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're having this discussion at the time of the Coronavirus pandemic. A lot of people have been thinking about the research questions that we're going to have to answer if we're going 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 organize 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 competed with each other, but they've often spoken in passing. And what's been interesting to me over the last few weeks is that the confinement has forced these conversations to be much more focused.

To answer your specific question about random selection, what I've always been interested in in the technological aspect of democratic engagement is that people who are primarily technologists have thought less about who comes on their platform and more about how it 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 a lot of 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 bring people to 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. The first is whether, once someone has received the invitation, they have access to the technology and have the skills to use it with confidence. And the other issue is facilitating the space. So that we can allow the kind of inclusiveness that we ensure in face-to-face deliberations.

Carson: Yes. I just spoke to a host who did an online deliberation and another issue came up. The government, the organizer, the decision-maker, may very 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 everything you and I could describe as a deliberation.

Smith: I haven't really heard that one and I must admit it's interesting. But in some ways it reminds me of the battles we had before, when the public authorities used to say, "Well, why aren't my public hearings good enough? Why aren't my consultation mechanisms good enough? Maybe there is an analogy and we should step in and say, "It's not good enough for the same reasons we said we should do citizen juries or deliberative polling rather than your previous consultation mechanism".

There are a lot of solutions--isms with a lot of people saying they have the platform. It's pretty dangerous to have people saying they've "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 go back to the question of what we're trying to do here? And what would we really want people to do? There can be a dependency on the path we take.

Smith: I mean, with the amount of stuff going on in Zoom right now, people are immediately thinking, "Okay, so what's the functionality? What are the possibilities of Zoom? And how can I make my process more zoomable? You feel like you're using it because you've already used it. They don't ask, "Should we use Zoom? " We are in an experimental phase regarding the platform we should use. We're also experimenting with how we should facilitate conversations on these platforms.

Carson: Yes. For me, it's just a design challenge. We've always had design challenges in deliberative democracy. So it's just another challenge, and I actually think it's quite exciting. How can we do this? How can we actually enable people to deliberate together and come to an agreement together?

Smith: It depends on the type of process you're working on. We can learn from people who make online pedagogy 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 online for a series of shorter meetings. Some learning was planned for the beginning. I know that they've been spreading it through videos. I think the facilitator of that process was quite pleased because she was able to say, "No, you didn't do well that time. Do it again! "So you may be able to get some of your witnesses to make 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 to come in for a deliberative process and they can't find the time in their agenda. 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 dialogue in a chat room. We found that people tended not to watch the information and instead went directly to the chat room. There's a problem with that.

In the type 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 that time learning. It's one of the challenges of online spaces to not 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: Seems to me there's a lot of variation. There's the synchronous where the faces are visible. There's the asynchronous where you don't have a visible face, the dreaded phone, which can actually be useful in certain circumstances. I suppose you have to take all of that into account.

Smith: I think it's true. I mentioned the solution-ism earlier, where people are trying to find theapplication, or the platform that's going to solve all their problems. Deliberation is not a unique thing. It's a set of different things that happen; it's learning, generating ideas, listening, hearing, and creating things together. I am wary of anyone who thinks that all of this can be done on one platform.

I think we might actually need to sequence the platforms. 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 sense, it's like we're creating different platforms every time.

I'm wondering if we might need, for example, platforms that are specifically good for generating ideas and helping us visualize the argument space, and other platforms that are very good for allowing us to have some kind of face-to-face interaction, so that we can mimic some of the things we do on a small table. We might need some other software to start writing creative recommendations. We're able to manage that in a room by changing the way we use the space. I think we may have to change platforms, which again creates problems with the digital divide in terms of people's trust to move from one platform to another.

Carson: I know that in NewDemocracy's deliberative processes, when participants write reports and develop recommendations, they typically use Google Docs and the group writes those documents themselves. We're very keen to have the group have control over the resulting report, but that lends itself very well to an asynchronous environment. There's no reason why people can't all work collaboratively on an online Google Doc at the same time.

