OPINION23 July 2021

Where next for online deliberation?

Covid-19 Opinion Technology Trends

Reflecting on lessons learnt from online deliberation is key to its development, says Ceri Davies.

scales graphic with a balancing ball and another suspended above

Online deliberative research is an emerging discipline, with much of the existing work restricted to examining internet discussion forums. The use of videoconferencing as a mode to support deliberation had, until 12 months ago at least, remained largely unexplored.

The pandemic has accelerated this exploration, as researchers seek ways to maintain deliberative processes whilst socially distant, but this necessary shift has not always been accompanied by detailed methodological scrutiny. As we look ahead, where are we now and what’s next for online deliberative methods?

The field of online deliberation is itself somewhat ‘under construction’, with interest into deliberation and the digital landscape growing over the last decade or so. This growth has had two strands to it. The first has focused on using technology to convene deliberation, while the second has examined deliberative ‘talk’ on the internet, looking at how the social media environment is, or can be, structured deliberatively.

Prior to the pandemic, the interest in this field was largely due to the potential online spaces and architecture had to widen the public sphere and address some of the limitations of face-to-face approaches, not least issues of scale, cost and inclusion.

The costs and practicalities associated with in-person work is commonly a limiting factor on event size, and it can be logistically challenging to bring people together across a wide geography. We know, too, that due to the commitments needed to come away from home or work, representation from certain groups can be difficult to ensure, particularly including people with health and mobility issues or caring responsibilities.

In the UK at least, we are now in the position of having an increasing understanding of some best practice in designing and supporting deliberations online. This has mostly developed out of a need to rapidly adapt what we already know, rather than approaching the opportunities – and potentially unique benefits – of online spaces in their own right.

The best practices arising from these adaptations include familiarity with software and settings that help an event run smoothly, as well as clarity with participants about what technology or connection they need. In design terms, it is generally accepted that content should be broken down into shorter sessions than in face-to-face events, with consideration given to a mixture of online and offline activities. For those running events online, we’ve also learnt that attrition is higher than in-person exercises and we have to adapt our approaches to recruitment accordingly.

We are now at the stage where the initial rush to keep deliberation going might usefully be replaced by time to reflect and learn. The recent rise in best practice when using technology for deliberation starts to address issues with quality identified in existing academic studies. We have some promising signs in our own work relating to opinion change and replicability when deliberating online, as well as proof of concept that online deliberations can operate successfully at scale.

However, it is also important to acknowledge that questions – largely over quality, scope and depth of online processes – still remain. Issues of digital exclusion are also largely unresolved, and we don’t have a particularly complete picture of the experience of those who take part.

As we engage in this learning, it’s also timely to look at what might be usefully distilled from the existing evidence base – largely founded through face-to-face experiences – and what is needed distinct to the online context. This would help make the case for effective and meaningful online deliberation that, in its own right, can contribute to democratic and social change – a project the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) is committed to.

In doing so, three things will be important:

  • Demonstrating effective conditions for online deliberations and finding ways to do so in lieu of comparative face-to-face work
  • Maintaining the distinction between deliberation in processes of public participation (tied to policy processes) and the use of deliberative research in exploring public attitudes
  • Positioning this field as one with its own potential and strengths – rather than as a poor relation to, or substitute for, face-to-face arrangements.

This last point will be particularly put to the test as rules on social distancing relax. It remains to be seen whether, the moment we get the chance, we are back in town halls and conference centres, around small tables with piles of Post-it notes (I’m missing mine!).

The benefits and limitations of the work we’ve been doing in the last 12 months suggest that a hybrid approach could perhaps be the future. This was a theme raised at our recent event exploring the future of online deliberative methods, and one that holds promise for making the most of both the scale and reach that technology offers us, as well as the depth and diversity of dialogue and expression we know is possible face-to-face.

Ceri Davies is director of the NatCen Centre for Deliberative Research