Yesterday, President Obama hosted the first ever Twitter town hall from the East Room of the White House, answering questions posed to him by citizens, Members of Congress, and reporters. (In the audience was Congressional Management Foundation President and CEO, Bradford Fitch, who tweeted prolifically.) In all, there were over 169,395 #AskObama Tweets. The most popular topics were jobs (23%), the budget (18%), taxes (18%), and education (11%) (Numbers via @twitterglobalpr; for more analysis see this post at OhMyGov!). This follows similar efforts by Speaker Boehner, House Democrats, and others to use new online tools and venues to connect elected officials with the people they represent.
When used correctly, online communications can be remarkably effective in fostering increased citizen engagement with politics and policy. Through our own research, we have found that online town hall meetings have the potential to be a powerful tool for strengthening the relationship between Members and their constituents.
Between 2006 and 2008, in collaboration with research partners from four universities, we facilitated a series of online meetings between Members and a group of their constituents, and polled the participants at several points before and after the events. Thanks to the extraordinary cooperation of 21 Members of Congress and approximately 1,000 constituents, we were able to shed light on the effects and benefits of engaging citizens in online town halls.
Some of the highlights:
- Trust in the Member of Congress increased 14%.
- Participants were more likely than non-participants to describe the Member of Congress as "accessible," "fair," and "compassionate."
- When asked whether the participants trusted how the Member of Congress handled the issue discussed ("immigration," not exactly a softball topic), 58% "approved" after the session, compared to 20% before the session.
- These sessions were more likely than traditional venues to attract people from demographics not traditionally engaged in politics and people frustrated with the political system.
- 95% of participants agreed that such sessions are "very valuable to our democracy" and that they would be interested in doing similar online sessions for other issues.
- Participation in the town hall increased citizen engagement in politics. Not only were they more likely to vote and follow elections in the news, they were more likely to try and persuade others to vote.
For more on the study and its findings, see our report: Online Town Hall Meetings: Exploring Democracy in the 21st Century.