Graham: That could be true. Although there are people who like being online and others who find it more of a chore. I'm worried 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.

It comes down in part to what we do in mini-deliberative audiences to support people who are less confident. We are able to observe 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 see just a little picture of someone, and all we see is 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 stand. It's really hard to do that online. There are all kinds of non-verbal actions that we observe. And that's 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 may very well suit people who are not particularly gregarious, social or extroverted, and who may be reluctant to speak in a face-to-face environment. They can assert themselves online. As with any advantage, there is a disadvantage and vice versa.

Carson: On this point, people realize that when you're in front of a screen, you also have to take a break once in a while. I think we have to be very aware that the time spent in front of the screen is not the same as the time spent face-to-face. What was interesting with the French Convention on Climate Change was that they recently spent a weekend online discussing the impact of the COVID virus on climate change. And they had seven-hour days, as far as I can tell.

Smith: But it's interesting to note that people continued to do that. In the British citizens' assembly, the decision was not to do a full weekend. They're going to do three- or four-hour stays and put them together. We may well have to use time differently online.

Carson: I think even four hours is a bit much. You talked earlier about the chain of events over a long period of time. We tend to do intensive sessions because there's usually a financial barrier to getting people together in a central location. There are advantages to doing that kind of intensive work, but I also think it's very advantageous to do it over a period of time and allow people time to think, choose, process, and do their own research.

Smith: Yes, I think that's right. My only concern - and this is an empirical question that we have to experiment with and find out - is whether we're going to get the same volume of activity that we get with the types of mini-publics that we know. The retention rate is generally amazing with these processes. But I think that's partly because of the social aspect, the fact that you work with and meet new people, that you build new relationships. I'm just wondering if they're going to 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 this kind of online ethic from the very beginning, 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 has been a decline in participation, but this is generally the case for open processes where everyone can participate. We don't really know if you're selecting a representative group and doing the same kind of work we would do with face-to-face mini-audiences (telling them how important it is and explaining the kind of relationship it will have with decision making, letting them know they've been selected and that it's a really special occasion), if that's going to be enough to hold them back, or if hanging out with people physically is really important.

Carson: Size is another issue. We've worked with groups of 35 to 45 people in a jury-like process. And I think it's too much when we go online, that we could be better 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're used to getting everybody together at the same time. There's no reason why we can't get small groups together online at different times that are convenient for 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. The participants said, "Actually, it was great for me, I learned something that I would have been reluctant to learn".

Smith: Face to face, people say the same thing. At first you hear, "Why am I here, I'm not going to be able to do anything. " And in the end, they have a high degree of political efficacy.

One thing we haven't mentioned is that there are people who don't have a lot of 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 it.

This is what has been done in France and the United Kingdom. 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 covered everything I wanted, but is there anything else I missed?

Smith: One of the things I find quite exciting about online engagement is the use of argument visualization platforms. We haven't made the most of it face-to-face. We don't always map all the arguments that exist. I think that can potentially lead to some arguments being overlooked, not deliberately. There is a real possibility of crowdsourcing - what are the arguments in this space? It's 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 introduce some of them 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. This is partly due to the dysfunction of online spaces, but part 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, experiencing things and thinking, "Actually, it's really interesting. It's working better than I expected". So, for me, it's going to be about this mix - how do you bring face-to-face and the Internet together in a more creative way?

Carson: It was so good to hear Graham Smith's point of view. He's right that the pandemic has forced very focused conversations between civil society technicians and the designers of deliberations in a very productive way. I like what he said about overcoming the digital divide, avoiding solutionism, but also the fact 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 OECD publication "Participo". To read the original article by Lyn Carson, click here.

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 political decision-makers on important decisions that affect their daily lives. After conducting a series of online public policy evaluation experiments last year, we found that while our engagement process allowed us to include the views of (tens of) thousands of citizens on complex issues such as coronavirus exit strategies or energy transition, we had not provided an online environment fully suited to this task and had to rethink its design.

