OPINION21 May 2020

A deliberate approach to online

Covid-19 Opinion Public Sector Technology UK Video

Ceri Davies reflects on conducting deliberative research using video and outlines lessons for adapting research during Covid-19.

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The implications of UK government guidance on social distancing have had direct and immediate impacts in social research. This has included a stop to face-to-face fieldwork and changed circumstances for many of our participants and partners, which can affect their involvement.

It also raises a particularly tricky question of how research designed for pre-Covid-19 society can ensure findings still make sense in what will be very different realities. Researchers now have to make decisions on whether to re-orient, pause or adapt their studies and there is an increasing push to look to virtual methods in this mix.

In my own field of deliberative research, which involves wanting to know what people think after they have had a chance to consider new information about an issue, there has been little experimentation on adapting face-to-face events to suggest ways forward.

However, at NatCen, we are able to draw on experience from last June through our Future of Britain project, in which we ran the UK’s first (and we think largest) deliberative poll using videoconferencing.

Over one weekend, we brought together 180 members of the public, NatCen research staff and experts on the subjects we were discussing – immigration, food policy and consumer regulation. The event was held using Zoom and comprised a mixture of plenary sessions with the experts and moderated small group discussions.

We were purposely testing whether the conditions needed for effective deliberation could be replicated online – and, indeed, whether there are additional benefits of going online, such as reaching people who are not usually able to attend events with a high time commitment.

This experience has provided rich learning on designing and delivering online deliberative research which we are now using to think about the opportunities and challenges of adapting projects in the current circumstances.

The challenges range in scale. Going digital means thinking through how you can find participants when more traditional approaches are not available and ensuring retention without the commitment people make for travelling to, and attending, a physical event.

Helping participants understand the nature of the event and what technology they might need to get involved, particularly if it is less familiar to them, is also an issue. You also have to find creative ways to adapt your face-to-face process (so people can participate when the trusty Post-It note is defunct) and refine facilitation skills to a new setting.    

There is an obvious point here about digital exclusion. In this case, we derived our participants from respondents to NatCen’s probability-based panel (the majority of which complete surveys online), lessening some of the obvious problems. More broadly, investing time in being as informed as possible about what the barriers to access are is an important starting point.

Connected to this, it may be more necessary to think about working through intermediary organisations or channels to access potential participants and describe the opportunity to them, as well as being thoughtful about the rationale and scale of your requirement. For example, it might be more possible for someone with a less reliable internet connection to participate in something for an hour, rather than a full day. 

Practically, selecting the right platform was one of our most important choices. After a bit of searching, we used Zoom, which allowed us a range of settings to ensure we could create the conditions needed. It also meant we could switch participants between their small groups and the plenary sessions with relative ease, which was a necessary part of our design.

We wrote a simple user guide to help participants get to grips with the basics (it is now certainly more familiar to a greater number of people than last year) and offered short test calls with people beforehand. Providing phone numbers for contact on the day was also important.

The key takeaways for me from this experience are twofold – one is learning that this works, with much of our experience being positive, both in terms of the technology, but also in terms of participants deliberating well; evaluative scores from the research compare favourably with face-to -face events.     

The other is that, in looking to ‘convert’ other projects I’m working on, it’s important to think about the opportunity going digital might afford – rather than imagining it as too much of a substitute. While there are challenges, welcoming the possibilities of this route can help ensure that you can still meet your research objectives and maintain conditions where people can participate well.  

Ceri Davies is director of deliberative research at the National Centre for Social Research