Engel Dials Up a Town Meeting on Health Reform (The Riverdale Press)

View the full article at riverdalepress.com.

Unlike many town hall meetings about health care held recently across the country, Rep. Eliot Engel’s was a pretty calm affair.

He took about a dozen questions, in order, and one or two follow-ups. No one spoke over one another. No one came to blows, which has reportedly happened at least once elsewhere. There was no sign waving or angry chanting. Like many town hall meetings, not everyone could get in, and he certainly couldn’t have taken every question that constituents wanted to ask.

But there were also no doors, no chairs and no microphones. In fact, Mr. Engel’s town hall meeting was not actually held in a physical space. His first general interaction with constituents on the subject of health care was what he called a “tele-town hall,” essentially a teleconference his office says included at least 2,447 participants. His office called 21,958 phone numbers in his district, compiled through Board of Elections records and his own constituent database, according to his chief of staff, William Weitz.

On the call, Mr. Engel refused to pledge to vote against a health care bill that did not include government-run health insurance that would compete against private insurers.

“[Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi has told me that she will not let a bill without a public option be on the House floor,” Mr. Engel said.

The question, he said, would be whether the U.S. Senate’s version of the health care bills now being deliberated would include government competition with private insurance companies. The aim of such competition would be to compel insurers to lower their rates, he explained, but whether or not it will be included will depend on what kind of a deal representatives reach with leaders in the Senate.

President Barack Obama’s administration has in recent weeks vacillated in its support of a public option as a necessary ingredient in health care reform.

“I am dubious that we can do it without a public option but I don’t want to slam the door,” Mr. Engel said.

He restated many of the positions he has already taken in television and radio appearances, including support for a “single-payer” system, where there’s a single source — like the government — paying for the care of all Americans.

The system Mr. Engel now supports, the public option, would be “the next best thing,” he said.

Mr. Engel also heard from at least one detractor of the plans he supports: Charlotte Swift, of Nanuet, who asked about the effects on small businesses of a provision that would penalize businesses that did not provide health care for employees.

“How do you expect to pay for this plan when the rich have taken their money and gone elsewhere and the small businesses have shut down … because they cannot afford this coverage?” she asked.

Mr. Engel said the House version of the bill would likely give tax credits to businesses with fewer than 25 employees and exempt businesses with small payrolls.

In response to a question from a Suffern constituent, Mr. Engel refused to go beyond what the constituent called “rhetoric” and place a dollar price on what a health insurance plan might cost if the America’s Affordable Health Choices Act, the House health insurance bill, is passed.

“There are many different variables,” Mr. Engel said, “I don’t want to put a dollar figure on what’s affordable.”

Prior to the Aug. 19 teleconference, Mr. Engel had made appearances at several senior centers and met privately with groups of constituents from throughout his district. However, concerned that an in-person town hall would be disrupted, he had not hosted an event for all his constituents.

Thousands of e-mails

The teleconference was first announced on Aug. 18, in an email blast to 40,000 people and in automated phone calls, Mr. Weitz said.

People who received an email had only a matter of hours to sign up to participate, a problem Mr. Weitz blamed on delays caused by the federal process congressmen must go through to vet mass communications with constituents.

Some people who received calls and wanted to participate, thanks to a technical glitch, weren’t able to, but it’s unclear how many people were affected.

An audio recording of the full town hall is available on Mr. Engel’s Web site at engel. house.gov.

The “tele-town hall” format has become popular with many members of Congress as a way to avoid confrontation with detractors of the House bill. Mr. Engel and others say these detractors rove from district to district intending to disrupt meetings.

Zane Khan of iConstituent, the provider Mr. Engel used to provide the teleconference, says business among his 150 congressional clients has been booming, apparently thanks to that concern.

“We were expecting to do absolutely no calls in August,” he said. “But then the health care issue came out, and we essentially did maybe 60.”

Mr. Engel and his colleagues in the House must merge three separate bills, each of which passed a separate committee, into a single bill.

