Archive for the ‘Townhall meetings’ Category

Infrastructure for the “National Dialogue”

May 4, 2012

Now that we have software which can handle robust conversations, we’ve been focusing on novel ways to use it.  As we continue to develop business in existing markets, it looks like our next flagship project will be on finding ways to improve the “national dialogue”.

Currently the “national dialogue” exists largely in sound bites, and that is problematic.  There is much potential for blending online and in-person discussions, distributed across the country.  We’ve had some exciting conversations over the past few days with potential partner organizations in Washington, DC.  If this is something your organization would like to be involved in, please drop us a note.  We will be taking an iterative approach toward creating the conditions for productive conversations by experimenting with different online tools.


The American Townhall on National Politics

June 23, 2010

We’re running the American Townhall on National Politics at AmericanTownhalls.Org from June 23-27, 2010.  This is an experiment to blend several formats for participation: blog + Twitter + YouTube + AthenaBridge + BlogTalkRadio + + Olark chat + Email.

There’s probably too much going on, but hopefully we’ll learn enough from this model to see what works and what doesn’t.  Check it out and please feel free to join in!

Evolving Beyond Two-Way Dialogue

February 24, 2010

This article is written for non-profit organizations and government agencies that are having difficulty transitioning from a broadcast model of communication to one that is participatory and engaging.

Your organization is probably better at organizing its members and its public rather than empowering them, and that’s understandable– after all, that model has been successful for a long time!

But culture change is running deep and wide across our economy; entire industries are being reshaped by the decentralized nature of the Internet.  These trends reveal an opportunity for you to connect with the public and authentically empower them as partners in solving the problems that your organization set out to solve.

There are three generations of organizational communications: one-to-many, two-way, and many-to-many.  If your organization has resisted the trend toward two-way dialogue of recent years and currently uses a one-to-many model, there’s still time for it to catch up and perhaps even leap ahead of its peers.

Just as many developing nations skipped the era of land line telephones and jumped straight to mobile technology, your organization can skip the growing pains associated with two-way dialogue and ease right into a more resilient, networked model of many-to-many communication.

Three Models of Communication

One-to-many communication includes TV ads, speeches, and brochures. Two-way dialogue includes Facebook pages with limited discussion capabilities. Many-to-many communication involves large conversations with advanced forum software, just one of which is AthenaBridge.

Each form of communication is useful for different purposes, depending on the level of engagement you desire and whether you are seeking convergent or divergent thinking:

We’re definitely not saying our software is the only solution; we are saying that methods involving many-to-many communication offer significant advantages over two-way communication:

  • It’s easier (and more cost-effective) for your organization to listen to 500 people converse with each other than it is to respond to 500 individual emails.  After listening, you can engage your network with the benefit of learning where they stand and hearing what they are prepared to do to help you.  After all, every person you hire to respond to emails and Twitter messages is a person you could have hired to help you directly with your mission.  However by effectively tapping the network, your communications staff can create a disproportionately large and positive impact on your mission.
  • Many-to-many communication empowers your network to embrace your mission on a deeper level; it’s easy to forget that you are not alone– the public, your public, cares. Members of your public are eager to help you accomplish your mission at their local level while these large conversations help you flex your network and prepare for focused and synchronized action at the national level.
  • As more people engage, the value of the conversation increases while your workload does not.  Larger audiences provide balance and serve as more resilient filters and quality control.

Successful communication is work, and many-to-many communication faces the following obstacles:

  • More often than we’d like to see, non-profit organizations are afraid to lose control.  They fear that if they empower their members to speak, then the ensuing conversation will reveal internal divisions.  Solution: This shouldn’t hold you back; a diversity of opinion makes your organization more resilient and relevant by injecting vital ideas into your decision-making cycle.  Healthy discussion is essential.
  • Government agencies and non-profits are understaffed and are not enthusiastic about handling waves of public comments.  Solution: Rather than relying on a channel for two-way communication and collecting isolated and conflicting comments that your staff will have to process, enable a conversation among your network.  It’s far easier to take a listening role, have your network sort out their disagreements, and filter out the best ideas for you.  Once you’re at this stage, you will know exactly how to reach and inspire them to action.

