Last night at the Inside Scoop Candidate Forum each of the 8 candidates for Santa Cruz City Council were asked about their views on a wide variety of community issues including growth, homelessness, and because of the event's theme, local tech. The event, which drew in a crowd of about 70 people and featured ice cream from Penny Ice Creamery, was co sponsored by Santa Cruz Next, Civinomics, Cruzio Internet and Santa Cruz Geeks. And, from the perspective if this organizer, it was wildly fun and a great success.
But before I get into specifics, I want people to understand why we decided to organize the event in the first place and how it was supposed to be different from other candidate forums. You see when people of think of a candidate forum in the traditional sense, it seems rather boring and ceremonial. Furthermore, if the candidates are shown the questions beforehand then the whole ordeal seems to be scripted, like a piece of political theatre. So in planning this event, we as a group tried to answer the following questions: How can we bring some spontaneity and intimacy to the event? And... How can we showcase the local tech/entrepreneur community to the rest of Santa Cruz?
With this in mind, we scheduled a time for attendees to mix and mingle with the candidates over drinks and ice cream, but sandwiched that time between two rapid fire 45 minute Q/A sessions. During these sessions candidates were chosen at random and given 1 minute to answer each question. The questions, which were crowdsourced by the audience beforehand, were both hard hitting and obscure, catching many of the candidates off guard. I think most were un-prepared for the sheer brevity and pace of the Q/A, but it had the beneficial effect of showing how each candidate reacts under pressure and gave the audience a good sense of what their gut instincts are.
However, the real positive twist of the Inside Scoop was that you could actually go up and talk to each candidate in between the Q/A, providing a much more intimate setting by which to get to know them. Plus with an open bar and ice cream, the atmosphere was light, enjoyable and anything but rigid. In fact, people seemed to really open up and embrace the format during the second Q/A session. Cliff Hodges, one the forum moderators, even joked before the start of the second round that these next questions were "going to crush your dreams" to the candidates, who frankly, needed some comic relief.
Though another way in which the event challenged the status quo was by promoting a higher degree of audience participation. Multiple times the candidates would be asked a yes or no question, only to have the moderators turn around a poll the audience on the same question right in front of them. People could also submit follow up questions live via twitter feed by using the hashtag #cruzvotes.
However, what really sealed the deal was that it was the audience who helped to draft the initial questions in the first place. A week before the event attendees were asked to submit and vote on the questions to be asked through an online portal, and with over 50 questions being asked, almost everyone had the opportunity to have his/her voice heard.
In the end, most of the candidates said they enjoyed the experience and that is was refreshing compared to other events. People really just want to be heard and acknowledged by the elected representatives, and events like the Inside Scoop help to bring some much needed humility to the political process. After all, why can't politics be fun and engaging?