New Study Finds That Internet Town Hall Meetings Increase Constituent Trust, Perception of Members of Congress

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Approval Ratings Jump by 18% Average

New Report on Congressional Online Town Hall Meetings

There has been tremendous interest in the role of the Internet in presidential politics. This report helps fill the void on how the Internet can also transform the relationship between Members of Congress and their constituents

Personal interaction with a Member of Congress, even online, has a significant and positive impact on a constituent's views of the official and their likelihood to become more politically engaged, according to research conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation and a team of academic partners. These findings are detailed in the report, Online Town Hall Meetings: Exploring Democracy in the 21st Century, and will be discussed in greater detail today via webinar at 11:00 a.m. EDT.

"Conducting online meetings with constituents offers Member of Congress a flexible tool for communication in addition to the traditional in-person meetings, tele-townhalls and newsletters," said Beverly Bell, Executive Director of the Congressional Management Foundation. "Our research shows that people like hearing from - and feeling heard by - their representatives in all formats, including online."

The team conducted 21 online town hall meetings to determine whether the Internet offers opportunities to bring citizens closer to their Representatives in Congress as part of a project funded by the National Science Foundation and the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation. The researchers were from the Congressional Management Foundation, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Northeastern University, Ohio State University, and the University of California-Riverside.

"There has been tremendous interest in the role of the Internet in presidential politics. This report helps fill the void on how the Internet can also transform the relationship between Members of Congress and their constituents," noted David Lazer, Director of the Program on Networked Governance at Harvard University and Associate Professor of Political Science and Computer Science at Northeastern University.

Citizens were selected at random by a research firm to assure a representative sample and then were assigned to a control group or to participate in the sessions. Each group was surveyed a number of times over the course of several months to determine changes in behavior and attitudes over time.

Key findings of the report were:

  • The online town hall meetings increased constituents' approval of the Member of Congress. Members experienced an average net approval rating jump of 18 points. There were similar increases in trust and perceptions of personal qualities such as hardworking and accessible. The sessions also increased constituents' approval of the Member's position on the issue discussed.
  • The town hall meetings attracted a diverse array of people. 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.
  • The sessions were extremely popular with constituents. A remarkable 96% of participants said they would like to be included in similar events in the future.
  • The meetings increased engagement in politics. Participants in the sessions were more likely to vote and were dramatically more likely to follow the election and to attempt to persuade other citizens how to vote.
  • The online sessions increased the probability of voting for the Member. The probability of voting for the Member was 49% for control subjects and 56% for people who participated in a session, with a particularly dramatic impact on swing voters.
  • The discussions in the town hall meetings were of high quality. By standards of deliberative quality (use of accurate facts to support arguments, respect for alternative points of view, etc.) the discussions were of a very high quality.
  • The positive results were seen in small and large sessions. Most of the sessions were conducted by Representatives with small groups of 15-25 constituents. To test the scalability, the team conducted one session with a Senator and nearly 200 people. The same positive results occurred.

"Members of Congress are always looking for ways to stay connected back home. It only makes sense that they would turn to the Internet for its almost limitless networking capabilities, the same way other people are using it to stay in touch with far-flung friends and family," concluded Bell.

To participate in our online press conference Monday, October 26, at 11:00 EST, which will include remarks from participating Members of Congress, register at: https://www2.gotomeeting.com/register/770904938

A full copy of the report is available at http://www.cmfweb.org .

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