Deliberative democracy in the age of COVID-19

Published on

16 Apr 2020


What a different world. Back in January, on most people’s second day back at work, we convened our second meeting of the Deliberative Democracy Practitioners’ Network with the excitement of a new decade for democracy.  

It was a New Year party-like atmosphere. A meeting of new and old faces all with a common goal to learn, share and improve the practice of deliberative democracy. 

Online meeting of the Deliberative Democracy Practitioners' Network

Fast forward 3 months and we’re in lockdown; we had swapped sharpies, post-its and flipcharts for Zoom, chat and online breakouts to hold our third meeting of the network to discuss deliberative democracy in an age of COVID-19. A 2-hour workshop for 55 practitioners to come together and share thoughts about: 

  • How their work is changing or being affected by COVID-19; 
  • What we all need to consider in planning and running deliberative processes online – what are the opportunities, and what might be the challenges?
  • What are the wider implications for deliberative democracy we need to be mindful of at this time?

In the face of huge upheaval and context collapse, the hunger for the conversation was evident – in part to welcome and support colleagues at this difficult time, but also in the energy around new possibilities, innovation and experimentation. The session was rich in learning, sharing and insights.  A report of the key findings is here.  

Ultimately there was a recognition that even with projects postponed, we are unlikely to revert to business as usual when the lockdown is eased.  

There is an opportunity to try new online approaches, see what does and doesn’t works and compare that with evidence of what works face-to-face.

Many participants foresaw a future of hybrid options combining the best of online with the best of face-to-face. But we need to better understand the toolbox of methods and approaches in terms of what works best for what purpose and process, and what the workarounds can be for translating practice online. 

For me the key take-outs included:

  • We need to work hard at inclusion and supporting participation when taking deliberative practice online; 
  • There is as much, if not more, time in planning an online process, in design and in supporting participants. Moving processes online is not a “drag and drop”;
  • We need to maintain standards for deliberative processes and guard against a slide into extractive qualitative research rather than deliberation. 

A last thought. Deliberative democracy at its crux is about putting people at the heart of decision making. COVID-19 has meant central decision-making and a transfer of trust to experts. However, there are difficult choices ahead – from immediate thoughts on how we move from lockdown; to the policy challenges that have now come into sharper focus such as funding of adult social care; the use of data for healthcare; to the kind of future we envisage. 

Where is the public voice to inform those decisions? How do we as a community hold firmer to those principles of public participation and deliberative democracy moving forwards?