21st Century Town Hall Meeting - Overview

by Catherine Russell, about 3 years ago
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21st Century Town Hall Meeting

The 21st Century Town Meeting is a trademarked process developed by the non-partisan, non-governmental organization AmericaSpeaks, based in the USA. It is a public forum that links technology with small-group, face-to-face dialogue to allow hundreds or even thousands of people to deliberate simultaneously about complex public policy issues and express a shared message to decision-makers.

The 21st Century Town Meeting should not be confused with a town hall meeting as the latter is an informal public meeting which gives the members of a community an opportunity to get together to discuss emerging issues and to voice concerns and preferences for their community.

The 21st Century Town Meeting aims to create a level playing field on which citizens can be fully engaged with each other in policy and planning discussions that are directly linked to decision-makers and real governance processes.

As each meeting begins participants talk about why they attended. They also use their keypads to provide demographic information, thus indicating how accurately the target population is represented. A representative group of participants is important to ensure the results are legitimate to the community and decision makers. (Carolyn Lukensmeyer, Founder and President, America Speaks)

The Review of the Wild Horse Management Plan for Kosciuszko National Park is a complex, contentious and important project. It involves identifying and understanding the impact that wild horses are having on this unique National Park and how these can be managed to balance the protection and enhancement of the ecological values of the Park while recognising that for some people wild horses, particularly in this location, represent cultural, historical and animal welfare values that are also strongly held.

The use of a 21st Century Town Hall Meeting as an engagement method for this project has come about for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the debate about these issues has been dominated by the views of the pro-horse and environmental sectors. Both these positions are strongly held and well known, having been involved in formal and informal engagement with NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service for an extended period of time. Both sectors remain concerned that their key objectives – the protection of the wild horses and the environment, respectively – are not and may not continue to be the focus of this next Management Plan. Both sectors have not reached agreement on the level of impact or the most appropriate management methods that should be employed in the Park.

National Parks hold a special place within Australian society in their own right. Not only are they legislated to protect, preserve and enhance the native flora, fauna and ecology of the nation, they are also a major recreational resource for millions of visitors each year. Kosciuszko National Park alone has over four million visitors each year, skiing, bushwalking, camping and riding in the Park.

Identifying and hearing the views and values of everyday citizens whose taxes pay for the Park is therefore an important part of any public policy debate about the Management Plan. It is for this reason that we have identified 75 randomly selected, demographically representative participants to work through some of the major issues for the Management Plan in a 21st Century Town Hall Meeting. Each participant was identified by an independent third party market research firm and those who identified strongly with either the environment or with horses were excluded, leaving us with a group of people who have been invited to attend to discuss issues relating to National Parks.

This form of engagement is designed to bring together complex policy issues and provide the opportunity for small group discussion to identify shared values and views, together with anonymous keepad polling on key questions so the group as a whole can indicate their opinions based on the information presented and the table discussions. Results from the polling will be immediately available to everyone in the room so that a high degree of transparency and accountability can be achieved.

Representatives from both the pro-horse and environmental lobbies have also been invited to attend, to both articulate their views at table discussions but also to observe the proceedings. Video recordings of the key positions of both groups will feature today as will information from National Parks and the RSPCA. As there are not equal numbers of representatives from each group, they will not be indicating their preferences for key questions via the keepads, as this could skew the results; instead, they will be using paper at their tables to indicate their preferences and this will be shared with the room.

At the end of today, National Parks will have available to them a robust set of data which identifies what ordinary everyday citizens think of the key issues for the Review of the Management Plan and the values that underpin these. We will also be talking about specific management measures with a view to understanding the general communities understanding of and willingness to pursue these, and why.

The Review of the Management Plan is being informed by two main data sources – the engagement process, which includes this event, an online forum and website, an online survey, self-directed focus groups or workshops knows as Kitchen Table Discussions and research including focus groups and a telephone survey conducted earlier in the year. The outcomes of all these activities will be reported and provided to National Parks in late January, 2015.

In addition, an Independent Technical Reference Group comprising a range of specialists in the environment, ecology and animal welfare, wild horse population dynamics, and invasive species management is about to commence a review of the Management Plan. The findings of this Group, together with the engagement outcomes, will be considered by National Parks in the drafting of a new five year Management Plan for Wild Horses in Kosciusko National Park. The Draft Management Plan is expected to be exhibited for public comment in the middle of 2015.