With social distancing measures likely to be around for some time and with challenging questions and decisions in front of us, there has never been a greater need for high-quality digital engagement.

The web is filled with tools to enable participation, collaboration and discussion, but it can be difficult to know where to start. This blog post aims to give you a few pointers to help get you started. It’s based on a combination of our own experience, discussion with other practitioners and knowledge of good engagement principles and practice. It covers:

  1. Where to start;

  2. Synchronous (same time) vs. asynchronous (different times) participation;

  3. The different uses of digital tools;

  4. Digital tools database;

  5. Other resources.

1. Where to start

The best (and only) place to start with digital engagement – as with any form of engagement – is with your purpose. Why do you want to involve the public? What impact are you looking to achieve? 

Your answers to these questions should shape everything else that you decide, from who you seek to involve, to how you try to engage them. For example, you might be looking to the public to help propose ideas for tackling an issue; weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of different courses of action; review and improve your plans; take action or something else entirely.

Your specific purposes might dictate that you need to engage a specific group or community, a representative cross-section of society, or anyone who’s interested and/or has something to offer. They will also determine the form that your engagement should take and therefore the sorts of tools and techniques that you’ll need to use.  

As with any form of participation, it is important to consider accessibility and inclusion as part of your digital engagement planning. Do your intended participants have good quality internet connections? What devices, if any, do they have access to and use regularly (e.g. computers, tablets, smartphones)? How comfortable are they with using technology and different types of online platform? The answers to all of these questions will have implications for the tools you might choose, how you use them and what sort of support you provide to people to participate.

We have lots of guidance in our Knowledge Base on designing participatory processes.

Access the Knowledge Base

2. Synchronous vs. asynchronous participation

One specific choice you’ll need to make is whether participants need to take part all at the same time (synchronous) or can take part when best suits them (asynchronous). Again, this will be determined to a large extent by your purpose.

If your purpose requires participants to deliberate intensively with one another, this will likely be best achieved by bringing them together at the same time via a video-conference where engagement is deep and discussion can flow. On the other hand, if a less intensive form of discussion is adequate, then an online forum where participants can post at a time that best suits them may be more open and inclusive. If participants do not need to discuss or interact at all, then asynchronous participation will likely be the obvious option. 

Synchronous and asynchronous participation can be blended together as part of an engagement process, either with the same group or different groups of participants. This is likely to be the best option for an in-depth process – such as a citizens’ assembly – which requires participants to undertake a range of activities (e.g. learning, discussion, deliberation, voting, etc.). 

3. The different uses of digital tools

Digital tools for participation come in many shapes and sizes. Some are dedicated tools that have been developed for a specific engagement purpose, while others are general tools that can be purposed (or repurposed) for engagement. Some are free to use and/or open-source, while others are a software as a service (with varying price tags). 

In the database of digital tools (below), we have categorised the tools according to 12 different uses or functions. Some tools fulfil multiple (often connected) functions, but no tool can do everything. Sometimes, they’ll be best used in combination with one another to perform different tasks in an engagement process.

Argument visualisation

These tools are used to collect and map the different arguments of a debate. They can help to uncover useful insights into how different opinions are connected and display where there are areas of consensus and divergence. While the insights can be useful, they typically require participants to complete surveys, which can be unengaging and unappealing compared with other discussion-based formats. Probably the best-known use of argument visualisation is the development of the Pol.is platform for vTaiwan.

An argument visualisation on vTaiwan

Co-drafting

Many of us will be familiar with using co-drafting tools to collaborate at work. They allow groups to work together to write and edit texts. They are typically best used with an established group where there is a common purpose and established norms around collaboration, though they can work in other circumstances. One of the most interesting examples of this currently is the Coronavirus Tech Handbook.

The Coronavirus Tech Handbook

Commenting / feedback

These tools have some of the features of co-drafting tools but are more geared towards collecting responses to a pre-written text. For example, they might be used to collect comments on a policy proposal or project plan. In this way, they are at the consultation end of the participation spectrum (rather than collaboration or empowerment), but they typically offer a much better experience than typical consultations, which often consist of inaccessible PDF documents uploaded onto websites. One of the benefits of this type of platform is that participants can see the comments of others, which allows some discussion and development of points.

Crowd-mapping

These tools enable participants to make suggestions or report issues by pinpointing their location on a map. They have been used for a wide variety of purposes, from reporting potholes, to directing disaster relief; proposing improvements to the local community, to tracking election fraud. They can provide a quick and effective way of collecting insight from the local community about a place, but in return, they require a high level of responsiveness and feedback to participants.

Ushadidi being used to map the COVID-19 response in Italy

Decision-making

These tools aim to organise group discussions in a way to facilitate decision-making. They take different forms, with some resembling souped-up discussion forums, while others are based around argument visualisation. Some are geared towards finding consensus, while others are more majoritarian. As with co-drafting, they are perhaps better suited to established groups where there is a common purpose and established norms, but may work in other circumstances.