There is no easy path, and many-to-many communication takes significant work to get right.  Fortunately, it’s less work than two-way dialogue which often gives the public the unreasonable expectation that you can respond to every email with a unique and personal note.  Here are some of the key elements for successful many-to-many communication campaigns:

  • Trust your public.  Harness the best of their energy and expertise.
  • Stay engaged and curate the conversation.  A little structure and guidance up front can provide significant returns on investment down the road.
  • Demonstrate that you’re eager to learn and not afraid to innovate.

We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but the trends are becoming increasingly clear: the transformative organizations of the next decade will embrace a networked model of openness and mass collaboration.

You may also be interested in these other articles about the AthenaBridge Philosophy.

Do You Need Comments or Conversation?

February 7, 2010

There’s a big difference between comments and conversation online.  Sometimes comments are more useful and sometimes conversation is more useful– each method has its place, and choosing the right one depends on the purpose of your outreach effort.

Comments are great for brainstorming and getting a lot of ideas quickly; conversation is more appropriate for in-depth problem solving and for helping participants ask each other questions and learn from each other.

(click to enlarge)

With AthenaBridge, we’re focusing on the conversation side of the spectrum, because our national dialogue leaves much to be desired.  Interest groups have no option except to simplify an issue to fit it into sound bites and the subject lines of emails.  This helps get attention for individual issues, but it does a disservice for the health of our democracy in the long-term.

We’re excited to see the possibilities that the Open Government Directive and “Gov 2.0” create.  Government agencies and elected officials can effect lasting change when they open spaces for citizens to connect, converse, and learn from each other. Through conversation, we can learn from each other.

Does the above diagram represent how you see comments and conversation?  How would you improve it?  Also, you may be interested in these other articles about the AthenaBridge Philosophy.

The Open Government Directive Workshop Series

December 15, 2009

We at AthenaBridge Inc are excited to work with the US Department of Transportation in co-organizing the Open Government Directive Workshop Series.

The purpose of this inter-agency event is to convene great minds both inside and outside government to share effective practices for implementing the White House’s recent Open Government Directive.

If you’re in the DC area on January 11th or if you’d like to watch the streaming video online, please RSVP here.

Online Townhall Meetings: Return on Investment

October 26, 2009
The CMF's report is a great read.

The CMF’s report is worth a look.

The non-partisan and highly-regarded Congressional Management Foundation released a valuable report today which

outlines the tremendous return on investment that elected officials experience after engaging their constituents in online town hall meetings:

  • The online town halls increased constituents’ approval of the Member. Every Member involved experienced an increase in approval by the constituents who participated.The average net approval rating (approve minus disapprove) jumped from +29 before the session to +47 after. There were also similar increases in trust and perceptions of personal qualities – such as whether they were compassionate, hardworking, accessible, etc. – of the Member.
  • The online town halls increased constituents’ approval of the Member’s position
    on the issue discussed.
    Constituents’ approval of their Member’s position on immigration (the issue discussed in most of the sessions) jumped from 20% to 58%. There were also large shifts in participants’ positions on the issue toward the position of the Member, as well as significant increases in their policy knowledge of the issue.
  • The town halls attracted a diverse array of constituents. 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. Of the seven demographic characteristics that traditionally predict participation in partisan and activist politics, six had the opposite effect for participation in the online town halls (only level of education had the same effect).
  • The town halls 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 town halls 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 their Member. The impact was particularly dramatic for swing voters, where a person with a 50% probability of voting for the Member in the control condition was 73% more likely to do so if he or she participated in the town hall.
  • The discussions in the town halls were of high quality. By standard measures of deliberative quality (quality of information, use of accurate facts to support arguments, respect for alternative points of view, perceptions of participants) the discussions in these sessions were of quite high quality.
  • The sessions were extremely popular with constituents. A remarkable 95% of participants stated that they would like to participate in similar events in the future.
  • The positive results were seen even in a larger session. Most of the sessions were conducted by Representatives with small groups of 15-25 constituents. To test the scalability, we conducted one session with a Senator and nearly 200 constituents. We saw the same positive results in this session as those described above.

The Foundation conducted these town hall meetings from 2006-2008.  Today’s technology such as AthenaBridge creates even more possibilities for large-scale, high-quality communication among constituents and elected officials.  Contact us at

Data about Anonymous Online Comments and Citizen Participation with Government

August 9, 2009

Whether they may or may not be well-founded in reality, people have very real fears about what government does with private information. If the White House moves toward requiring real names during online dialogue, it will exclude too many voices from the national conversation.