While this type of participation encouraged citizens to reflect on the information and 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 are not natural for many people, especially online, and that this essential element of the policy evaluation process should be encouraged in the design of the platform.

We realized that for particularly complex political issues, an online platform promoting the ideals of deliberation 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 a great deal of 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 the quality of text-based online deliberation in particular, recognizing that video interaction and how to combine text and video come with other considerations.

Time: Synchronous or asynchronous discussion?

The choice between a synchronous or asynchronous environment creates a compromise between a more "real" discussion experience and a more reflective, inclusive, egalitarian or accessible discussion. Chatting or real-time video is more spontaneous and dynamic, helping to create connections between participants. Asynchronous communication, on the other hand, allows more time for self-reflection, removes restrictions of place or time, and increases access for those with slower internet speeds. It is a means of " levelling the playing field" for the more or 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 since people feel freer to express their honest, if unpopular, views. Harmful social dynamics are reduced and people remain more focused on the task at hand. Anonymity can also allow the participation of public officials or people with obligations of neutrality.

However, anonymity may 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 visualization?

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 organized in a temporal rather than thematic manner are more difficult to navigate and connect to each other, and content tends to be repetitive. New platforms such as Kialo now make it possible to visualize discussions and map arguments, helping participants to clarify their thoughts and better connect information with each other. These platforms may require user training or supervision, but they are opposed to sponsored content and promote a fair and rational evaluation of alternatives. Nevertheless, for complex problems with a wide range of perspectives, rigid structures with pros and cons may not be appropriate. Other options include mind maps or system maps.

Moderation: man or machine?

Having an independent moderator can greatly enhance the quality of any discussion, as it can enforce social norms. However, large-scale online deliberations are more difficult and require more resources. Moderators also suffer from human bias, as well as time and location constraints. Automated facilitation 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 replacing human biases with the biases inherent in automated moderator algorithms. Transparency is essential.

In short, designers do not always realize 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-written by: Anatol Itten

This article is a translation by Open Source Politics of the article published on the OECD publication "Participo". 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 at the Technical University of Delft. Previously, she was a computer programmer. Her research focuses on methods for the evaluation of deliberative policy and she is particularly interested in aspects of the design of online deliberative environments.

Anatol Itten is a post-doctoral researcher in co-creation and mass participation of citizens in government decision-making at Delft University of Technology. Anatol is also co-founder of the Disrupted Societies Institute, a think tank aimed at unravelling the dynamics of social division and polarization. He has advised the United Nations Climate Conference COP23 and the German Environment Ministry on stakeholder engagement and citizen participation.

The engineering of deliberative democracy

The engineering of deliberative democracy

Just as the architecture of a meeting room influences the choice of people whose voices can be heard, the design of our digital tools offers and prohibits certain political opportunities

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

Recent deliberative democracy projects have shown us that humans are remarkably good at collaboration, empathy and collective decision-making, even with complete strangers. In these times of physical distance, can we use networked digital tools to continue and even expand these projects? Can they take us even further, into a future where deliberative democracy "expands" on a global scale?

One of the keys to implementing true democracy will be a vigilant connection between engineering decisions and political values. We need to think carefully about 1) how and when to use the different tools, and 2) how to build them. In this post, I focus on this second question: How can we proactively design the needs of deliberative democracy? I sketch below some areas where engineering decisions will need to be made and mention some concerns and possible solutions.

Algorithms

An algorithm is an automated process. When we think about algorithmic governance and deliberative processes, two sets of questions arise. First, where and how do we use digital in the deliberative process? To select participants? For occasional votes within a meeting? To gather, or even rank, proposals to be deliberated on? There are many possibilities and many pilot projects. Second, how should these algorithms be written? The code itself will affect the conditions for decision-making, just as any political protocol constrains our options.

