Lyn Carson in conversation with Graham Smith
The following is an edited transcript of the newDemocracy Foundation's Facilitating Public Deliberation podcast, hosted by Professor Lyn Carson, Research Director at the newDemocracy Foundation, and produced by Nivek Thompson. The interview is conducted by Graham Smith, Professor of Politics and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster and President of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development, on what we know and don't know about the transfer of face-to-face deliberation into an online environment.
Carson: The reason I wanted to talk to you is that we are having this discussion at the time of the Coronavirus pandemic. A lot of people have been thinking about the research questions that we need to answer if we want to think about virtual mini-publics like citizens' assemblies and citizens' juries. Questions such as: can we apply the same random selection processes if we organise a virtual mini-public? How can we ensure diversity and representativeness?
Smith: One general point I'd like to make at the outset is that I don't think there have been very good conversations in the past between people who have been involved in face-to-face deliberative processes, and people who work in civic technology and digital engagement. I think they've sometimes been in competition with each other, but they've often talked in passing. And what's been interesting to me over the last few weeks is that the containment has forced these conversations to be much more focused.
To answer your specific question about random selection, what has always interested me about the technological aspect of democratic engagement is that people who are primarily technologists have given less thought to who comes to their platform, and more to how their platform works. I don't think there's any philosophical or practical reason why you couldn't apply random selection techniques to bring people into an online space. There have been many online spaces that are closed in the sense that they are closed to a particular community.
Carson: We're going to have different skills, of course. But it's only a potential problem if we don't spend enough time with people to make them feel comfortable with the platform we're working with.
Smith: We can get people onto a platform; once they're on that platform, we have a lot of work to do, which is very different from the kind of work we would do in a room where we can see people face to face. If we use a civic lottery process to recruit people for online engagement, there are two problems. One is whether, once someone has received the invitation, they have access to the technologies and have the skills to use them confidently. And the other issue is to facilitate the space. So that we can enable the kind of inclusion that we provide in face-to-face deliberations.
Carson: Yes. I just spoke to a facilitator who did an online deliberation and another issue came up. The government, the organiser, the decision maker, may well insist on using their own platform. They often have a very cumbersome platform that they could have used to get direct input from citizens, which is just an aggregation of individual opinions, but they wouldn't necessarily have used a platform that allows for all the things that you and I might describe as deliberation.
Smith: I haven't really heard that one and I have to admit it's interesting. But in a way it reminds me of battles we've had before, when public authorities would say, "Well, why aren't my public hearings good enough? Why aren't my consultation mechanisms good enough? Maybe there's an analogy and we should step in and say, "That's not good enough for the same reasons that we said we should do citizen juries or deliberative polling rather than your previous consultation mechanism.
There are a lot of solution-isms with a lot of people saying they have the platform. It's quite dangerous when people say they have "solved" all the problems of online deliberation. "This is my application'. We have to be very careful about that.
Carson: Yes, we should remember to come back to the question of what are we trying to do here? And what would we really like people to do? There can be a path dependency.
Smith: Because with the amount of stuff that's going on in Zoom at the moment, people immediately think, "Okay, so what's the functionality? What are the possibilities of Zoom? And how can I make my process more zoomable? They feel like they're using it because they've used it before. They don't ask "Should we use Zoom? "We are in an experimental phase in terms of the platform we should use. We are also experimenting with how we should facilitate conversations on these platforms.
Carson: Yes. To me, it's just a design challenge. We've always had design challenges in deliberative democracy. So this is just another challenge, and I actually think it's quite exciting. How can we do that? How can we actually allow people to deliberate together and come to an agreement together?
Smith: It depends on the type of process you are working on. We can learn from people who are doing online education about the best methods for online learning. We could be more imaginative about some of the materials we are able to use and provide.
The UK Climate Assembly, whose last weekend was postponed, is now lined up for a series of shorter meetings. Some learning was planned for the beginning. I know that they have been broadcasting it through videos. I think the facilitator of that process was quite pleased, because she was able to say "No, you didn't do it right that time. Do it again! "So maybe you can get some of your witnesses to do better presentations.
With platforms like Zoom, people can get together in small groups with an expert. And I'm sure you've had the problem of trying to get a good expert or a good witness for a deliberative process and they can't find the time in their diary. For virtual engagement, the time commitments are less. I agree that some things are more difficult, but I'm not sure it's necessarily the learning aspect.
We worked a few years ago on asynchronous platforms. We were observing people's behaviour when we provided information and there was a dialogue in a chat room. We found that people tended not to look at the information and instead went directly to the chat room. There is a sequencing problem there.
In the kind of process we are used to, where people are selected at random, they accept because they have been invited and they consider it a special thing to do. They are willing to spend this time learning. That's one of the challenges of online spaces is that you don't necessarily know that everyone has gone through the phases in the same way that you would and will know in a face-to-face space where we can literally see what people are doing.
Carson: It seems to me that there are a lot of variations. There's synchronous where the faces are visible. There's asynchronous where you don't have a visible face, the dreaded telephone, which can actually be useful in certain circumstances. I guess you have to take all that into account.
Smith: I think that's true. I mentioned solution-ism earlier, where people are trying to find theapplication, or the platform that will solve all their problems. Deliberation is not a single thing. It's a bunch of different things happening; it's learning, generating ideas, listening, hearing and creating things together. I am suspicious of anyone who thinks that all of this can be done on one platform.
I think we might actually need to sequence the platforms. In face-to-face, we change the tasks that people do all the time and we change their relationships with each other and with the facilitators. In a way, it's like we're creating different platforms each time.
