About Connecting to Congress
“Connecting to Congress” is IDEA’s flagship research initiative, which aims to create authentic, actionable engagement between Members of Congress and the full range of their constituents. The initiative’s goal is to add to Congress’ capacity to engage in productive, deliberative conversations with its constituents and to provide analysis of how these deliberations affect both constituent opinion and Members’ decision making. The initiative is the followup to Congress 2.0, the first-eve series of political science field experiments with sitting Members of Congress.
IDEA Director Dr. Michael Neblo is one of the co-creator of the “Deliberative Town Hall” model, engaging a representative cross-section of a congressional district to participate in an independent, non-partisan online town hall on a single issue with their Member of Congress . IDEA/C2C also administers a pre- and post-survey to participants, tracking the effect the town hall had on constituents’ trust and approval of the Member, as well as their opinion on various policies discussed. Their peer-reviewed research has shown that these Deliberative Town Halls produce significant gains in approval, trust, and likelihood to vote for the Member. Understanding the time and resource constraints congressional offices are under, IDEA organizes these online events, handles all technology and produces this analysis with minimal investment of staff time and at no cost to offices.
Traditional town halls are one of the most typical ways Members of Congress communicate with constituents. However, conventional town halls have become less effective and more risky in recent years— as polarization has increased, they have tended to attract only the most partisn constituents, and/or “the usual suspects,” who take every opportunity to engage with their Member. They generally don’t attract the large swath of citizens who aren’t engaged, and thus offer limited gains for Members really trying to understand their constituency’s concerns and priorities. Additionally, town halls have recently become seen as potential weapons, opportunities to force a stumble by the Member and drive negative media coverage.
Even at their best, the format of traditional town halls often lead to two other problems: over-broadness that doesn’t allow the conversation to get beyond toplines and talking points, and the perception that the conversation is being stage-managed by staff to avoid tough questions for the Member. Both these problems lead to a ‘defensive’ posture among participants, which means that even if the events go well, they often don’t result in any new information to Members or any change in opinion among constituents.
“Deliberative” town halls are designed to overcome these limitations and create town halls that facilitate constructive, two-way communication. The key elements of a deliberative town hall are:
- Representativeness: Specially recruiting a representative cross-section of constituents to participate, and holding the event online to make it as accessible as possible.
- Focus: Limiting the town hall to a single issue facilitates more substantive conversation that gets beyond talking points.
- Information: Providing non-partisan background information on the issue in advance allows constituents to form more informed opinions.
- Independence: Having a neutral third-party moderate the town hall emphasizes to constituents that this is not an informercial, leading to more authentic participation and the opportunity to create trust and persuasion.
- Candid, real-time participation by Member: Seeing a Member of Congress make themselves available for questioning in a transparent environment engages constituents in ways that no other communication can.
These are the simple, but crucial elements of a “deliberative town hall.” However, though simple, they can be very difficult for a congressional office to implement on their own, which is why the Connecting to Congress exists— to provide the capacity for this kind of town hall, and the additional research and analysis documenting its impact.
In 2006, thirteen sitting members of Congress – frustrated and dissatisfied with status quo politics and limited opportunities for constituent engagement – agreed to work with Dr. Neblo and several other political scientists on a set of unprecedented field experiments.
The research team developed a way of combining the then-emerging tele-townhall technology with “deliberative” principles to create informed, productive conversations and trust between the Members and their constituents. The team recruited a representative sample of constituents from each district or state and then randomly assigned some constituents to receive an invitation to participate in a “deliberative online townhall.” Their responses could then be compared against those who only took surveys.
The results were startling. The differences between the control group and those who
- The online deliberative sessions attracted every kind of citizen—the citizens who voluntarily participated in these deliberative were more representative of the country than the electorate.
- Deliberative events offer lawmakers a chance to reach beyond “the usual suspects”—in fact, they particularly attracted citizens who tend not to follow politics or who have become disenchanted with the system. Furthermore, after participating, these citizens became more likely to vote and take part in political discussions.
- The design of the deliberative events—with participants reviewing non-partisan back materials and engaging in deliberation guided by impartial facilitators—resulted in high-quality, informed conversations, not talking points and simplistic arguments.
- Participating in these deliberative sessions significantly increased citizens’ trust in government.
- Participants surveyed four months after the deliberative event were 10% more likely to vote for the representative that engaged with them in this way.
In addition to publishing individual findings in several prestigious peer-reviewed journals, Dr. Neblo and the other members of the research team published a comprehensive summary of these experiment Politics With the People: Building a Directly Representative Democracy, in 2018. Publication of the book led to the relaunch of the research as Connecting to Congress, which has held over a dozen additional deliberative engagement experiments in collaboration with Members of Congress.