Transparency

If face-to-face voting is infrequent, it may be necessary to vote online. If deliberation leads to a vote, should the public be able to see the tables of a vote in real time? Should the identity of a participant be visible during comments or voting? Digital tools make it possible to record, compile and present this data quickly.

At the level of the code itself, we have to decide whether it should be visible, and to whom. We can learn from the recent scandal in the Iowa Democratic Primary, where a closed and privately designed application was used to report vote tabulations and a "coding problem" resulted in only partial data being reported. For code to be reliable, it must be public: transparent and open source, and funded by the people.

Privacy and Security

Computer scientists learn how to evaluate the security of a system on the basis of criteria they call the "C.I.A.". - Confidentiality, integrity and accessibility. In other words, communications/data should only be seen by those for whom they are intended. Data must not be compromised or falsified, and communications/data must remain accessible to those who should be able to access them - without being blocked, denied or deleted.

This is perhaps the most pressing issue: as many decision-making bodies move online, using pre-existing tools, we need to take seriously the threat of conversation monitoring, metadata collection, "zoom bombing", server crashes (e.g. a cyber attack) and online vote hacking.

Finally, participants working from home may not have the opportunity to speak or vote as they wish. This is not to say that digital tools should not be used, but that they should be designed to be safe and resilient. In the short term, democratic bodies need to be carefully advised on which tools to use and make strategic and perhaps conservative decisions on how to use them.

Digitization beyond quantification

While many debates on digital democracy focus on vote counting, deliberative democracy is much more concerned with conversation and consensus. We need to think carefully about how digital tools could help facilitate this process, rather than replace it. Some tools, such as Loomio or the consul software, have been developed from consensus-based communities, with the idea of helping discussions throughout the process.

Deliberative assemblies have always provided the affective conditions for developing empathy, stemming from proven listening traditions. As we go online, we need to ask ourselves if - and if - these experiences can be achieved using digital tools. If so, what tools are needed, and how are our practices evolving? If not, what role should digital play in supporting "in-person"?

In answering these questions, we need to keep three key concepts in mind:

Path dependency :

Once an infrastructure or a tool is built, we get used to using it, we start organizing our activities around it and building new technologies on top of it. We have to design things with that in mind.

Open Source :

As an engineer once told me, "open source is an honest source". The code that underpins our decision-making and deliberative procedures should be publicly available.

Participatory design :

The best way to build these tools is 'participatory design', in which the communities that will use and be affected by engineering are involved in every step of the decision making and testing process.

One of the great achievements of deliberative democracy is that it has been evolving and testing non-digital codes and processes for (at least) thousands of years. It offers many protocols that can be used as a basis for imaging digital processes.

Designing an Online Citizen Assembly: A Practitioner's Perspective

Designing an Online Citizen Assembly: A Practitioner's Perspective

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

It may seem to conceive the unthinkable. An online citizens' assembly? One of the essential elements of a citizens' assembly is to create a space for people to meet face-to-face. This is where the magic of citizens' assemblies lies. So why go online?

Well, sometimes unimaginable situations arise, and you start to wonder: what if? Would it be possible to achieve high-quality collective learning, deliberation and recommendations using digital tools? My answer to these questions is - yes. Certainly it would be a different experience than face-to-face meetings. But it could work.

As far as I know, no online citizens' assemblies have yet been held. Although various forms of online deliberation have been experimented with, I am thinking here of transferring the entire process online with a randomly selected group representative of the general public, following the same phases of learning, deliberation and formation of collective recommendations as in a face-to-face citizens' assembly.

Digital skills training phase

I would start with a training phase of at least two weeks to make sure everyone knows how to use the equipment and software, how to join a meeting, how to turn the sound on and off - all the basics. It could also be a social time where people get to know each other, talk about everyday things and get used to having an online conversation.