Discussion forum

Discussion forums have been around since the very early days of the Internet. Nowadays, they take a wide range of formats and have a lot of different uses. From a public engagement perspective, they enable discussion of issues among participants. At their best, they can enable the sharing and exploration of different opinions, but at their worst, they can become dominated by keyboard warriors and trolls. To be successful, they need to be well moderated, with clear norms established to promote respectful discussion. 

Ideas generation

These tools allow participants to submit ideas in response to a question or challenge. They often include commenting and voting functions to enable others to respond to an idea, with the expectation that the cream will rise to the top. However, they can be prone to a bandwagon effect, where the highest voted ideas rise to the top of the list and therefore receive more votes. Some platforms try to prevent this by randomising the order of ideas. One of the most significant uses of an ideas generation platform was DecideMadrid, which enabled residents to propose ideas for new legislation.

Ideas on the DecideMadrid platform

Interactive Q&A

These tools are best used in conjunction with conferences (online or in-person) to enable audience participation during talks and presentations. For example, they allow participants to give feedback and/or propose questions, which others can help to prioritise.

Interactive whiteboard

Again, these tools are best used in conjunction with video-conferences as a visual way in which to undertake exercises and/or record discussions. They are at their best when they are integrated into a well thought through facilitation plan. In this way, they can be used very flexibly and imaginatively for a whole range of activities.

Knowledgebase

These tools are geared towards enabling groups to collect and organise knowledge together. They take different forms, with some resembling Wikipedia while others are closer to discussion forums. Companies often use them as a replacement or supplement to customer care teams, by supporting loyal users of a product to answer the questions of others. 

Video-conferencing

Over a month into lockdown, we are all now very familiar with video-conferencing platforms. They are the best option where deep discussion and/or deliberation are required and, as such, are now being used to complete the work of Climate Assembly UK and continue work of the Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat. Video-conferencing can be very demanding on participants and, therefore, will only be appropriate in particular circumstances that require this level of engagement.

Members of Climate Assembly UK deliberating online

Voting / prioritisation

Voting and/or prioritisation is a function that is built into a number of different types of platform, particularly ideas generation. The danger of some of these platforms is that it pushes people into binary positions of liking or disliking options or propositions, rather than uncovering the nuance of reasons for choices and the values behind them. Survey platforms can, of course, be purposed to run online ballots as part of a broader engagement process. 

4. Digital tools database

Below is a table of tools taken from a database that we’re developing in collaboration with other practitioners. It is by no means comprehensive or authoritative at this stage, but it hopefully gives a useful starting place.

Keep in mind that these are all engagement “tools”, not “solutions” — whatever some might claim. Your planning and preparation, and approach to using them, are at least as important as the tool you pick.

We’re going to be continuing to develop this database over the coming weeks and months. If you’d like to help, you can do so here.

Name

What it's used for

Synchronous / Asynchronous

Web address

Adobe Connect

  • Video-conferencing

Synchronous

https://www.adobe.com/products/adobeconnect.html

Citizen Space

  • Commenting / feedback

Asynchronous

https://www.delib.net/citizen_space

CitizenLab

  • Ideas generation

  • Voting / prioritisation

Asynchronous

https://www.citizenlab.co

Cmnty

  • Discussion forum

  • Ideas generation

  • Interactive Q&A

  • Voting / prioritisation

Asynchronous

https://www.cmnty.com/#how-it-works

Common Ground for Action

  • Discussion forum

Asynchronous

https://www.nifi.org/en/cga-online-forums

Commonplace

  • Commenting / feedback

  • Crowd-mapping

  • Ideas generation

Asynchronous

https://www.commonplace.is/ 

Concept Board 

  • Ideas generation

  • Interactive whiteboard

Synchronous

conceptboard.com

Consider.it

  • Argument visualisation

  • Commenting / feedback

  • Decision-making

Asynchronous

https://consider.it/

Consul

  • Ideas generation

Asynchronous

http://consulproject.org/en/

Crowdspot

  • Crowd-mapping

  • Ideas generation

Asynchronous

http://crowdspot.com.au 

Deliberatorium

  • Argument visualisation

  • Ideas generation

Asynchronous

http://deliberatorium.mit.edu:8000/ci/login?

