Online Deliberation: Opportunities and Challenges

Online Deliberation: Opportunities and Challenges

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.

Listen to the full podcast here.

This article is a translation by Open Source Politics of the article published on the Medium "Participo", an OECD publication. To read the original article by Lyn Carson, click here.

The digital participation process that fed into the Citizens' Climate Convention

The digital participation process that fed into the Citizens' Climate Convention

Online contributions that enrich assembly work

Digital participation processes are increasingly conceived as a complementary component of representative deliberative processes such as citizens' assemblies.
At the beginning of the Citizens' Climate Convention (CCC), Open Source Politics (OSP ) was tasked with deploying the Decidim online platform to collect contributions from the general public. These contributions were then taken into account, among other content, by the members of the Citizen's Convention.
The platform was organised according to the six themes of the CCC: travel, food, housing, work and production, consumption and cross-cutting contributions. Any citizen or group (NGOs, companies, trade unions) could publish up to one idea per theme and phase. Unlike citizens, organizations had to follow a predefined format for their contributions. All contributions were then exported and processed by a mixture of humaon or automatic language processing (NLP) methods using Iramuteq software to synthesize them. In all, we produced three documents synthesizing the contributions online. These were distributed to the 150 citizens during their working sessions and published online.

Three important choices for the design of the digital participation platform and process:

Choosing quality over quantity

The success and impact of a numerical participatory process is usually measured by the number of participants, votes, commitments or entries on the platform. It is rare for an institution to limit the number of contributions, or to disable the possibility of voting or commenting. Nevertheless, the CCC governance committee has decided to limit the number of contributions posted by platform users to one per theme per phase, while comments and votes have been disabled.
Why? It was important that the success of the platform was not defined by the number, but rather by the quality of the content and its interaction with the face-to-face work that was conducted by the 150 citizens.

Favour face-to-face exercise over numerical participation

The CCC process could have simply resulted in a compilation of two final syntheses, one from the online contributions and one from the face-to-face citizens' assembly, with no linkage between them. However, in general, the order in which the contributions are collected is an important consideration in designing a process that combines a participatory element with representative deliberation. In the case of the CCC, the online contributions were translated into intermediate syntheses to enrich the work of the citizens' assembly. In the end, the digital tool was a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Ensuring transparency as a fundamental principle of the digital process

Selecting by a draw 150 citizens and bringing them together every 2 to 3 weeks to discuss the challenges of climate change with a view to presenting a comprehensive programme of measures to President Emmanuel Macron is a democratic exercise, to say the least.
Following the Great French Debate, lessons were learned on the conditions required to organize a nationally representative deliberation process. Transparency, for example, must not only be respected with regard to the selection method, the stages of the process and the expected results, but it must also be a fundamental principle of the tool(s) used in the numerical process.
The two software packages used in the process (Decidim and Iramuteq) are "open source", i.e. they are open source, meaning that anyone can study and understand the algorithms used. This is crucial, especially for the production of the synthesis. Any tool used to prioritize or suggest areas of discussion, and thus influence the general direction of a debate, must have its algorithm published and must be governed by democratic principles (cf. the Decidim social contract).

Digital for deliberations beyond the CAC

The physical distance imposed by the pandemic has accelerated the use of digital and online tools for social, professional and personal purposes. It has led to an increased demand for online participatory practices so that policy makers can continue to involve citizens in their decision making ( see our webinar 2)
Recently, increased public awareness of the social impact of technologies and the demand for greater participation may be halfway to a possible Citizen's Convention for the Digital. If this deliberative process takes place in the coming year or the year after, its design and governance will be crucial elements to consider.

This article is a translation by Open Source Politics of the article published on theOECD publication "Participo". To read the original article by Eloïse Gabadou, click here.

OSP is a Civic Tech company specializing in the deployment of open source participatory democracy tools such as Decidim and in the design of large-scale online participatory processes. In the face of declining participation and trust in our representatives, OSP believes that participatory practices must take a more important place in our society. Not only in the political world, but also in the functioning of our companies, the governance of our associations and the conduct of our collective projects.

Designing textual tools for digital deliberation

Designing textual tools for digital deliberation

Understanding and measuring the influence of certain characteristics on the quality of text-based digital deliberation can help us make better design decisions

Citizens want to make their voices heard by policy makers on important decisions that affect their daily lives. After running a series of online public policy evaluation experiments last year, we found that while our participation process allowed us to include the views of (tens of) thousands of citizens on complex topics such as coronavirus exit strategies or energy transition, we had not provided an online environment fully suited to the task and needed to rethink its design.