The U.S. Senate must conduct a similar process. Should bills pass both houses, they will meet in conference to come up with a bill both the Senate and House can agree on. After that, it’s up to President Obama.

Lawmakers hope to complete this process before the end of the year.

Third Party Applications for Your Website

Looking for some new and fresh ideas for your website? There are a lot of great, 3rd party applications out there that can easily be integrated into your Constituent Gateway website. Any application that can generate HTML (“embed”) code can be used. Here are some ideas for some 3rd party applications that we’ve seen recently:

  • Create a Google Map showing appropriations spending or district projects. Google Maps makes it easy to add pointers and markers that, when rolled over, display detailed information about that location. These could also be used for mobile office locations or points of interest within a district.
  • Add an automatic feed of the member’s voting record.
  • Display your YouTube channel from an easy-to-use video player that can display multiple videos and will pull recently updated videos first.
  • Embed your Twitter feed right into your website.

As we discover new and exciting tools for you to integrate, we will post them here. So keep checking back for the latest trends on the Hill!


Lawmakers Strive To Avoid Heated Town Halls (NPR)

View the full article and listen to the audio at npr.org.

Lawmakers this summer are discussing the move to overhaul the nation's health care system. But as criticism of the plan, and of them, becomes heated, many members of Congress are working hard to avoid getting caught in front of an angry town hall meeting.

You know the town halls have become toxic when Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) avoids them. The congressman usually loves the format: He has held more than 300 in 10 years. But last week, he told a local paper he was worried about what he called a "lynch mob" atmosphere, and he opted for a more remote method of reaching out to voters: teleconferencing.

Teleconferencing Spikes

"Tele-town hall meetings" are suddenly very popular with Congress.

Zain Khan, who runs iConstituent, the biggest provider of teleconferencing services on Capitol Hill, says his business has more than doubled this summer.

"A, it's economical; B, it's extremely convenient; and, C, given today's climate, it's probably safer," Khan says.

The technology is also easy to manipulate. The system calls you. It can call tens of thousands of people at once, usually at dinnertime, and it can target certain parts of the district, or even certain demographics. A call-in number is also provided for constituents who don't want to miss it, but they often end up frustrated.

"Busy, busy, busy — it has happened to me twice," says Lance Miller, a resident of suburban Seattle, who has spent much of the August recess trying to get some face time with his congressman, Republican Dave Reichert. "These telephone town hall meetings, I can't get through."

Avoiding Open Health Care Meetings

Miller supports the Democrats' health care plans, and he is upset that Reichert does not. The congressman hasn't held any in-person town halls during the recess. In fact, he has had precious few appearances open to the general public.

One of those appearances was last week, when Reichert hosted a workshop for small-business owners. Many in the audience, such as Miller, had come expressly to ask the congressman about health care.

But when Reichert abruptly excused himself, his departure was met with stunned silence. Outside the auditorium, Reichert paused to chat with a local TV news cameraman. Asked why he couldn't stay to talk health care, he said he has had plenty of private meetings on the subject.

"I'm only one man, trying to do — you know, the job, and you can't meet with the 800,000 people that you represent," he said.

Reichert said he had to hurry off to a meeting in Seattle, but his staff wouldn't say who the meeting was with. In fact, during this recess, it has been hard for reporters or constituents to get the schedules of members of Congress. "We'll let you know when it's public" is the usual answer.

But in southwestern Washington state, it has now become much easier to find Democrat Baird.

A Contrite Congressman

Baird's effort to avoid noisy scenes fell apart last week when he told a local newspaper that he thought some of the tactics at other town halls were "close to Brownshirt tactics." Whenever an elected official lets loose with a Nazi analogy, an apology is never far behind.

"I made some statements that I regret," he said at the town hall Tuesday.

Baird delivered his apology at exactly the kind of town hall he had tried to avoid. To accommodate the pent-up demand, he held it in a county fair amphitheater. He tried to explain to thousands of his constituents what this month has been like for members of Congress.

