8 Critical Features of Online Deliberation Software

Deliberation is increasingly accepted as a best-practice method of public participation. But how do we navigate online deliberation in engagement practice? Principal Writer and Editorial Director, Sally Hussey, unpacks crucial software selection criteria when facing an online deliberative process. 

“If you want to create a deliberative space, you can’t simply launch a website and hope for the best,” says Crispin Butteriss. Establishing online deliberation also requires overcoming the challenges of process design.

To be sure, deliberation and deliberative processes have increasingly become accepted as best-practice methods of public participation. More recently, these processes have brought into focus questions around whether deliberation can renew democracy. Increasing dissatisfaction with representative democracy and the growing expectation that community members assert more influence over public policy as Emanula Savini and Bligh Grant recently demonstrate, has seen the emergence of more participatory and deliberative forms of governance in public management practice. This is most evident in recent legislative changes introduced by the State Government in Victoria, Australia, that legislate for mandatory deliberative engagement as part of its local government strategic planning

Indeed, the practicalities of implementing an online deliberative process make crucial understanding how deliberation and dialogue work together as a process that allows for enhanced decision-making. Essential to understanding the concept of deliberation is the recognition of the core objective to create a respectful environment that allows participants to consider the arguments of others. This core objective allows for participants to potentially transform their values and preferences to allow for a collective decision-making outcome.

While deliberation is a social process involving many people, it ‘happens’ when participants are able to think broadly and deeply about information and views being presented to them in a respectful environment. This brings into stark relief why digital deliberation is necessary. For while it can facilitate learning and deeper understanding of issues and critical thinking through exposure to diverse points of view, it reduces stress associated with debating in a public space and builds intra-community empathy.

It’s useful to keep in mind that digital deliberative processes mirror more traditional face-to-face processes in that they require sound foundations based on a clear set of operating principles. Yet, most digital engagement exercises do not have a methodology. They have a launch date and a close date. In creating a deliberative space, then, to reiterate Butteriss’s words, “you can’t simply launch a website and hope.” There is a range of deliberative methods used in public engagement practice – deliberative polling, deliberative workshops, deliberative mapping, consensus conferences, citizens juries, charrettes, planning-by-design, etc. And with some creative thinking, as we have demonstrated in our recent ebook, Making Deliberative Dialogue Work Online, any one of these could be applied in an online context.

Yet often, when facing online deliberative processes, the issue of process design is muddled up with software selection criteria. To navigate this murky interface,  below are eight selection criteria that are crucial when considering functionality of software for online deliberation.

1. Supports a variety of online activities

Digital deliberation requires creating space for reflection. To create space for deep reflection, you will need software that supports various activities (other than deliberation) throughout the process. This means you need more than just online forums. For example, quick polls, surveys, ideation, idea ranking, collaborative authoring, digital storytelling, possibly spatial ideation, to round out the deliberative process.

2. Activates multiple deliberative tools

One of the critical things to creating digital deliberation is asking the community to slow down and respond more thoughtfully. This gives richer information and provokes community to reflect on different opinions. Various deliberation tools, then, should also be activated in parallel and sequentially to allow participants to raise questions, generate ideas, and test their arguments, etc. in as many forms as possible; including non-text forms, for example, “likes” or “votes”.

3. Allows for asynchronous discussion

In his webinar on digital deliberation, Crispin Butteriss pointed to behaviors that can emerge in online deliberation space such as sequential monologue (for example, feedback box) or, alternately, rancorous debate. To encourage reflective dialogue, asynchronous discussion forums are far preferable to synchronous “chat rooms”. They permit more contemplative time and encourage deeper deliberation, rationality, civility, and inclusiveness.

4. Enables easy use for all capabilities

You can’t force people to engage but you can make it as easy as possible for engagement. The platform user-experience should be straight-forward enough to be easily used by people who are inexperienced with internet technologies.

5. Provides an ability to identify facilitators

To create the openness essential to online deliberation, there is a need to avoid anything that privileges any one participant or contribution above others (for example “kudos” or “labels”). Nevertheless, while usually self-managed spaces, deliberative dialogue happens organically with a ‘natural’ facilitator.  There may be an opportunity to provide incentives for ‘quality’ participation. It is, however, important to clearly identify facilitators and invited speakers or subject matter experts.

6. Enables participants to engage freely

Getting people to think deeply also requires an ability for participants to engage freely and without judgment — and avoids conflagration on ‘hot issues’. The platform will need to have a “private” and/or “locked” mode to allow invited participants to engage freely. Questions around anonymity between participants certainly reduce the barriers to entry for “shy” participants and equalizes relationships.

7. Provides automated notification

It’s essential to bring participants in on ongoing issues throughout the life of digital deliberation process. The platform will require an email newsletter and automated notification system in order to bring participants back to the dialogue on a regular basis.

8. Ability for quantitative and qualitative analysis

Process and dialogue outcomes evaluation requires both quantitative and qualitative analysis. Quantitative analysis allows you to quickly see volume and relative scale around an issue, while qualitative analysis allows you to interpret the motivations behind participant positions. The platform, then, either requires or needs to work very well with, qualitative and quantitative analysis and reporting systems.

Learn more through our ebook Making Deliberative Dialogue Work Online, an introductory explainer that unpacks the key challenges of moving processes that would traditionally be carried out in face-to-face environments onto online environments.

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