Creating the Magic - an online Citizens' Assembly

Can we recreate the magic of a Citizens’ Assembly - online?

Standing shyly at the edge of a hotel lobby is my favourite part of citizens assembly work, watching people turn up; people who have little in common, apart from opening an envelope inviting them to take part.

We’ve been planning this for months, pouring over every detail, twist and turn of how it will work. Until now, these people have been names on a spreadsheet as a random, demographic selection. Being a spy at their arrival gives me that same excitement and wonder of what’s ahead. I enjoy tuning into and feeling that combination of anticipation and trepedations they start their journey, facing the unknown.

Launching the Adur and Worthing Climate Assembly as an online event, I’m curious to compare how the process stacks up against the physical version I’m used to. With five of these processes across the UK under my facilitator belt, how will my initial sparkly lobby moment and magic of the overall assembly experience transfer into the flat screen of Zoom?

As people pile in from the virtual lobby to the main room, I’m not quite catching the full diversity of energy they bring. Head-only shots are limiting, with degrees of self-consciousness associated with being on camera and life laundry on display. But hold on, there’s still a window into difference and diversity. People have choice about what they share about themselves, whether they exude a gregarious personality or hide behind a camera that is switched off.

In the main room, it feels eery - everyone muted and static on screen. One person escapes the mute function and a strange background noise scrapes through the assembly audio. We scan the pages of faces, looking for body language cues - signs of boredom, distress, bewilderment. How it is landing is hard to gauge in this arena. It’s difficult to feel and read a room in the same way as you can, often instinctively, in person.

Insert the processes for getting that deep collaboration and ideas exchange. Smaller breakout rooms are genius for this, keeping pace and interest piqued. More intimate, humour and differences bond people and create glue for thinking together. People form bonds, test boundaries and the opaque newness of the situation becomes inspiring. They share ideas through online methods fairly easily.

This is, I think, thanks to the introductory process (individual tech training and sharing any support needed in order to take part) people have been through weeks in advance. A few times, someone’s tech falls down. We’ve planned for this with roaming IT support be at the end of a phone. We’ve planned a ‘quiet room’ function for anyone who might need support; to step out, talk, process what they’re going though with one of our team who’s assigned into this caring role.

We’ve also set up ‘micro-groups’ in between each whole-assembly day. This is where set groups of five or so people work online together ewith a facilitator, to understand their role and build confidence for taking part. Perhaps most importantly, it’s an informal space for people to chat, laugh and form bonds with eachother. Having supported a couple of these, I realise what a critical part micro-groups play in keeping the journey going - creating different opportunities for sharing views around a topic. The added benefit of the juicy goodness squeezed from micro-groups, will influence the whole group experience.

The group returns to the main room a few times. This connects them to the assembly task, and they get to peek at each other’s faces again. Singular feels more collective and connected now. From here, returning to breakout rooms, several members share deeply and emotionally in a way I wasn’t sure would happen online. This is the magic. This is the process we were aiming for. It’s working.

This is session one. We are at the start of a exciting journey with the 45 assembly members.

I’m optimistic that the interior moments from small group breakouts will translate into the whole group process, of consensual recommendations that will get taken seriously and acted upon.

It’s early days to decide if we truly are recreating magic from physical into online citizens’ assemblies here. We’ve changed the process. So far it feels good. I’ll continue to share how it goes along the way.

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