regardless of venue.
One topic. Instead of making it a free-for-all, where the members (and the listeners) are subjected to myriad topics, from Iran nuclear negotiations to potholes on Main Street, these meetings were on one topic — immigration for the House and detainee policy for the Senate (not exactly softball issues). This allowed both the members and the constituents to focus on the chosen topic, prepare for the session and have a more substantive dialogue.
Neutral facilitation. Instead of the member running the show, the CMF facilitated these meetings with little moderation. Constituents were allowed to ask any question as long as it was on topic and wasn’t duplicative or offensive, and the member responded in real time. Because the questions weren’t pre-screened or given to the members in advance, their responses to the constituents were also not previously prepared, which prevented the citizens from feeling like they were being spoon-fed talking points.
Nonpartisan information shared in advance. Participants in the meetings were sent a two-page overview on immigration. It was a nonpartisan, fact-based description of the issue. One of the reasons constituents might view legislators who send such material as “fair” is that psychological research suggests citizens have greater trust in leaders who aren’t afraid to show understanding for alternate views on an issue.
And then there’s an added benefit to legislators who use this model for their telephone and in-person town hall meetings: They have a civil, reasonable and thoughtful dialogue with citizens on the pressing issues before the Congress.
When was the last time you went to an event like that?
Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, and a former Capitol Hill staffer.