Photo: Polk County, Fla., managers prior to an e-town hall meeting/Photo courtesy of Polk County
Dating back to Colonial days, the town meeting has been a longstanding staple of American society. Centuries later, the Internet revolutionized the concept of a community forum. And now, in at least one corner of the country, local governments are using the Web as a digital platform for public discourse.
Last September, Polk County, Fla., held its first e-town hall meeting, which was such a success that Pinellas County, Fla., followed suit six months later. In both counties, the idea is not to permanently replace face-to-face meetings. But e-town hall meetings offer a cost-effective alternative that lets residents participate from the comfort of their own homes.
"IT and communications are running together in a way like they haven't before," said Nate Graham, production specialist for Polk Government Television (PGTV), about what's driving the new concept.
In the vein of public opinion sites such as the U.S. State Department's new "Opinion Space," the e-town hall trend echoes the broader call for governments to use virtual tools to interact with citizens. In addition to expanding outreach, e-town hall meetings help local governments navigate tough economic times.
In Polk County, for instance, the idea for an e-town hall meeting came in response to drastic budget cuts. The county board reduced the number of annual town halls from four to one, and planned to hold the single event in the county seat, rather than the target community.
But the communications staff believed the move would dilute public service efforts. Fortunately officials didn't have to look far to find a solution. In 2008, PGTV streamed a Christmas parade in Lakeland, Fla., and hundreds of residents tuned in to watch it.
"It was the first time we had done anything like that," said Joan Davies, program director for PGTV. "It was the guinea pig for the whole webinar concept."
Months later, Polk County was holding its first e-town hall meeting.
It's important to remember, Davies said, that there's "no substitute for face-to-face interaction." However, she added, e-town hall meetings have advantages over traditional meetings -- saving money is one of them.
A traditional town hall meeting can cost more than $6,000, Davies said, but the e-town hall meeting cost only $2,000. Also, participation increases. During Polk County's e-town hall meeting, some 430 people tuned in and 63 questions/comments were submitted (the average number is 10).
Hosting a town meeting online means county staffs don't need to find a venue or spend time setting up chairs, displays or materials. Informational displays about county services can be put online prior to the live event.
Residents can attend an e-town hall remotely, so "they don't have to find a babysitter," Davies said. They can also submit questions in advance, which means they won't be nervous about stepping up to a microphone in front of other people. Commissioners and managers answer selected questions in a studio.
"If somebody had a question about solid waste issues, we could have the solid waste manager come in to the studio," Davies said. "It's a lot more efficient and a much smoother process."
Due to firewall issues, Polk County used two outside websites to host the event -- one to stream video and the other to host the chat. But local news sources embedded the videos on their own sites, Davies said, and the free media coverage boosted traffic. Eventually the county plans to host the e-town halls internally.
In Pinellas County, after learning that the county would have to cut $60 million in its budget, officials decided to take the discussion
to the Web. On March 14, Pinellas County launched its first e-town hall meeting, which officials modeled after the effort in Polk County.
The live event didn't start until March 15, but the blog was opened to the public 36 hours prior for moderators to compile questions and comments from citizens. Typically in a public meeting, 100 to 150 people would gather in a high school auditorium. But the e-town hall event attracted 1,000 viewers, and the blog had 602 readers and 304 published comments, said Libby Bolling, event producer at Pinellas County Connection TV (PCC TV).
Pinellas hosted its e-town hall meeting internally. From public safety awareness and information on new services to advice on how to navigate the county website, Bolling sees endless potential for the virtual forum.
"We're discussing doing e-town hall meetings during the height of hurricane season as a public education piece," she said.
Polk County has also only held one official e-town hall meeting so far, but they plan to have a second e-town hall meeting in June to answer budget-related questions. The county has also done 30 webinars, educating the public on tax issues, holding job training workshops and streaming local events.