July 11, 2018

Simon Institute details recommendations to improve political town hall meetings

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute is making recommendations to improve congressional town hall meetings in Illinois.

The Institute has been working for several months with the Lugar Center in Washington, D.C., on its University Project for Bipartisan Collaboration. The center asked eight universities to develop programs to improve bipartisanship and civil discourse in their respective states.

Town hall meetings becoming more rancorous

What was once an important feature of the nation’s “culture of representative democracy for more than two centuries is now under serious attack,” John T. Shaw, Institute director said. The “intensifying polarization and revolutions in technology and social media have created a vastly different political landscape.”

He added that social media adds fuel to the flames.

“Strongly partisan activist groups have come to regard town hall meetings largely as opportunities to attack lawmakers they oppose and to create embarrassing moments that can be captured on camera and disseminated on social media,” Shaw said.

Illinois’ congressional delegation received recommendations

The Simon Institute drafted a set of 10 recommendations for conducting congressional town hall meetings in Illinois. The report was sent July 4 to each of Illinois’ 18 U.S. representatives and U.S. Senators Richard Durbin and Tammy Duckworth.

The report urges lawmakers to use these ideas when restructuring future town hall meetings with the goal of restoring civility and constructive discussions to these events, Shaw said. Members of the Illinois General Assembly will also receive the report and recommendations.

Civil and constructive discussions are key

“The Simon Institute believes that congressional town hall meetings should be reimagined so they are civil and constructive discussions between lawmakers and the public,” Shaw said. “Respectful discussions cannot be mandated but they can be encouraged and civility should be the coin of the realm in town hall meetings.”

This advice stems from the way the Institute’s namesake viewed these types of meetings.

“Paul Simon approached town hall meetings as opportunities to listen and learn from his constituents,” Shaw added. “And he hoped his constituents would come to these meetings in a challenging but constructive spirit.”

The recommendations include: 

  • Continue regular, in-person town hall meetings, in addition to virtual and other forms of meetings. Virtual meetings should not replace in-person sessions.
  • Recast these meetings as listening and learning sessions. Some could be devoted to a single topic.
  • Look to broaden the range of people who attend with creative efforts, with meetings in easily accessible locations.
  • Open all meetings to the public and media and stream the event live, if possible. Record the meeting and put it on the policymaker’s website.
  • Moderator should be a non-partisan community leader who sets the tone for a respectful discussion.
  • Policymaker provides a brief opening statement with the majority of time left for audience questions and comments.
  • The public should prepare for sessions as if attending a professional meeting. Participants should strive to be factual and tell personal stories rather than providing talking points prepared by advocacy groups.
  • Policymaker should hold a session with the media after the meeting, outlining areas of agreement, disagreement and additional study. Policymaker should also respond to media questions.

Institute founder Paul Simon known for civility and decency

Simon, whose four decades in public office included 12 years in the U.S. Senate, was a “respected Senate colleague whose civility and decency were hallmarks of his many years of public service,” said former U.S. Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Indiana.

The new guidelines can help town hall meetings remain civil despite disagreement.

“Paul believed strongly in respectful discussion of public policy challenges. Fittingly, the Simon Institute has developed a code of ‘best practices’ for the conduct of congressional town hall meetings that reflects both Paul Simon’s idealism and his pragmatism,” Lugar said. “The Simon Institute’s proposals for town hall meetings would help get us back to a path of constructive public debate."

Additional information is available at paulsimoninstitute.siu.edu or by calling the Institute at 618/453-4009.