LONGMEADOW – The town of Longmeadow will become the first municipality in the country to pilot a new program designed to improve communication and transparency regarding important subjects impacting the town.
The inDialogue software is a deliberation platform designed to facilitates the planning of public consultations ranging from face-to-face meetings and paper surveys to online text or voice meetings, and electronic surveys. The program was originally developed in Poland by Dr. Anna Przybylska, founder and head of the Centre for Deliberation at the University of Warsaw, and has been tested in municipalities that country hundreds of times.
Town Moderator Rebecca Townsend pitched the inDialogue software to the Select Board and School Committee with the suggestion that a test run with the program as the town debates the middle school issue would be beneficial and enlightening in determining its the strengths and the shortcomings.
Townsend explained to the Longmeadow News that she felt the program would add beneficial tools that would connect the town government to its citizens in new ways and help the town develop a broader understanding the needs and wants of the community stakeholders while also providing a means through which the community could easily access information and resources on the issue in a consolidated venue.
She added the software would facilitate better communication among departments that play different roles in projects or discussions such as the impending middle school decision.
“The other purpose of this software is to get departments within a local government to communicate about the projects they have going on that require public engagement. This is true everywhere – oftentimes one department is doing ‘project X’ and the other departments have no idea what’s going on, but it will ultimately affect their work ant their constituency and they feel as though they weren’t involved. This allows for that chance for cross-departmental collaboration.”
Townsend said the program’s usage would complement other initiatives aimed at stoking more public conversation on important topics. Given the importance of the middle school issue, she said fostering those discussions would help ensure a solution that would best serve the town moving forward.
Specifically, the inDialogue can facilitate the planning of in-person forums and can host online and voice-based sessions as well.
“As you know, I’ve been doing the pre-Town Meeting forums. I do those because I want people to have the opportunity to talk to each other informally. Town Meeting is a formal event and there are oftentimes questions that can be answered just by face-to-face dialogue,” she said. “But some people aren’t able to go to those and I still want them to have the benefit of issue learning and informal conversation with others. This software allows for that deliberation that happens in those small group meetings to occur in a virtual space.”
Along with being able to utilize the software for free, the town would have the benefit of support and analysis from a team of researchers studying the applicability of the software with local, state and federal laws. Townsend assured the use of inDialogue to conduct voice or online meetings would not violate Open Meeting Law.
“Because this is a pilot test, there a group of 16 other people, researchers, who are going to examine how this worked and one of them is studying Open Meeting Law,” Townsend explained. “Because I don’t want any committee to be put in a position that they did not foresee and get charged with a violation, I contacted the assistant attorney general in charge of Open Meeting Law, asked her a bunch of questions, took notes on the conversation, and shared it with the boards and committees.”
According to Open Meeting Law, if a public body holds a meeting regarding a topic it will be deliberating on, it cannot be done in a virtual setting with a quorum online. There are allowances for remote participation by some members, but a quorum must physically be in a posted meeting location. The Open Meeting Law does not apply to single persons such as the town manager, superintendent or town moderator.
Townsend became aware of the inDialogue during her work as a professor at the University of Hartford. Having completed her dissertation on deliberation and continuing the study the topic ever since, she discovered Przybylska’s work through a webinar. As part of the discussion portion of the webinar, Townsend described Longmeadow’s Town Meeting form of government – a new concept for her Polish counterpart – and Przybylska asked if Longmeadow would be willing to test the software.
Implementation of inDialogue is expected to begin in October with a briefings material forum in which participants will see what general information is available in order to become educated about the project as it stands now. After reviewing the material, the public will have the opportunity to make suggestions to the steering committee regarding what additional information should be made available.
After any supplemental information that can be provided has been added to the materials, small group sessions will take place online in addition to a face-to-face conversation.