"Here's the context: I was reading blogs, watching friends and colleagues at town halls having to be escorted out by police," he said. "There were blogs saying, 'Here's how to disrupt town halls: Don't let there be an intellectual discussion.'

"Obviously, this crowd isn't doing that, and I'm really grateful for that."

Not that the crowd was kind to Baird. At first, things were relatively calm, but after a couple of hours, questioners started unloading on the congressman, demanding to know if AmeriCorps volunteers were arming to take over the country, whether the health care plan would dictate how parents would raise their children, and whether he would uphold the Constitution.

Baird smiled weakly through it all, for 2 1/2 hours, until even the crowd got tired.

There is more to come: He has announced another three of these town halls before the summer recess ends. It's a congressman's penance for trying to avoid facing his constituents.

Making the Most of the Executive Summary

The new Constituent Gateway Executive Summary is a powerful tool that allows for complete tracking of your e-newsletter and how it is shared and on social networking sites such as Faceboook™ , MySpace™ , Twitter™ , Yahoo Buzz™ , LinkedIn™ , and Digg™. Understanding how to ready your executive summary will help you gain insight into how your consitutentss are interacting with your digital communications.

Let's look deeper into these social-network reporting tools.

Please refer to the screenshot below.
When you view your Executive Summary, you will see an area at the bottom titled “Social Network Sharing”. At the top, you can see the “Total Views for this Mailing”. Below that, you can see the total number of times the e-newsletter was posted to a social network (in this case, 53) and the total number of views that resulted from the posting (in this case, 76).

The listing of available social networks is shown, along with the corresponding color used in the pie chart. The pie chart shows how often each social network was used. In this example, of the 53 social network posts, 16.98% was on Facebook and 22.64% was on MySpace. You can also see how many times your e-newsletter was viewed as a result of the postings on the platform. For example, there were 11 views of the e-newsletter as a result of its posting on Digg.

Click on one of the social networks to view detailed information. For example, clicking on Facebook will display the following information:

This example shows that there are 3 people who shared the e-newsletter on Facebook. It also shows the date and time at which the e-newsletter was shared and the number of views that resulted from that users posting. You can download the report data by clicking on the button.

Announcing Constituent Gateway Version 3.0!

New User Interface

We are excited to unveil the new Gateway user interface design! This new interface includes an updated color scheme, improved graphics and a sleek new layout. We have also added a dropdown navigation to allow you to move through the application quickly and easily, a download “inbox” for cleaner file management, and an improved system messaging area.

Please note that although the look of the Constituent Gateway has been updated, all functionality will remain the same. However, we are working to improve the workflow of some of our popular features, and these updates will be released in the coming months.

Expanded Social Networking Integration and Reporting

In the last Constituent Gateway release, iConstituent brought Facebook sharing and reporting to our e-newsletter system. This feature has been very popular, with thousands of constituents posting e-newsletters to their Facebook accounts!

Currently, the Executive Summary for a given mailing displays the number of times an e-newsletter was shared on Facebook. In Release 3.0, iConstituent is expanding this feature’s reporting capabilities. You will now be able to see not only how many times your e-newsletter was shared, but also how many e-newsletter views resulted from each posting! You will also be able to see which specific users are posting the e-newsletter and how many views each specific user’s posting created. This powerful reporting will allow you to analyze how social media is helping to spread your messaging and driving more traffic to your website!

This release will also include additional social-network sharing platforms including MySpace™, Twitter™, Yahoo Buzz™, LinkedIn™, and Digg™! These new “Share On…” content pieces will automatically be loaded in to your account and will include all of the new reporting features!

We are looking forward to more releases in 2009…stay tuned!


Virtual Town Halls Gaining Popularity (Politico)

View full article at politico.com.

With the summer recess turning into a cross between election-year frenzy and an Ultimate Fighting Championship, the traditional town hall is looking less desirable by the day. The recent antics of tea party activists and birthers have provided incentives for members of Congress on both sides to seek a less vulnerable alternative to face-to-face communication. And theres a good one: technology.

