Rapid Online Deliberation: Sustaining Democratic Values in Difficult Times

Rapid online deliberation trial unpacks citizen priorities for COVID-19 policy.

“One of the challenges we have is interrogating our assumptions around engagement more fully… What we need to be looking at is how effective our engagement is overall. How we evidence the value of any kind of deliberative process and what role that plays in our democracy and our society. And those interrogations should happen whether face to face or online.”

Anna McKeon, Head of Engagement, Traverse

A recent deliberative exercise in the UK saw Traverse, the Ada Lovelace Institute, Involve, and Bang the Table come together to test a new engagement model: rapid online deliberation. The Leaving Lockdown Public Debate spoke to the crucial need for public input on policymaking for the COVID-19 crisis, specifically exploring public values for the development of policy around exit strategies. The trial underlines how public involvement in crisis policy-making remains within reach and is profoundly relevant to defining democratic values around unfolding complex issues. In addition to producing insights for policy, the project revealed considerations for engagement design and deliberative practice.

Engaging Online in a Time of Crisis

For Anna McKeon, Head of Engagement at Traverse, the major and largely unprecedented policy decisions following the onset of the pandemic made a compelling case for exploring the role of public participation in forging pathways from lockdown. ‘As public engagement practitioners, we were really aware that all of this was happening without the time or the ability to engage with the public on some of these issues and we thought some of that was a shame. We could see the reasons why that might be the case – because it was a moment of crisis and there was so much going on,’ she says. But this was all the more reason to examine how online participation could speak to crucial democratic values in the shifting public landscape of the pandemic.

lockdown debate idea board

Given the scale and urgency of the crisis, public engagement would have to be able to speak to the rapidly emerging and evolving multi-dimensional questions facing policy-makers in unprecedented ways. But the deliberative exercise underscores the importance of being able to facilitate conversations, particularly at such times. It points out that while scientific expertise can guide decision-makers, public policy tends to necessitate values and judgments around strategies and risks. Such choices can better represent citizens’ interests when they are not made in isolation from them. In this way, the capturing of collective intelligence can enable crucial democratic values and public concerns to be represented. 

Traditionally, engagement has been able to call on online and face-to-face engagement methods. But the Lockdown Debate took the whole dialogue online. With face-to-face engagement impacted by the public health and safety restrictions in the pandemic, digital engagement presented an opportunity to explore the potential of the kind of rapid deliberation that could respond to policy issues as they unfolded. “We had used elements of online engagement previously in accompanying face-to-face work, but we had never run a process fully online. We thought it was a great opportunity to experiment and do that as well. That’s where it started,” says McKeon. What followed was an independent, collaborative process that revealed insights on process and methodology, as well as findings of citizens’ perspectives on the pandemic response.

Enabling Rapid Online Deliberation

While the project refers to debate, it builds on the principles of deliberation. As a mode of discussion, deliberation is distinct from debate in that it demands the careful and deep consideration of evidence and perspectives. Deliberation requires its participants to be able to reach beyond their field of sight to form a whole and multi-dimensional view of an issue. Deliberative processes aim to foster dialogue, learning, and cohesion in bringing new knowledge to the fore for better relationships and solutions. The rapid online deliberation approach invoked these values as the project went from concept to results in a period of ten weeks.

Leaning on a pragmatic recruitment process, the project sought robust sampling despite the lightness of resources. Drawn from community networks through a basic recruitment survey, the participants were hosted online in one urban and one rural location. The sample was selected to be reflective of population demographics, speaking to themes such as age, socioeconomic contexts, gender, and ethnic diversity. The trial facilitated its exchanges through Zoom chats and activities on an online platform provided by EngagementHQ.

McKeon points to the high quality of insight generated by the trial. ‘The participants demonstrated great depth of understanding, motivation, and engagement on the subject matter. They had really insightful observations and conversations, and I think the overall quality of deliberation was great.’ Participants revealed that while they may have had varying views on the theme of digital contact tracing apps and implementation, the technology itself was not the most important element. Instead, they highlighted the importance of trust in the underlying system, with technology being a mode of delivery. 

Insights from the Process

Understanding how rapid online deliberation could facilitate public engagement was a latent objective for the trial. ‘Our main motivation was that we wanted to learn and we wanted to be really open about what we learned. And we wanted to build an atmosphere of collaboration with other organizations.’ says McKeon. ‘It was really exciting to try something a bit different than usual. We felt that it would enrich our work. All of the other work that we do as well- in terms of learning how to work online effectively, what we need to think about, how we need to interrogate our processes to make it as good a process as possible, what the limitations are of it- we were keen to experiment.’ The trial’s objectives spoke to both process and outcome.

Consequently, participants revealed a range of preferences for being engaged online. Within the sampled group, some participants suggested that they would have preferred to engage face-to-face, others revealed that they would not have been as comfortable or forthcoming in a face-to-face setting. Some highlighted their experiences in the Zoom discussion sessions, having enjoyed chatting with experts and other participants, while others preferred the reflective individual activities provided by the online platform.

McKeon points out that a key learning in this context was that there was great value in providing participants with multiple ways to contribute to the conversation. ‘Everybody has different preferences. By having something where you can contribute online in your own time, where you can be part of a discussion group – you’ve got a real variety. It really serves a mixed group because it enables people to be involved in ways that suit them.’ This insight resonates with the collaborative spirit of the trial, wherein a focus on experimenting, learning, and sharing fostered new knowledge about the challenges and limitations of online deliberation.

But even as the advantages of digital engagement may be self-evident here, McKeon sees beyond the binary narrative around online versus face-to-face engagement. ‘Engagement is fundamentally about a range, a set of things that are relevant whether you do this online or face-to-face. It’s about building relationships with people. It’s about providing a space for people to learn, to share ideas, to hear a diversity of views, or complex issues, to try and reach consensus or divergence.’ In this regard, deliberative processes have much to offer in being able to capture learnings and produce fresh insight for engagement practitioners and policy-makers alike.

As a collaboration between Traverse, the Ada Lovelace Institute, Involve, and Bang the Table, the project brought together a full spectrum of expertise on participation practice, design, and technology. In trialing rapid online deliberation it pursued four key objectives: shaping research around policy design, producing research data, and evidence on public values to better equip policy design, impacting research strategy by illustrating the potential of deliberative research and testing and learning from the new model.

A report from May/June 2020 and published by Traverse, presents detailed insights from the project, including implications for deliberation design. It reveals how the deliberation relied deeply on access to information, continuous learning, and evidence and enabled participants to take the time necessary to deepen and develop their views. While the pragmatic, community recruitment approach delivered a largely representative sample – and provoked questions on digital inclusion and diversity – the deliberation supported participants in navigating complex a thematic terrain to challenge existing assumptions. Together with the findings report (August 2020) published by Ada Lovelace Institute and Traverse, it also made evident that participants’ awareness of unequal health and economic impacts of COVID-19 created a want to ensure inequalities are addressed as part of recovery, where deliberative processes can indeed avoid a “public confidence crisis.”

Tune in to learn more about how rapid online deliberation can bring collective intelligence and democratic values to policymaking for difficult times.

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