The global pandemic has changed every area of our lives – and that means participation too.

For those of us organising citizens’ assemblies, Covid-19 challenged our prejudice for face-to-face forms of participation.

With much social engagement and communication already happening online, you might think this would be a simple case of lift and shift to using the range of digital tools – but it was anything but.  Whilst digital engagement is nothing new, and even with some great existing practice to draw on, the purpose, methods and values of deliberative democracy don’t easily translate. This meant a complete reimagining of the way we had been delivering citizens assemblies.

 

People responded to the letter of invitation at the same level as pre-Covid times. And people stayed. We had a retention rate of 95% with only one person dropping out after the first meeting. 

My challenge then was to design an online deliberative process (for the Adur & Worthing Climate Assembly) that fostered a group of people who had never met to work and learn together, listen to people with different views to their own, and then weigh up options and trade-offs to collectively reach agreement.  And, at a fundamental level, I had no idea if people would want to answer a difficult and complex question about climate change when everyone’s lives were turned upside down from Covid-19. 

So what happened?

Well, it worked, and I don’t just mean we got through it. I mean it really worked.  The good humour and the collaborative spirit of working out the online experience together and what was achieved by the Assembly members was quite incredible.  My standouts from the experience?

1. Recruitment and inclusion were better than I could have imagined.

Going online drove us to think harder about removing barriers to taking part and being aware of how much time people could spend in front of a screen. With Covid-19 affecting our lives both emotionally and physically, we wanted and needed to put people’s wellbeing front and centre of our design.  The structure changed: a shorter working day; not working on consecutive days; equipment to those that needed it; training and practice in using the digital tools. 

The digital version of the ‘coffee, cake and corridor space’ of our face-to-face assemblies was often translated into a virtual expert video and popcorn evening. 

People responded to the letter of invitation at the same level as pre-Covid times. And people stayed. We had a retention rate of 95% with only one person dropping out after the first meeting. 

We had unexpected stories of inclusion. A person who was living on the streets until Covid-19 meant he received a letter of invitation at his temporary accommodation. The people with social anxieties who said they wouldn’t have taken part if they had to meet a group of people face to face. The individuals whose families benefited from now having a computer in the house to do home-schooling. The older person who had never used video and digital tools before and was now regularly connecting with his family.  

2. Thinking differently brought greater creativity.

From the start, we called it an experiment. Everyone knew we were learning together by doing. This gave implicit permission for participants to shape the plan with us. The process was more iterative and able to grow organically as people gave feedback and had ideas and suggestions. We collectively owned making it work online, for which I was hugely grateful. 

It meant that we tried some things we just hadn’t done before:

  • We brought all the information and assembly materials together into an ‘our space’ website, a one-stop-shop for participants, experts, the delivery team, the commissioner, staff and partners to access throughout the assembly journey. 
  • We had an online gallery where people could share their reflections through photos, poems, drawings and posters.
  • We created ‘Micro Groups’ which met outside of the assembly days to give members a chance to think, reflect and informally bond with each other. The digital version of the ‘coffee, cake and corridor space’ of our face-to-face assemblies was often translated into a virtual expert video and popcorn evening. 

The critical challenge of creating online spaces for dialogue that feels natural and organic is one that needs wider experimentation. 

3. The mechanics of online interactions are not yet up to par.

My job is to design spaces that are welcoming, equitable, and rewarding, to enable connections and a sense of achievement and celebration. 

When we bring a group of people together face-to-face to listen and talk with each other, we hear a buzz and see an energy as people work together around tables. Natural cross fertilisation occurs as people overhear things from other tables and people connect dots and build on each other’s thinking.   

Going online generated a different dynamic, which was mostly borne out of the tech and tools we had at our disposal. Conversations felt too task orientated and often binary with the facilitator frequently put at the centre of each interaction. The critical challenge of creating online spaces for dialogue that feels natural and organic is one that needs wider experimentation.  

4. Connecting recommendation drafting to the learning phase is more complex

Moving online highlighted the importance of being able to not only build the thinking along the way but being able to track this back. In part this is about remembering, but it is also about assembly members being able to justify their rationale and to be able to test their thinking. 

Challenges remain that still need to be resolved. 

In a face-to-face space, tables are often covered with print outs of materials created from previous sessions, flip charts full of post-its adorn the walls, making it easy to grab something and artlessly make connections.  This tangibility of previous work and thinking is difficult to replicate online, even with the one-stop website.  It wasn’t a place people would naturally gravitate to in the middle of a conversation or as they were working on a recommendation canvas.

My take-aways

If I am honest, without the rug being pulled out from under my feet, I would not have considered delivering citizen assemblies online. The shift – for myself, assembly members, commissioners and others – to a ‘can do’ and an ‘at pace’ mindset meant not only were many barriers overcome, but a number of unanticipated benefits materialised. Challenges remain that still need to be resolved. 

  • What impact does working virtually have on recommendations? Are they of the same (or even better) quality as face-to-face outputs?
  • How can our rapid learning feed into wider civic tech development to support human interactions that feel more natural and organic, and takes into account the accessibility needs of diverse participants?
  • How might we mix the best of online and face-to-face processes once we no longer need to socially distance?
  • How do we take our learning from this experience into digital democracy more broadly? 

Those of us who were “forced” online will be figuring out this new space of engagement for a while yet.

This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to COVID-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.

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Mel works at Democratic Society is a specialist in developing strategy and practice for collaborative decision making. She works with a range of public sector clients and organisations in evidence-based decision making and participation methodologies, including CAs. Her style of collaboration, facilitation and challenge has enabled politicians and citizens alike to meaningfully and purposefully engage, co-design and innovate new ways of democratic engagement.