A soon-to-be-released study of online town halls might persuade the most old-fashioned member to ditch the local armory for a meeting with constituents via the phone or computer. The study, slated to be published next month, shows a surprisingly large benefit to virtual forums, suggesting that pressing flesh may no longer be as important as it once was. The quaint, metal-folding-chair town hall continues, and will continue, to serve a necessary function in member-constituent relations. But the electronic version has a growing role, too.

The satisfaction levels were unbelievable, raves David Lazer, director of the Program on Networked Governance at Harvard University and one of the studys authors.

Though politicians may not be ready to go all-Web all the time, many have been testing the waters with telephone town halls. President Barack Obama participated in his own last week, which was hosted by AARP. In May, the Republican Governors Association hosted one, titled Tea Party 2.0, in an effort to spur on the anti-tax activists.

The central benefit of conference-call-style meetings is that they allow a member to reach a significantly larger group of people than the in-person get-together. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) hosts monthly teleconferences with constituents in which his office robocalls 30,000 constituents beforehand.

Grassley tells POLITICO that 3,000 to 3,500 participants usually end up calling in, with 700 to 800 staying on the line for at least a half-hour.

But how effective are these?

For tele-town halls, the best evidence comes from an October 2007 study by the right-leaning Congressional Institute, which found a dramatic bounce in the benefits Republican members received. But plenty of Democratic members are willing to sing the praises, too.

Telephone town halls are an efficient and effective way to communicate with constituents, says Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Participation is higher than at a traditional town hall many members have thousands of constituents participate simultaneously from the comfort of their own homes.

Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, a Democrat who represents the 1st Congressional District from town-hall-happy New Hampshire, adds: Seniors, families and workers often have a difficult time participating in town halls. Tele-town halls are a great way to reach a broad range of constituents and help ensure that more people are able to participate.

Lazer is circumspect about the telephonic venue, saying the benefits of these forums are not clear and further noting that some anecdotal evidence hes come across suggests that participants are turned off by how contrived the format seems.

A members best bet, he says, is to host exchanges online. In 2006 and 2008, the Congressional Management Foundation conducted blind experiments with 20 different online town halls involving members of Congress and constituents.

One feature of electronically mediated interactions is that you can control what constituents are doing, says Lazer, which is a double-edged sword from [a member] offices point of view. On the one hand, they can weed out those awkward moments, and on the other hand, it is also obvious they can do that, which is why these electronically mediated forums may not ring true to constituents.

In the CMF-moderated town halls, a participant could hear the voice of the member and watch a transcription of the questions and answers on the screen. At the bottom of the screen was a place to type a question for submission.

In each instance, the members approval ratings and the participants likeliness to vote for them shot up considerably after the forum, Lazer said. All the members had to do was submit to a half-hour of questioning, which they could do from any place with decent telephone access.

You think of the overhead involved in a town hall, Lazer said. You have to get somewhere, get introduced; you cant easily remove yourself. So a town hall that is an hour might take many hours of a members time.

The benefits of the online venue extend to the participants, as well.

One of the things we have known for 30 years in political science is when members directly interact with constituents, they do not try to persuade on the merits of an issue, says Michael Neblo, a political science professor at The Ohio State University who also served as a collaborator in the study. They try to convince people that they are good guys or good women and next time, it is going to be OK.

Neblo notes that there are typically two kinds of attendees at face-to-face town halls: people who love the member and people who are angry.

We do these online town halls, and we get a much more representative sample of people showing up, he adds. The conversation is entirely substantive, and the quality of the discussion is shockingly good. Everybody agrees this is very unusual; this is not how you do standard public events. Politicians have to dumb it down.

One concern of the online town forum is that the participants would end up being people who are already engaged in the process, perhaps the same individuals who would show up at a face-to-face meeting. Lazer, however, notes that the participants in the 20 virtual town halls cut across the usual predictors of participation and that there were better-than-anticipated numbers among minority groups, lower-income brackets and women.