Democracy OS

  • Decision-making

  • Ideas generation

  • Voting / prioritisation

Asynchronous

http://democracyos.org/

Dialogue

  • Ideas generation

  • Voting / prioritisation

Asynchronous

https://www.delib.net/dialogue

Discourse

  • Discussion forum

Either

https://www.discourse.org

Dropbox Paper

  • Co-drafting

Either

https://paper.dropbox.com/

Election Buddy

  • Voting / prioritisation

Asynchronous

https://electionbuddy.com/

Engagement HQ

  • Commenting / feedback

  • Crowd-mapping

  • Discussion forum

  • Ideas generation

  • Voting / prioritisation

Either

https://www.bangthetable.com/engagementhq-community-software

Ethelo

  • Decision-making

  • Discussion forum

  • Ideas generation

  • Voting / prioritisation

Either

https://ethelo.com/t

Etherpad

  • Co-drafting

Either

https://etherpad.org

Facebook Groups

  • Discussion forum

Either

https://facebook.com

Flarum

  • Discussion forum

Either

https://flarum.org

FixMyStreet

  • Crowd-mapping

Asynchronous

https://www.fixmystreet.com 

Google Docs

  • Co-drafting

Either

https://docs.google.com/

Google Forms

  • Voting / prioritisation

Asynchronous

https://docs.google.com/forms/

GroupMap

  • Ideas generation

  • Interactive whiteboard

Synchronous

https://www.groupmap.com

Ideaflip

  • Ideas generation

  • Interactive whiteboard

Synchronous

https://ideaflip.com

Ideascale

  • Ideas generation

  • Voting / prioritisation

Asynchronous

https://ideascale.com

iObeya

  • Ideas generation

  • Interactive whiteboard

Synchronous

https://www.iobeya.com/en

Jamboard

  • Ideas generation

  • Interactive whiteboard

Synchronous

https://jamboard.google.com

Joe Docs

  • Co-drafting

  • Knowledgebase

Either

https://joedocs.com  

Jitsi

  • Video-conferencing

Synchronous

https://jitsi.org

Konveio

  • Commenting / feedback

Asynchronous

https://konve.io

LifeSize

  • Video-conferencing

Synchronous

lifesize.com

Loomio

  • Decision-making

  • Discussion forum

  • Voting / prioritisation

Asynchronous

https://loomio.org

Mentimeter

  • Interactive Q&A

  • Voting / prioritisation

Synchronous

https://www.mentimeter.com

Miro

  • Ideas generation

  • Interactive whiteboard

Synchronous

https://miro.com

Nextdoor

  • Discussion forum

Either

https://nextdoor.co.uk

Notion

  • Knowledgebase

Asynchronous

https://www.notion.so/

PlaceSpeak

  • Crowd-mapping

  • Ideas generation

Asynchronous

https://www.placespeak.com/ 

Pol.is

  • Argument visualisation

  • Ideas generation

  • Voting / prioritisation

Asynchronous

https://pol.is

Poll Everywhere

  • Voting / prioritisation

Synchronous

https://www.polleverywhere.com

Quip

  • Co-drafting

Either

https://quip.com

Reddit

  • Discussion forum

Either

https://www.reddit.com

Slack

  • Discussion forum

Either

https://slack.com/

Slido

  • Interactive Q&A

  • Voting / prioritisation

Synchronous

https://www.sli.do

Social Pinpoint

  • Crowd-mapping

  • Discussion forum

  • Ideas generation

Asynchronous

https://www.socialpinpoint.com 

Stack Overview

  • Discussion forum

  • Knowledgebase

Asynchronous

https://stackoverflow.com

Stormz

  • Ideas generation

  • Voting / prioritisation

Asynchronous

https://stormz.me/en

Survey Monkey

  • Voting / prioritisation

Asynchronous

https://www.surveymonkey.com/

Teams

  • Video-conferencing

Synchronous

https://products.office.com/en-US/microsoft-teams/group-chat-software

The Hive

  • Crowd-mapping

  • Discussion forum

  • Ideas generation

Asynchronous

https://harvestdp.com

ThinkTank

  • Ideas generation

  • Voting / prioritisation

Either

https://www.groupsystems.com/thinktank-consensus-automation

Typeform

  • Voting / prioritisation

Asynchronous

https://www.typeform.com/

Ushahidi

  • Crowd-mapping

Asynchronous

https://www.ushahidi.com 

Voicevoice

  • Video-conferencing

  • Voting / prioritisation

Synchronous

https://voicevoice.com

Whereby

  • Video-conferencing

Synchronous

https://whereby.com

Wisembly

  • Ideas generation

  • Interactive Q&A

  • Voting / prioritisation

Synchronous

https://wisembly.com/en/

Your Priorities

  • Ideas generation

  • Voting / prioritisation

Asynchronous

https://www.yrpri.org

Zilino

  • Discussion forum

Either

http://beta.zilino.com

Zoom

  • Video-conferencing

Synchronous

https://zoom.us

5. Other resources

There are lots of resources on digital engagement out there. Here are a few to check out:

If you’re a practitioner in dialogue and deliberation, you may also like to join our Deliberative Democracy Practitioners’ Network for more discussion of the opportunities and challenges of digital participation.