If the answer is Zoom, you’re asking the wrong question

by Danielle Topaz (Delib)

Since much of the world went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have been concerned, rightfully so, about the impact it has/will have on public participation and deliberation. Deliberative exercises have become more frequent lately; citizens’ assemblies, in particular, exploded in popularity last year and have continued to do so. Many of these processes are face-to-face. So at a time where in-person interaction isn’t an option, particularly of groups of relative strangers, the question is being asked: how can these exercises continue?

There already seem to have been a few suggestions of using video conferencing software as a catch-all solution. But if one of the answers cropping up is ‘let’s do it on Zoom’, I’d argue there’s another question to consider first. We need to be asking whether an in-person deliberation should be brought online in the first place, not whether it can.

In-person deliberation like citizens’ assemblies don’t translate well to an online format, even with plenty of facilitation. There are tangible reasons for this, like technology breaking down, lack of digital fluency, not being able to pick up on social cues and body language, or the fact that everyone’s voice on a Zoom call is more or less the same volume so you can’t hear a thing if people talk over each other.

But there’s another reason, and that is behavioural. The internet isn’t just offline but with screens. It’s an entirely different context. And just as human behaviour varies depending on our location or situation, it’s different online than it is otherwise. We can be less empathetic and receptive [1]. Our attention spans are shorter - we tend to juggle multiple actions/tasks or get distracted more easily [2]. We say things we wouldn’t otherwise, good and bad, under the shield of anonymity.

All of these differences in situation and behaviour make the process of an in-person deliberation that’s been moved into an online format difficult at best, and devalue the outcomes at worst - anyone who’s been on a video call knows how draining they are. It’s simply not possible to replace an in-person event with one on a screen and expect the same enthusiasm and inspiration.

What we need to do is reframe the question. How can we create a deliberation process that’s designed for the internet, harnessing its significant benefits, while still gathering unique and meaningful insight from citizens?

The answer then becomes more concrete. Digital platforms for deliberation aren’t new - Delib started in the field in 2001 - but they can and should be more widely adopted, particularly now. Our experience is that digital deliberation projects and exercises can and do gather exceptionally meaningful and valuable insight from citizens when designed and structured intelligently. Take, for example, the My 2050 Pathways Calculator: commissioned in 2011 by the-then Department for Energy and Climate Change and delivered by Delib, the calculator was an interactive tool that challenged the public to simulate reducing the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions to 20% of 2011 levels by 2050.

This then developed into the productised Simulator that Delib created as a tool for public deliberation over complex issues, such as policing, transport and budgeting. It features a trade-off based mechanism with built-in constraints, which educates at the point of response by featuring impact statements, thus negating the need for facilitation or expert voices. It’s a form of online-first deliberation wherein people can still make informed, reasoned choices while at home, on their commute, or anywhere at all.

There are benefits to exercises like these specific to the fact that they’re run online. Reach is an obvious factor: 90.8% of the UK population use the internet [3]. The Police Service of Northern Ireland’s ‘Policing priorities’ Simulator got 4328 responses. Platform-based deliberation is far more accessible to those with disabilities that may prevent them from accessing video conferencing, and for those who only have access to a mobile and not a computer. Plus, it’s extremely cost-effective and requires relatively little resource allocation, making it practical to roll out en-masse with less potential push-back from governments and public bodies.

That’s not to say that software for deliberation is a perfect solution. Depending on the exercise, tools might need to be purpose-built, which takes time, from design, to user testing, to iteration, and finally launch. It still doesn’t solve the wider issues of accessibility for those 9.2% of UK citizens that aren’t online, who tend to be over 75 and/or disabled and/or vulnerable [4].

Nevertheless, we think that the time is right to have a conversation about intelligent internet-based deliberation. In-person deliberative democracy should not be crowbarred into an online format just for the sake of it. But doesn’t have to be one or the other; in fact, online and offline deliberation can and should complement each other as ways to achieve rich, informed insight from the public that can be adapted to fit whatever the situation is in which we find ourselves.

 © 2020 Solonian Democracy Institute clg