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Industry Perspective: Why Mobile Devices Should Replace the Town Hall

Will mobile devices help fight political apathy and bring town hall to our fingertips?

America now has a mobile majority, and it’s set to have a big impact on how we do government. As people continue to scoop up smartphones all over the country, ordinary citizens now have unfettered access to tools that allow them to connect, share ideas, and organize for causes they care about -- and these mobile devices may finally spark the end of the traditional town hall.

Tom Spengler, CEO of Granicus

Photo: Tom Spengler

According to new data from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 61 percent of Americans now own a smartphone. That’s a whopping 137 million Americans with a smartphone -- and by 2016, that number is expected to jump to 192 million. But citizens aren’t just using those devices to make calls -- 64 percent of Americans use their smartphone to read the news, 68 percent access a social networking site, and 31 percent visit a local, state, or federal government website. Mobile devices may be the key we need to fight political apathy and bring the town hall to our fingertips.

President Obama has taken to answering questions from the public using online and mobile platforms -- he regularly holds Twitter town halls under the hashtag #AskObama, where he has answered questions on key topics like education, the economy, and health care. And in 2012, State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland took to answering questions selected from the U.S. Department of State’s 10 official Twitter feeds on key foreign policy issues.

As it stands now, the use of mobile devices to answer questions is a quick way to reassure citizens some legislators are listening -- but it doesn’t really turn into results, and that’s inexcusable during a time when all citizens finally have the tools to participate in their government.

Unlike any other time in human history, smartphones now allow us to participate in government like we never have before -- we can collect data, push people to view a website or news article, create Web content, crowdsource ideas, raise money, and engage in civic advocacy. But if we want mobile devices to truly succeed as a tool for fueling civic engagement, we need more than a social media forum for asking and answering questions -- we need real data, real discussions, and a way for all citizens to participate, not just those whose questions happen to be selected.

As it stands now, the digital town hall serves only as an outlet for leaders to provide calculated answers to carefully selected questions. Mobile town halls are being used largely as a safe, one-way street -- not as a tool for hearing where citizens actually stand on key issues and policies. While the President and other government leaders may have taken to answering the questions of citizens using their mobile devices, there have been few efforts to use these platforms as a town hall to really crowdsource opinions and pull concrete data from the mix.

It’s reassuring that the President has embraced the fact that citizens are accessing social media on their mobile devices, but few policy changes have occurred. Sure, the Obama administration has a website where citizens can post online petitions, but the White House recently changed the number of signatures necessary for a response from 25,000 to 100,000 -- and citizens have to rile up that support in just 30 days.

Still, some cities are taking advantage of mobile devices to get citizen feedback -- and they’re acting on that feedback, too. My company, for example, offers a mobile app that allows government leaders to connect and gather feedback from community members. With iLegislate, citizens can share ideas, vote in polls, and comment on agenda items on a Web portal or on platforms like Twitter and Facebook -- and the data is then crunched and sent directly to legislators’ mobile and tablet devices.

These types of tools eliminate the need for citizens to send individual calls or emails to government leaders, lessening time spent answering phones or sending out email blasts. With citizen feedback in the palm of their hand, legislators have no excuse not to check up on citizen ideas right before they vote or make key policy decisions.

And some communities are already seeing the benefits of these virtual town halls. Government leaders in Austin, TX recently launched Speak Up Austin!, an online portal where community members can voice concerns and opinions. The city already has more than 2,000 registered users on the site. Twenty-three of the city’s crowdsourced ideas have been fully implemented, and more than 50 are now in action.

While it’s great that federal officials are using new technology to answer key questions, little will change in the realm of civic engagement until government leaders everywhere take mobile devices to the next level. The tools to create virtual town halls are right at our fingertips -- it’s time for legislators to listen.

Tom Spengler is the CEO and co-founder of Granicus, a cloud applications provider for government.