I wonder if we wouldn't need, for example, platforms that are specifically good at generating ideas and helping us visualise the argument space, and other platforms that are very good at allowing us to have some sort of face-to-face interaction, so that we can mimic some of the things we do on a small table. We might need another piece of software to start writing creative recommendations. We are able to manage this in a room by changing the way we use the space. I think we may have to change platforms, which again creates issues around the digital divide in terms of people's confidence to move from one platform to another.
Carson: I know that in NewDemocracy's deliberative processes, when participants write reports and develop recommendations, they usually use Google Docs and the group writes those documents themselves. We are very keen that the group has control over the resulting report, but this lends itself perfectly to an asynchronous environment. There's no reason why people can't all be working collaboratively on an online Google Doc at the same time.
Graham: That could be true. Although there are people who love being online and others who find it more of a chore. I worry about the "keyboard warriors". I think it's harder to deal with when you're not with people and you can't offer support to those who are perhaps a little more reluctant.
Part of this is what we do in mini deliberative audiences to support people who are less confident. We are able to see much more clearly how people interact with each other and support those who find it difficult. I'm not sure we can do that, when we only see a small picture of someone, and we only see their face.
In face-to-face situations, we see how people sit, how they move around the room, when they go for coffee, and whether people smile when they are not at the table. I think people who are not familiar with participatory processes may underestimate, for example, the importance of social time, the importance of looking at how people work, how they hold themselves. It's really hard to do online. There are all sorts of non-verbal actions that we observe. And this is also true for the participants, of course. They get signals, which you just can't get on Zoom or Skype or other platforms.
There is also a positive side to this. It can work well for people who are not particularly gregarious, social or outgoing, and who may be reluctant to talk in a face-to-face environment. They can be assertive online. As with any advantage, there is a disadvantage and vice versa.
Carson: On that point, people realise that when you are in front of a screen, you also have to take a break from time to time. I think we need to be very aware that screen time is not the same as face-to-face time. What was interesting with the French Climate Change Convention was that they recently spent a weekend online discussing the impact of COVID on climate change. And they had seven-hour days, as far as I can tell.
Smith: But it's interesting that people continued to do it. In the British Citizens' Assembly, the decision was not to do a full weekend. They're going to do three or four hour stints and put them together. We may well have to use the time differently online.
Carson: I think even four hours is a bit much. You talked earlier about the sequencing of events over a long period of time. We tend to do intensive sessions because there is usually a financial barrier to getting people together in a central location. There are advantages to this kind of intensive work, but I also think there are great advantages to doing it over a period of time and giving people time to think, to choose, to process and to do their own research.
Smith: Yes, I think that's right. My only concern - and this is an empirical question that we need to experiment and find out - is whether we're going to get the same volume of activity that we get with the types of mini-audiences that we know. The retention rate is generally amazing with these processes. But I think part of it is the social aspect, the fact that you are working with and meeting new people, building new relationships. I just wonder if they will be the same online. It's an empirical question. I don't know if they will be the same online.
One of the advantages of the French Citizens' Climate Convention and the British Climate Assembly is that they have done a lot of weekends before. So these people are already committed and have developed a collective work ethic. Can we build that kind of ethic online from the start, so that people feel that commitment in the process? I don't have an answer at the moment.
A lot of experimental work has been done online. There is a drop in participation, but that's usually the case with open processes where everyone can participate. We don't really know if you select a representative group and do the same kind of work that we would do with mini-audiences in person (telling them how important it is and explaining the kind of relationship it will have to decision making, letting them know that they've been selected and that it's a really special occasion), whether that's enough to keep them there or whether hanging out with people physically is really important.
Carson: Size is another issue to consider. We've worked with groups of 35 to 45 people in a similar process to a jury. And I think that's too many when we go online, that we might be better off with 25. And as you say, it's all experimental, we don't know until we do it.
Smith: It allows you to be much more experimental. We usually get everyone together at the same time. There's no reason why we can't get small groups online at different times that suit them. It's a matter of design, as we said before.
Carson: One facilitator told me that when he came to the end of an online session with people who were completely unfamiliar with the platform and needed a lot of support, he was surprised by the enthusiasm at the end. Participants said, "It was actually great for me, I learned something I would have been reluctant to learn.
Smith: Face to face, people say the same thing. At the beginning you hear, "Why am I here, I'm not going to be able to do anything. "And at the end, they have a high degree of political effectiveness.
One thing we haven't mentioned is that there are people who don't have much bandwidth; they don't have the technology. So part of the process is to provide that connectivity to people and teach them how to use the technology if they need to.
This was done in France and the UK. They found, for example, that some people had a computer at home, but it was being used by someone else for work. There are new barriers for us.
Carson: I think we've covered everything I wanted, but is there anything else I've missed?
Smith: One of the things I find quite exciting about online engagement is the use of argument viewing platforms. We haven't made the most of it face-to-face. We don't always map all the arguments that are out there. I think this can potentially lead to some arguments being overlooked, not deliberately. There is a real possibility of crowdsourcing - what are the arguments in this space? This is an online technology that we could use face to face. One of the interesting things that could happen here is that we do all these experiments online and then feed some of it into our face-to-face work.
I have a prejudice that face-to-face is better in terms of the deliberative process. I've always had this suspicion about online engagement. Some of this is due to the dysfunction of online spaces, but some of it, I have to be honest, is also just my own prejudice based on my familiarity with face-to-face processes. What I find really useful here is trying things out, experimenting with things and thinking, "This is actually really interesting. This works better than I expected". So, for me, it's going to be about that mix - how do you get the face-to-face and the internet to coexist more creatively?
Carson: It was so good to hear Graham Smith's perspective. He's right that the pandemic has forced very focused conversations between civil society technicians and deliberative designers in a very productive way. I like what he said about overcoming the digital divide, avoiding solution-ism, but also that there are exciting opportunities for experimentation.