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.