To help people who do not have experience in using the Internet, personal technical assistants could be recruited (these could be volunteers). In some cases, it may be necessary to purchase appropriate equipment, such as tablets with LTE internet (as in mobile phones), so that people do not need to have a router at home. Since the cost of location or catering is eliminated, it may be possible to purchase good quality electronic equipment without increasing overall costs.

Learning phase

We could draw on more than 40 years of experience in online education to design the learning phase. For example, it could consist of online expert and stakeholder presentations and reading materials. It does not have to be live. People could watch or read when it suits them best. Presentations should be relatively short, about 12 minutes.

To encourage learning, facilitators could offer offline or fun tasks, such as making a list of the most interesting things people have learned or filling out entertaining charts related to the material. Then, a facilitated study group call could allow participants to share their learning. As a general rule, all calls should be relatively short - one hour, maximum 1.5 hours, if participants agree. They could be held 3 to 4 times a week, and could last about two months (depending on the issue and its complexity).

Live group calls could include question-and-answer sessions with experts and stakeholders, during which participants could break into small groups to discuss the material before reconvening in plenary (this "chat room" feature exists on Zoom, Jitsi and other similar platforms). These small groups could follow the same good practices as those held in person, with 7-8 people per group, plus a lead facilitator and co-facilitator.

Deliberation

For the deliberation phase, the key is small group conversation. One possible option is for facilitators to gather ideas from the small groups and share them with the other groups, ensuring that knowledge is spread evenly. Draft recommendations could be developed in the same way. All recommendations could go through the same process of analysis, considering issues such as: what are the pros and cons; what are the costs; who would be responsible for their implementation; and other related trade-offs.

Since people have different reading preferences and some prefer a physical copy of long documents, the draft recommendations and accompanying analysis could be printed in booklet form by the organizers and given to participants for personal reflection before decisions are made.

Collective decision-making

The final step is to find common ground to finalize the collective recommendations. In the citizens' assemblies I have organized in Poland, this is usually done through a mixture of discussion and voting(see details here). This phase can be carried out online, by filling in electronic ballots or by using one of the existing collective decision-making tools.

Conclusion

Will I have confidence in the results of this process? Yes, if it was well designed and facilitated. Would it be the same as a face-to-face citizens' assembly? No. Nevertheless, it is worth a try because the current crisis situation, and any ensuing crisis, are precisely the kind of times when citizens' voices need to be heard loud and clear, in a meaningful and democratic way.

Marcin Gerwin, PhD, is a Polish specialist in deliberative democracy and sustainability. He designs and coordinates citizens' assemblies. He co-directs the Centre for Climate Assemblies and is the author of "Citizens' Assemblies: Guide to Democracy that Works".

How can digital tools support deliberation?

How can digital tools support deliberation?

This article is a translation by Open Source Politics of the article published on the OECD publication "Participo". To read the original article by Mauricio Mejia and Claudia Chwalisz, click here.

As part of our work on innovative citizen participation, we have launched a series of articles to open discussion and gather evidence on the use of digital tools and practices in representative deliberative processes. This work builds on the forthcoming OECD report: Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions: Catching the Deliberative Wave (June 2020).

The report and this series focus on representative deliberative processes, which involve a randomly selected group of people, broadly representative of a community, taking the time to learn and collaborate together through facilitated deliberation to form collective recommendations to policy makers, such as the Irish Citizens' Assembly.

In collaboration with our colleagues working on innovation in the field of digital government and the public sector, we will draw on research by MySociety, NESTA and many other innovators and practitioners to analyse the state of the art in terms of digital media for deliberative processes.

Here we present the main issues that this series will explore:

1. How can digital tools support representative deliberative processes?

The current context forces policy makers and practitioners to think outside the box and adapt to the incapacity of physical deliberation. How can digital tools enable planned or ongoing processes such as citizens' assemblies to continue, ensuring that policy makers can always gather recommendations from informed citizens to inform their decision-making? New experiments are underway, and the evidence gathered could also be applied to other situations where face-to-face is not possible or more difficult, such as international processes or any situation that prevents physical assembly.