While this type of participation encouraged citizens to reflect on the information and they found it useful to know the trade-offs for the proposed solutions, few felt comfortable making a final decision themselves. Some people were more thoughtful than others and some found the issues too complex. It was also clear to us that communication skills do not come naturally to many people, especially online, and that this essential element of the policy evaluation process should be encouraged as part of the platform design.

We realised that for particularly complex policy issues, an online platform promoting deliberative ideals would be more appropriate. Last but not least, where participatory processes can be conducted on a large scale, deliberation requires a different scale to reach its full potential.

Deliberation requires participants to reflect, to engage respectfully with different points of view and to give rational reasons for arguments. It is particularly suited to complex or sensitive issues such as climate change, where there is great uncertainty and many different points of view. The ideal communication space for deliberation is one of openness, inclusion, trust, rationality and political neutrality. However, most online platforms do not live up to these ideals.

Here we discuss the different design features of theory and practice that impact on the quality of text-based online deliberations in particular, recognising that video interaction and the way in which text and video are combined come with other considerations.

Time: Synchronous or asynchronous discussion?

The choice between a synchronous or asynchronous environment creates a trade-off between a more 'real' discussion experience and a more reflective, inclusive, egalitarian or accessible discussion. Real-time chat or video is more spontaneous and dynamic, which helps to create bonds between participants. Asynchronous communication, on the other hand, allows more time for self-reflection, removes location or time restrictions and increases access for people with slower internet speeds. It is a way of ' levelling the playing field' for the more and less informed public. Some research indicates that asynchronous discussions are likely to produce better quality deliberations overall.

Privacy: Identification or anonymity?

The choice between identification or anonymity in digital deliberations creates a number of trade-offs. With anonymity, a more egalitarian environment is possible as people feel freer to express their honest views, even if they are unpopular. Harmful social dynamics are reduced and people remain more focused on the task at hand. Anonymity can also allow the participation of civil servants or people with obligations of neutrality.

However, anonymity can imply a loss of responsibility and the risk of uncivil behaviour. Reducing anonymity has a positive effect on respect and reflection and increases transparency, but has a negative effect on engagement - people tend to contribute less to the discussion in general when they are identifiable.

Discussion format: conversation or visualisation?

There is a trade-off between user accessibility and an understandable and well-structured discussion. Most online discussions take place on easy-to-use conversation platforms, such as forums, although their ability to promote fair and transparent discussion is questionable. Messages organised temporally, rather than thematically, are more difficult to navigate and connect with each other and content tends to be repetitive. New platforms such as Kialo now allow discussions to be visualised and arguments to be mapped, which helps participants to clarify their thoughts and better connect information. These platforms may require training or supervision of users, but they counter sponsored content and promote a fair and rational assessment of alternatives. However, for complex issues with a wide range of perspectives, rigid pro/con structures may not be appropriate. Other options include mind maps or systems maps.

Moderation: man or machine?

Having an independent moderator can greatly improve the quality of any discussion, as they can enforce social norms. However, large-scale online deliberations are more difficult and resource intensive. Moderators also suffer from human bias, as well as time and location constraints. Automated moderation techniques are therefore an important new area of research. Machine learning techniques, NLP or algorithms can help moderators with tedious tasks and give a more equal voice to less willing participants. While these algorithms are certainly useful, we need to consider the replacement of human bias with the bias inherent in the algorithms of automated moderators. Transparency is essential.

In short, designers do not always realise the extent to which their own worldviews, opinions or assumptions are embedded in the tools they create. Understanding and measuring the influence of certain characteristics on the quality of text-based online deliberations can help us make better design decisions.

Co-authored by : Anatol Itten

This article is a translation by Open Source Politics of the article published on the Medium "Participo", an OECD publication. To read the original article by Ruth Shortall, click here.

Ruth Shortall, PhD, is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management of the Technical University of Delft. Previously, she was a computer programmer. Her research focuses on methods of deliberative policy evaluation and she is particularly interested in design aspects of online deliberative environments.

Anatol Itten is a post-doctoral researcher in co-creation and mass participation of citizens in government decisions at Delft University of Technology. Anatol is also co-founder of the Disrupted Societies Institute, a think tank aiming to unravel the dynamics of social division and polarisation. He has advised the UN Climate Conference COP23 and the German Ministry of the Environment on stakeholder engagement and citizen participation.

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