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Town Hall Meetings and Wise Decision Making

2009/10/18

We were surrounded this summer by news of “town hall” meetings held by congressional representatives discussing health care policy with their constituents. Ideally, these sessions would be great exercises in democracy, designed to build the wisdom of both the elected officials and the public about what each sees as opportunities, concerns and better ideas. Unfortunately, most of this summer’s town halls became opportunities for political theater with staged questions and vocal demonstrations.

“Staged theater?” Yes. And some of the players even came with prescribed ideas and scripts developed by those with little regard for any truth or inquiry but only a desire to overcome the other point of view at any cost to reason.

Town meetings — in the tradition of New England’s annual town sessions — are supposed to be better than this. They are supposed to be healthy exercises in democracy where the public hears all sides and arrives at the best overall decision. True democracy depends on wise group decisions.

James Surowiecki wrote in his book The Wisdom of Crowds, that, “paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible.” When this isn’t able to happen, groups make very dumb decisions.

Most town halls and other large group meetings today do a very poor job of building the wisdom of the crowd. Informed, independent thinking requires a meeting based on dialog. “Dialog” here means “the ability to speak your truth, knowing that not everyone may share it, and to hear other peoples’ truth though it is different from your own (M. Weisbord).” Such dialog was once possible in town meetings. Today it seems almost impossible, whether the topic is health policy or a local school building decision. Our society has learned not to listen to opposing views, but instead to do anything possible to win your point. The town hall meeting may be dead as a result — whether it is the managed press conference like a meeting with the politicians, or a local annual meeting.

There are designs for large group meetings that build wiser decisions … because they do support true dialog, even among those who hold vastly different views. Such meetings have been developed and held more and more frequently over the last three decades. They have various designs and practitioners and go by some names like “Future Search,” “World Cafe,” “America Speaks,” and “Open Space.” These designs have been used to bring Catholics and Protestants together in Northern Ireland, demobilize child soldiers in Africa, revise a country’s approach to the health of young mothers, and discuss health care, housing, discrimination, and other tough policy issues in this country. The Obama administration has also been holding a few of its meetings using these ideas. But overall, they are not widely adopted. We need to hold more meetings which promote true dialog. It is time to revise the whole concept of town meetings.

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