7 Reasons Why Live Online Public Meetings Don’t Work

From zoom fatigue to ‘hoodwinking’ consultees UK-based Jonathan Bradley opines on how COVID-19 has sparked a mass rush to live online public meetings. 

It seems like 10 or maybe 15 years ago I first attended a training course run by The Consultation Institute. It was called Making Consultation Meaningful. You see, people were scratching their heads, wondering how they could make public consultation work better for everyone involved. Well, you know what one of the main conclusions was? Public meetings are not the best way to do public consultation! They discourage people from deliberating. People take sides and don’t listen to each other. They are adversarial. People can’t see properly. People can’t hear properly. There is never a time or a day that suits everyone and the room is either too hot or too cold. So I and many other people spent the next decade or so inventing ways that people could take part that was much better than a public meeting. And we decided that best practice consultation would always include more than one method, and public meetings were at the bottom of the list!

And here we are, all these years later, and COVID-19 has sparked a mass rush to do what? A live online public meeting! Aka Zoom (other platforms are available). So we are off again, but this time explaining to people that (on its own)  a live online public meeting is ‘dumber’ than a ‘dumb’ public meeting (of old). 

Why Online Public Meetings are ‘Dumber’ than Public Meetings

1. They are not sticky. An online public meeting involves something like attending a webinar, with a few hundred people (maybe less/maybe more) at a set time of day. After the initial complications of forgetting their password and fixing their audio participants enter a trance and never come back. Instead, consultors should be creating an engaging online space that people can: a) attend at their leisure, b) receive updates and notifications, c) have their say in different ways, and d) be encouraged to come back to for the duration of the consultation period.

2. Zoom fatigue is real! Attending an online public meeting is bad news for participants. First of all, it makes us work hard to process non-verbal clues and paying more attention to these makes humans exhausted. Well, public meetings have rarely been comfortable affairs and now we are making them worse! Secondly, when you are in a video conference you feel like you are being watched, are on stage, you can’t help but look at your own face and this adds to the awkwardness and pressure of being involved. People also point out that when we are on a video call the only way to show we are paying attention is to stare intently at the camera and this saps our energy and we are easily distracted so tend not to listen. So, if you want to make people uncomfortable and create an environment that discourages learning and listening then just do online meetings for your next public consultation. Or instead, choose to use a variety of online dialogue methods in an accessible and learning environment.

Being on a video call requires more focus than a face-to-face chat … Video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy. “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally,” Gianpiero Petriglieri, associate professor, Insead in Manya Jiang BBC Remote Control

3. A live online public meeting is your worst nightmare of a public meeting. Imagine going to a public meeting and you can’t see properly, you can’t hear what most people have to say, the presenters seem far away and empty of empathy, it makes you feel tired and it is hard to concentrate. This is the way an online public meeting is very likely to pan out. Why? Because people will be using different tech. Some will be on a smartphone, some might be on a tablet, others might be doing their best on an old PC. Not everyone will benefit from the comfort of an office or a spare room, they might be sat at their kitchen table surrounded by the cacophony of everyday life. Online public meetings are a nightmare because they fail to consider the experience of participants. Asynchronous online platforms, on the other hand, are user friendly and integrate into the daily lives of everyday people. 

4. Online public meetings are lazy. In, very, recent history a huge industry of civic tech people have been busying themselves, coming up with ways technology can benefit democracy. All this is out there waiting to be grasped by the public consultation industry. Alas, instead there has been some weird mass migration to some bastardizedbastardised version of “what we know best” – that is, getting into a room and having a chat. This does not apply to everyone but it applies to the majority and rumorrumour has it that some unscrupulous types are using it to their advantage to bypass the ‘hassle’ of public participation.

5. There is so much more on the menu. Many people, and not everyone, are so used to having a multitude of options when it comes to carrying out their life online. Public consultation is no exception. In my world of Bang the Table, we have 8 dialogue tools at our fingertips, together with information widgets, which we think cover the vast majority of permutations for deliberating online, but we still seek out integrations with other tech partners. We are, after all, in this together with a collaboration of democracy superheroes. Hoodwinking consultees into thinking that the only way they can engage in your public consultation is via Zoom in real time (other platforms are available) is just disingenuous public engagement and bad public relations

6. Online public meetings are not how humans scroll. Think about how you use the Internet. Most probably, here, there and everywhere. So this fascination with synchronous live participation just doesn’t work with the way people engage. Instead, people should be able to participate, on the couch, at their leisure and dip in and out as they choose. This is, in reality, how people scroll! 

7. Online public meetings are not inclusive. Imagine being told you can only check your bank balance online, with everyone else, between 6-7 pm, or use Amazon from 9.30 to 11.00 am. Billions of people would struggle to make themselves available, right? So an online public meeting between 5-7 pm on a Tuesday is going to cut a lot of people out of participating. Plus, what if they only have a smartphone? Well, they won’t see all the other people in the grid view.  What if they suffer from Zoom fatigue, or despise online meetings, well they will opt out too. So accessible and easy to use platforms are what online public consultation is all about. 

people on a subway socially distancing and wearing masks

Now hold on! No method is perfect. I hear you cry.  And yes. I guess this is the point. Don’t be ‘dumb and dumber.’ Investigate your alternatives and get smarter when it comes to online public consultation. Bang the Table and our colleagues in the world of online public participation have been doing this for a long time. We don’t know everything about it but we know enough to help. 

PS There are people out there who are doing a great job of making online public meetings work, but they are mixing it up with other technologies and adapting their approach to suit their participants. They are, it seems, in the minority.

Published Date: 1 July 2020

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