Nearly a year ago, when it became no secret that the Pennsylvania state budget was on life support, the citizens of the Commonwealth wanted answers.
House Appropriations Chairman Dwight Evans became the point man. His difficult mission was to discuss it, as quickly as possible, with the millions of Pennsylvanians spread across the cities and towns.
Evans, who was first elected to the House from his Philadelphia district in 1980, has run for several state and local offices. During the 2007 Philadelphia mayoral campaign, he began using the Internet to talk with his supporters. In March 2009, he applied the same concept by talking to constituents across the state about the budget situation.
"He gets trapped at meetings in Harrisburg, so it's hard to get on the road, and to reach out," explained Johnna Pro, spokesperson for Rep. Evans. "There is a TV studio in the PA House building and he wanted to experiment by using it to talk with people."
It took two weeks to configure the TV broadcasting to transmit to Internet conferencing. Evans wanted to stream live online so that he would be able to accept and respond to written questions, just as would happen at a conventional town meeting.
Evans' first cybercast town meeting ran on March 9, 2009. A second one ran on March 24. These two town meetings plus additional budget videos are viewable at: www.hacd.net, and then "Click here to Watch Dwight's Cyber Town Hall Meetings."
The cyber town meeting ran under an hour and was advertised in advance via e-mails, Facebook, Twitter, and conventional media. It began with a discussion of the budget crisis. A moderator then presented Evans with viewer's questions. Pro believes there were 25 to 35 questions submitted at each of the meetings.
"It's a new way of getting messages out," Pro said. "It's a new way for elected officials to connect with the people they represent."
She noted that using the Internet for videoconferencing has already replaced meetings in some industries, and is available for House members without special technology. The cyber town meeting kicks it up a notch by allowing interactive communication on a Pennsylvania state level.
"The first run last year was more of a test," Pro explained. "We were trying to find the best ways to use the new technologies."
She noted that the first town meeting suffered from problems streaming to computers. By the second attempt, the techies had managed to get a temporary storage on the receiving computers, called buffering, working. This gave a more consistent signal.
While she sees that the new technology is where the future is headed, Pro admits she's an old time journalist.
"I think it is best to build relationships among the traditional press. But today, we are dealing with $21 billion and it is important to use as many ways as possible to educate the public," she said.
Asked how effective was the cyber town halls, Pro replied, "The people who participated liked it. Your audience will be limited. You have to be a government policy wonk to sit at a computer and listen to someone talking about the state budget."
Pro believes use of the Internet for government communications will continue to grow, but only as an additional tool, working alongside newspapers, television and radio.