This series will cover the essential phases that a representative deliberative process should follow, as set out in the next OECD report: learning, deliberation, decision-making and collective recommendations. Due to the different nature of conducting an online process, we will also consider a necessary phase prior to learning: skills development. Articles will explore the use of digital tools at each phase, addressing issues related to appropriate tools, methods, evidence and limitations.

They will also examine how the use of certain digital tools could reinforce principles of good practice such as impact, transparency and evaluation:

  • Impact: Digital tools can help participants and the public better track the status of proposed recommendations and their impact on final decision-making. A parallel can be drawn with the extensive use of this methodology by the United Nations for monitoring and evaluating the impact of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  • Transparency: Digital tools can facilitate transparency throughout the process. The use of collaborative tools can ensure transparency regarding the author of the final result of the process (possibility to find the contributors of the document and the different versions). By publishing the code and algorithms applied for the random selection (sorting) process and the data or statistics used for stratification, full transparency on how participants are selected could be achieved.
  • Evaluation: Data collection and analysis can help researchers and policy makers evaluate the process (e.g., quality of deliberations, participant surveys, changes in opinion). Publishing these data in a structured and open format can allow for broader evaluation and contribute to research. Over the next year, the OECD will prepare evaluation guidelines in line with the principles of good practice to enable comparative analysis of the data.

The series will also examine how the use of emerging technologies and digital tools could complement face-to-face processes, for example :

  • Artificial intelligence (AI) and text-based technologies (i.e. natural language processing, NLP): Could the use of AI-based tools enrich deliberative processes? For example: mapping of opinion groups, consensus-building, analysis of massive contributions from external participants at the early stage of stakeholder input. Could NLP enable simultaneous translation into other languages, sentiment analysis and automatic transcription? These possibilities already exist, but raise more relevant questions about reliability and user experience. How could they be linked to human analysis, discussion and decision-making?
  • Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality: Could the development of these emerging technologies allow participants to be immersed in virtual environments and thus simulate face-to-face deliberations of experiences that enable and reinforce empathy with possible futures or experiences experienced by others?

2. What are the limitations of using digital tools for representative deliberative processes?

The use of digital tools in deliberative processes faces the same limitations as in many other participatory processes. The series will also explore and uncover limitations such as :

  • Lack of social interaction: Online interaction may not have the same effect as face-to-face. However, there are interesting studies on the quality of socialization in online spaces. Cases of online communities such as Anonymous or social bonding during social movements (Occupy, Arab Spring, Sunflower Movement, Indignados) can help gather evidence on online social interaction. A further comparison could be made with the online gaming community and the ensuing social interaction built through online and digital tools.
  • The digital divide: For digital tools to enable inclusive and equal participation among participants, we need to address the different types of exclusion (skills, access, gender, income, uses) and how to mitigate them.
  • Harmful technology: Technology is not neutral and can have negative effects on the democratic process (dependence on proprietary software, privacy issues, etc.). When using digital tools, organizers, policy-makers and participants should be aware of the associated risks and give due consideration to the ethical implications of any use of technology or personal data.
  • Trust and legitimacy: What are the impacts on trust between participants, and also on public confidence in virtual processes? What are public perceptions of the legitimacy of online deliberative processes?

3. In what other contexts could these lessons be applied?

While this series focuses primarily on how digital tools can improve representative deliberative processes, such as citizens' assemblies, juries and committees, there are many takeaways that could be useful in other situations.

The question can also be returned. National parliaments, universities and political parties are using digital tools to adapt to the methods and dynamics of the 21st century. This series will also include examples of practices of the above-mentioned institutions in adapting the main phases of a deliberative process, drawing on their experience in using digital tools for deliberation and citizen participation.

The Digital for Deliberation series focuses on the use of technology, but the objective is to contribute to the general discussion on representative deliberative processes for policy development and, more broadly, to the implementation of the open government principle of citizen participation.