The Town Meeting is one of America's oldest forums for democratic participation. In use for over 300 years, it is a valuable means for citizens to voice their opinions and directly effect change in their community. This forum usually enables a citizen to acquire direct access to their local government. In this atmosphere, the citizen may ask questions, raise concerns, or hold leadership accountable. With its OPEN/NET program, North Carolina has brought the state government to a town meeting.
OPEN/NET utilizes cable television technology to improve the average citizen's access to the State's government services, programs, and information. The program broadcasts a two-hour session into 2 million North Carolinian homes. Broadcast once a week, in two-hour increments, each OPEN/NET session begins with an unedited taping of a government event that is followed by a live viewer call-in session featuring leaders from the event. The key goals of the program are to reach individual citizens at night in the privacy of their homes with vital information and services and to give individual citizens the chance to participate, learn, comment, ask questions, and help solve the State's problems.
For example, in March of 1987, OPEN/NET aired a program that addressed the HIV epidemic. The first part of the program was led by a North Carolina public health official hosting a panel discussion with health officials from New York and California. After the panel, the panel took phone calls from the viewing audience. Other program topics have ranged from balancing the state budget to building more public housing and from managing hazardous waste to placing hard-to-adopt children.
The anecdotes of assisted callers are numerous. In one example, a teenager, fresh out of a drug treatment center, got an impromptu pep talk from North Carolina's director of drug counseling and rehabilitation. In another, an angry citizen called in to report a "blatant example of government waste" to legislative leaders. The leaders agreed to investigate.
The topics of each program are agreed upon by an independent editorial board composed of North Carolinians and created to assure balance among political parties, branches of state government, and controversial viewpoints. Also, the program is expanding to introduce a new adult basic literacy program called Home Learning. This series will provide basic education such as literacy training and encourage non-readers to obtain training in their communities.
OPEN/NET is a simple program with only 15 full-time staff members. The funding comes from the state, foundations, and corporate underwriters. Costs of producing and distributing the series are about $450,000 per year. Many other states have shown interest in the program, and as it is replicated in the future, the actual cost of running it will decrease because North Carolina is offering to share the cost of their satellite transponder with other states.
Lee Wing, OPEN/NET's creator, asks: "what other means could government come into so many people's homes making services they've been taxed for and paid for available?" With OPEN/NET, North Carolina is enhancing community participation and making its government more accessible to its citizens. Every Thursday night at 8pm, North Carolinians can turn on their televisions and participate in their democracy.