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In a time of polarization, we’re asking Ohioans what matters and searching for what connects us.

'Deliberative town halls' encourage civil dialogue, OSU institute says

Renee Fox/Lauren Green

The town hall forum has been around for a long time as a way for lawmakers and constituents to gather and exchange feedback and updates.

But many of these contemporary events suffer from one of two things — overzealous naysayers there to disrupt the event, or a politician singing talking points to the choir.

“It's no wonder that our political discussion has degenerated into incivility and foolishness. That's the plan for some people,” said Michael Neblo, a professor of political science at The Ohio State University and its director of the Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability, known by the acronym IDEA.

These typical town halls, when well-attended, can be filled with people who’ve written handbooks on how to disrupt the meeting and who are on the politician’s regular email invite list.

“I think you often do see a lot of pandering; you also do see a lot of talking points, you often do see a lot of either direct or implicit incivility, sometimes even from the elected officials. But what we've shown is that it doesn't have to be that way. That's a contingent feature of how we set things up,” Neblo said.

So Neblo and his team at IDEA are working to adjust just how these town halls are set up in the first place.

The institute looks for ideas — solutions to problems in democracy.

“We try to make good politics and good policy compatible again,” Neblo said.

And one of those big ideas involves communication between elected officials and their constituents.

When politicians are listening to the loudest, most active voices, other perspectives can be left out.

“It does mean that we don't have as broad and equal a set of voices feeding into the conversation,” he said.

Researching the problem of voter disengagement brought the institute to a possible solution.

“We were polling people who had (become) so disgusted with the politics-as-usual political system, that they stopped voting,” Neblo said. “And for a lot of them, they're not apathetic, they're frustrated. And when you present them with a better alternative, they line up.”

They’re lining up for Neblo’s “deliberative town hall” meetings which implement special provisions to keep the conversation moving productively and create open dialogue instead of mudslinging.

Neblo said participants “actually wanted to do this because they correctly sensed it wasn't just going to be all power politics, and bloodsport, taking it out on the other team. They can actually have a civil, substantive discussion.”

The program starts with a willing politician — about 50 members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, have participated — and a truly random sample of constituents that the institute gathers.

Using a live-video feed, the hosts make it as easy as possible to participate with easy-to-read background materials developed by nonpartisan sources like the Congressional Budget Office — and approved before the session — to fuel the discussion.

“Everybody's coming in on a basically even factual playing field. And they don't sit there debating things that are settled, you know, you can have your own values, of course, but you can’t have your own facts,” Neblo said.

Neblo says the deliberative town halls are proving effective. Politicians used fewer talking points. They had to because of the way the conversation progressed, and participants acted with more civility.

They took an interest in the material and used thoughtful, fact-based questions, arguments and statements, he said.

Tasked with filtering out vulgar or abusive questions and comments at the events, Neblo said staff was pleasantly surprised when in the first round, none of the 1,400 comments or questions had to be removed.

The large random sampling put the squeaky wheels, like Facebook commenters and YouTube yellers, into perspective.

Neblo says more than 90% of participants said they’d do the townhall again and that the sessions were valuable to democracy.

And he’s seen politicians change their positions on a bill or a provision during the sessions.

But there are still some difficulties in bringing a system like this into every level of government because of the need for a large sample base.

“We are trying to bring this to scale," Neblo said. "And in another sense, keep it representative, which is really important for it to work. That's why you don't have the screaming and shouting. And, you know, a lot of the stuff we see gets a little bit harder as the jurisdictions get smaller.”

But the program is growing. Three sessions have been run in Australia. There’s one coming up in London for about a dozen members of the House of Commons, and the team is working on a project plan for San Jose, California. A web platform is being created to support the technical side.

“Elected officials around the world really are facing similar problems, and they're hungry for a better way of doing politics,” Neblo said.

The work is one element along the way of IDEA’s mission to make real life politics look a little more ideal.

“We're experimenting with ways to make it look more like what we learned in our civics text, and frankly, it does. It looks quite a bit more,” Neblo said. “It's not perfect. I don't want to oversell this. I'm not saying it's all Kumbaya, but it's a heck of a lot better than what you see in standard town halls.”

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