In addition, in either the online or the telephone format, the chance of a rabble-rouser hijacking a meeting is almost nil.

People are basically informed you are going to have a period to ask this question, says Brandon Naylor, press secretary for Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.), which just makes it much easier for everyone to get their point across. That probably does help dissuade those who come in with some sort of ulterior motive.

In The News

Tips for Updating Your Site Prior to the Golden Mouse Evaluations

1) Take Advantage of Social Media Platforms

iConstituent can help you promote your social media presence in a variety of ways! Add a button on your website that will link to your Facebook, Twitter, or MySpace accounts. We can also help you create custom banners for your YouTube channel, or any other site where a custom-sized banner is required.

Our latest Gateway release features a “Share on Facebook” feature for your newsletters. Mailing clients have the ability to allow constituents to post e-newsletters to their Facebook profiles. The number of constituents who share your newsletter will be displayed on the Executive Summary of your mailing so you can know which of your constituents are promoting your message. 

2) Offer Video Clips and Segments
Offering video clips on your website is an easy and fun way for constituents to see the daily activities around Congress and the district! And did you know, our latest Gateway release allows you to upload YouTube videos directly in the Constituent Gateway!

Already have a YouTube channel? As part of our promotion, iConstituent can design a custom banner for your YouTube channel to ensure that you are displaying a high-quality and consistent branding message across all web platforms!

3) Update your Legislative Information for the 111th Congress
Take this opportunity to review your legislative content, including links to external pages, and make sure that it is updated for the 111th Congress. Take a look at the current offerings on your site and consider adding new sections based on the CMF’s list of suggestions, including:

–    Congressional Voting Record
–    Current Floor Proceedings
–    Links to Sponsored and Co-Sponsored Legislation
–    Thomas Search

Instructions for updating your Thomas Search are available by contacting support@iconstituent.com. If you do not have a Thomas Search, one can be added as part of our promotion. Please contact us if you are interested!

4) Organize Press Releases by Date or Topic
Sorting your press releases by topic or date can allow your constituents and press contacts to quickly access the information they are looking for! The Constituent Gateway makes it easy for you to set this up. Instructions for sorting your Press Releases by Date or Topic are available by contacting support@iconstituent.com.

5) Update District Information, including District Map and Demographic Information
Some of the highest-rated websites have detailed information on the district, including information on counties/towns, an interactive district map including office locations, and demographic information on the region.

As part of our promotion, iConstituent can build a custom Flash map, or one of several different types of Google maps available!

6) Promote Interactivity with Polls  
Increase interactivity with constituents on your site by posting regularly-updated surveys or polls on your website. This will allow you to gain valuable insight, increase e-newsletter sign-ups, and keep your site looking up to date!  Constituents will feel involved and can even (at your discretion) see the results of the poll!

7) Stay Current and Up-to-Date with a Blog
You can also post a blog on your site – complete with user-submitted comments! This allows your site to stay fresh and current, while keeping your constituents up-to-date on today’s issues.  Consider posting current Congressional issues, activities during recess, or reasoning for recent stances on various issues!

8) Offer Audio Podcasts to Constituents
Offering audio podcasts for download is a great way to allow constituents to access your content in an easy and interactive fashion! This allows them to listen in on Congressional speeches, events, or floor statements – at home or on the go.

9) Ensure that All Content is Organized and Easy-to-Read
Content should be organized in a way so users can quickly jump to the section of content they are looking for. Rather than posting long paragraphs of text, which can be difficult to read on the computer monitor, break your content up into sub-sections. Organize these sub-sections with sub-headers (bolded text) or anchor links. Anchor links allow you to post a mini Table of Contents at the top of the page and allow users to jump down to the appropriate section.

10) Satisfy Latest House Regulations by Posting Disclosure Information

House Rules now require that the Clerk post Members’ financial disclosure statements. Consider linking directly to the forms on the Clerk’s site or put the documents on your own site!

For assistance with any of the above tips and suggestions, please contact support@iconstituent.com.