With the evolution of online tools for engaging citizens in government business, a whole range of descriptors have emerged for this practice.
At its core, online citizen engagement allows 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.
The ‘Virtual Town Hall’ or ‘Online Town Hall Meeting’ is simply a way of expressing this opportunity that has its roots in the traditional form of engagement – the Town Hall Meeting. The term is most commonly used in the USA where the traditional conduit for citizen engagement has long been the ‘open mic’ at council meetings.
This is where some confusion can creep in. Some interpret the virtual town hall as needing to mimic an actual town hall meeting by being in ‘real time’. Meaning that community members have to tune in at a certain pre-ordained time (usually in the evening) but can follow proceedings through their computer. To aid with this many cities offer video streaming of their meetings and the ability for the community to make live comments.
These ‘live virtual town halls’ have much in common with telephone town hall meetings (where the community listen in on a live phone link) and actual town hall meetings where the community have to turn up in person to participate.
The opportunity presented by the ‘Virtual Town Hall Meeting’ goes way beyond this. Demanding that the community turn up at a certain time, even though they can do this from the privacy of their home, is only realizing part of the opportunity afforded to us by the availability of online participation tools.
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 2 to 4 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. 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.
By way of an example, the City of Westminster in London uses https://openforum.westminster.gov.uk/ to allow the community to ‘Get involved in local decision making at a time and a place that suits you’. They use the site to engage the community on both city-wide and local community issues.
With active promotion this approach can reach a much wider cross section of the community giving your decision makers rich data around which to make a decision that does not simply rely on those who turn up on the night.