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Can technology save the town meeting?

After about 100 residents turned out last month for West Brookfield's annual town meeting, Selectman Thomas Long voiced a sentiment heard regularly throughout New England. "I think the towns around here have outgrown the old New England town meeting," he told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

Since West Brookfield has fewer than 6,000 residents it is required by state law to keep a Board of Selectmen and to hold open town meetings. Larger towns, though, are not. On May 14, the annual town meeting in Braintree was held for the last time, after a run of more than three centuries. Next spring Braintree voters will elect a new nine-member town council and a mayor. A dozen other Massachusetts towns have made the same decision over the past four decades.

New Englanders have long complained that the traditional town meeting is unsuited to the demands of modern-day work and family life. Just as common is the charge that an unrepresentative group of insiders ends up manipulating the process. As far back as 1897, A.G. Sedgwick wrote in The Nation that insider control by "the Village Tweeds" had led to a general "decay of town government" in New England.

The usual remedy, much favored by Progressive-era reformers of 100 years ago, has been for towns to "professionalize" by turning to a city-government structure. Another approach, put in place by dozens of towns in New Hampshire and Maine in recent years, is to dispense with the town meeting and put major questions on the townwide ballot.

Only in the past decade, though, has a third option become imaginable. Could modern networking technologies reconnect larger groups of people to their local governments? What if there were a way to preserve the deliberative aspects of the town meeting -- still stoutly defended by conservatives and progressives alike -- without requiring busy, work-stressed residents to assemble at the same time and place?

In fact, promising experiments are underway to encourage citizen input in regional planning, drafting of regulations, and even to use "wiki" technology to collectively draft laws, says Peter Shane, a law professor at Ohio State University. Beyond that, special software exists for an electronic town meeting -- an online deliberation, guided by a moderator, in which participants don't leave the comforts of home. By the same token, large meetings in an auditorium can use wireless communications to more efficiently distribute information, collect opinion, and record a collective decision.

To the traditionalist, such scenarios may sound like bad science fiction -- or bad political science. Can electronic gadgetry really solve problems of democracy that have been around since Athenians set up the original agora? Nobody is going quite that far. Yet significant efforts are afoot to build on the model that Massachusetts towns created in the mid-17th century. Recent work suggests that the town meeting as practiced today in more than 1,000 New England towns could benefit by being brought into the 21st century. But just as important is the idea that technology enthusiasts have a lot to learn from the old-fashioned town meeting.

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Anyone who has been to a well-run town meeting knows that something important can happen: People come into a room willing to listen to other points of view. Sometimes they change their minds. So the challenge of using new technology is to extend those possibilities, not to short-circuit them.

Shane was the lead investigator for the Virtual Agora Project, a four-year study at Carnegie Mellon University funded in 2001 with a $2.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The goal was to investigate whether new information technologies might have, as one of the project's researchers put it, "a potentially revolutionary application -- permitting large numbers of citizens to easily learn about, deliberate, and act on political and social issues."

"We found that under carefully designed circumstances we could provide an online meeting that seemed to have the same positive impacts of a face-to-face meeting," Shane says.

Group-meeting software has been in use in large businesses for years, but what makes recent efforts to adapt that technology to civic and governmental purposes noteworthy is that the people involved are proponents of deliberative democracy.

Beth Noveck, a professor at New York Law School, has assembled a range of tools as part of a Democracy Design Workshop. Working with Benjamin Barber, a noted theorist and the author of "Strong Democracy," Noveck helped design a product called Unchat, software that is meant to facilitate not chat but deliberation. It gives a three-dimensional view of a virtual conference room, with visual representations of each participant, and allows for varying styles of moderated discussion.

"Ten years ago, people said, 'Oh, we can put the town meeting online,'" says Noveck. "And then we realized very quickly that a chat room does not replace the hundreds of years of etiquette and social conventions and procedures and know-how and culture that go into running a really effective town meeting."

For the Virtual Agora Project, Shane and his associates developed software they called "Delibera." It allows a networked group to communicate with audio and text. As with Unchat, participants see themselves depicted around a conference table. Those who wish to speak press a button and are put in the queue. Meanwhile, they are able to ask questions and register responses with text messaging.

For some who have studied the traditional town meeting, though, face-to-face conversation is precisely the aspect that makes it work. Jane Mansbridge, a professor of government at Harvard University, studied the Vermont town meeting for her 1980 book "Beyond Adversary Democracy." Mansbridge says she finds it hard to imagine the face-to-face experience could be duplicated online.

"If one of the things you want to develop in the deliberative process is empathy for people whose perspectives are not your own, actually having them there is very, very helpful," Mansbridge says.

Mansbridge sees a promising blend of new technology with traditional deliberation in a project developed by the Washington DC-based nonpartisan organization AmericaSpeaks. (She is a member of the group's board of directors.) Since the late 1990s, AmericaSpeaks has been holding large-group deliberations it calls 21st Century Town Meetings, a term it has registered as a trademark.

In such meetings, hundreds or even thousands of people are recruited (selected for demographic balance) to attend a meeting in a large hall. The meeting is "electronic" in that all participants are equipped with wireless communications, linked to a central computer system. Yet it is more intensely face-to-face than a traditional town meeting because people are arranged at round tables to facilitate small-group discussion.

They are given briefing materials and randomly assigned to tables of 10, where they discuss the issue at hand. Working with laptop computers and handheld keypads, each subgroup reports its opinions to a "theme team" that distills the collective judgment of the meeting.

AmericaSpeaks has convened more than 40 21st Century Town Meetings in more than 30 states, including in two towns in Maine, where it was used as part of a 2005 effort to refine the state's plan for universal health care coverage.

Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the founder and president of AmericaSpeaks, says she studied the town meeting process in Vermont before beginning work in 1995 on a way to make deliberation work better in large groups. She says moving discussion entirely into cyberspace isn't the right goal. "There is something about the essence of democratic process that at some stage is built upon and requires human relationships," Lukensmeyer says. "And you can't replicate that on the Web."

Both Shane and Noveck are quick to say that cyberspace meetings will not soon replace the old-fashioned kind. But Noveck, for her part, can imagine a future in which networking technologies become so ubiquitous that the distinction ceases to matter.

"I think it's perfectly reasonable to believe that we can have a virtual town meeting," Noveck says, "but I think that the day will come that we don't distinguish between a virtual and a face-to-face town meeting." Either way, she says, it's the quality of the deliberation that counts.

Dave Denison is a contributing writer for Commonwealth magazine.