To test this hypothesis, we decided to do a small scientific experiment with a random sample of 50 American tourists in front of the US Capitol yesterday morning (it would be wonderful to see this survey repeated on a larger scale).  We asked whether they are more likely or less likely to participate in a national online conversation about health care if they were required to provide their real name.  Here are the four questions we asked:

  1. President Obama and Vice President Biden may be holding a national dialogue online about national health care.  Would you be more or less likely to comment on the White House website if you were required to use your real name?  A lot or a little?
  2. If it was four years ago and President Bush and Vice President Cheney were holding a national dialogue online about the Iraq War, would you be more or less likely to comment on the White House website if you were required to use your real name?  A lot or a little?
  3. How would you describe yourself on the political spectrum?
  4. How often do you comment on blogs, news articles, or similar discussion websites? (never/rarely/sometimes/often)

These were the results:

  • 38% would be “less likely” or “a lot less likely” to participate online with the Obama/Biden Administration if they were required to use their real name
  • 40% would be “less likely” or “a lot less likely” to participate online with the Bush/Cheney Administration if they were required to use their real name
  • 48% would be “less likely” or “a lot less likely” to participate online with at least one of the administrations if required to use their real name
  • 26% changed their mind depending on which administration was in charge

We find the last statistic particularly important.  26% of the sample population would change their mind depending on who is in charge.  Unfortunately when we make a policy, it doesn’t change as easily as the public can change its mind.  That’s why we must make a policy that all Americans are happy with, regardless of which administration is in power.

The resiliency of our democracy comes from our institutions, and such policies form the foundation of our institutions.  The new administration has fortunately established a precedent which gives equal weight to anonymous comments on the White House website.

The survey allowed people to label themselves however they like or to decline to state where they stand on the political spectrum.  We aggregated the self descriptions into the following broad categories:


  • 53% of people on the left are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.
  • 28% of people in the center are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.
  • 47% of people on the right are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.
  • 50% of people in the other categories are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.

For the purposes of this survey, we didn’t want to force people in categories so we let them use any words they wanted to describe themselves.  Here is the above chart broken down by self-described categories:


On the flip side of the discussion– in support of anonymity, 24% would be “more likely” or “a lot more likely” to participate with at least one of the administrations if required to use their real name, some stating that they would “really like to tell them what they think” by signing their real name.

One unexpected benefit of doing the survey was that we interviewed a few officers from the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.  One of them mentioned that their job prevents them from joining political conversations about health care and another from the group disagreed with him.  They had a back-and-forth conversation and concluded that the regulations weren’t clear.  Regardless of what the regulations actually allow, they intimidate health service officers from using their real name in online conversations.

We suspect that the situation above might be more common than we think in many other industries where people aren’t forbidden from stating their opinion, but they surely wouldn’t want their boss to know their political opinion, especially if it goes against the official position of their employing organization.

So we stand for anonymity on the principles of fairness and inclusion, even though it may reduce the quality of discussion.  We also stand against “separate but equal” status for anonymous commenting– our position is that if the instructions in encourage using real names but allows anonymous comments, those making anonymous comments will be relegated to second-class citizens, and their ideas will not be given full weight.

More data about our survey population:

  • 36% female, 64% male
  • 100% American citizens or residents
  • 100% tourists from outside DC with enough time and money to travel to visit the US Capitol building– this indicates that they would probably also have the time to comment on the White House website in a national dialogue; more data is necessary from people that do not have that luxury to find out how they can be included.
  • frequency of commenting online:


If you’re interested in playing with the raw data it is here.  We’re interested in diving into this in a deeper way, so please contact us with your critiques and suggestions.

UPDATE: Here is another post which specifies reasons why anonymous comments must be protected.  Also see Ken Gilligren’s extension of these concepts to include

  • The public case for anonymity in the context of participation
  • The private case for anonymity in the context of mutual respect
  • The corporate case for anonymity in the context of innovation

Online Townhall Meetings

May 18, 2009

Online-TownhallsAthenaBridge now offers organizations, companies, and elected representatives the ability to engage their audiences in a meaningful way on a large scale.  Please contact us at for more information.