Digital Solutions Can Complement Real World Participation — but Mustn’t Exclude

After public meetings can resume, digital participation will likely grow as a complement to offline events. This will broaden citizen engagement — but we have to be careful it doesn’t freeze people out.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the coronavirus crisis has driven a huge amount of invention. In our field as in others, it has acted as an accelerant of processes that were already underway, breaking down objections to change by forcing people to adopt new behaviours. Now, as economies start to reopen and normality of a sort resumes, the restart will be into the new world, not the old.

We have been extending our efforts to understand how different tools and approaches can work together to get the most out of online tools while preserving the most of what makes in-person deliberation valuable.

We have been putting this into practice in our current projects, including the Scottish Citizens’ Assembly. This process, commissioned by the Scottish Government to deliberate on the future of Scotland, is two-thirds of the way through a face-to-face process involving over 100 participants and is moving toward developing recommendations. Participants have so far mainly engaged online to read updates and to access reports and briefings in between meetings.

Assessment is crucial before implementing digital solutions

The Assembly’s independent secretariat did not immediately move to putting the remaining meetings online, but has been keeping in touch with members while waiting to see how the situation unfolds. This thinking time has allowed us to consider some of the practicalities of taking deliberative spaces online — thoughts that we have included in a new publication with our friends at newDemocracy in Australia.

In Scotland, to ensure that solutions are informed by what participants wanted and needed, the secretariat ran a participant survey to gauge interest in different activities and to find out individual barriers to online participation. The results showed a continuing desire to engage, but raised concerns about how the technology can be usable for all. This is particularly important in this Assembly where a significant number of participants come from remote and rural areas, including islands, where connectivity can be poor. One of the early challenges will be finding online methods and designing processes that meet those specific technological challenges without disadvantaging participants or reducing the volume of some voices.

Although the extent of online activities remains to be determined, at the very least there will be opportunities to build on the learning that had already begun, through provision of learning materials, presentations, Q&As, and facilitated small group discussions.

Potential challenges of moving deliberative spaces online

In our report, we highlighted some of the main elements of design needed if we do take our final meetings online. Some of the most important are:

  • Focus on shorter sessions, spread over a longer time. We all know how hard it is to stare into a laptop, even if the meeting is interesting.
  • Smaller groups, ensuring participants aren’t sitting for long spells without talking.
  • Learning together in small groups where possible, rather than watching presentations. The flexibility of online formats to shift time and allow bite-sized contributions can really make a difference here.
  • One session, one tool. Ensure that you aren’t switching participants between tools in the same session, in the same way that you wouldn’t add a coffee break halfway through a presentation.

One of the challenges is how to ensure that people can craft recommendations and take decisions in an all-online format. We will also be adapting the format, while the world may be changing participants’ outlooks. How will coronavirus have affected our participants? Will the priorities they held last month be the same now? We will need to be prepared to reopen the process design a little, so we give space to discuss the impact of coronavirus, and revisit earlier conclusions.

In any process that uses tools for digital participation, we also need to be aware of many of the challenges highlighted by existing research around digital exclusion. Many barriers are systematic, and these are not all challenges that democratic innovators can address alone.

In Scotland, following in the steps of a Digital Participation Charter and Scottish Government funding that has supported projects to tackle digital exclusion since 2014, COVID-19 ramped up a response from cross-sector collaborators to organise support for those most at risk and digitally excluded, coordinated through the No One Left Behind Digital Scotland programme.

The way forward

Intentional and rapid cross-sector collaboration to tackle exclusion, and to demonstrate practice that is inclusive and equitable, is necessary and should be a continuous effort. We must avoid assumptions and be conscious that ‘build it and they will come’ does not always ring true. Digital participation requires a concerted effort of engagement and trust-building. It’s important to understand who is and is not participating, and the reasons why.

Collaboration and user research will assist the design, building, refinement, and testing of online processes and tools to meet participants’ needs. We are glad to be part of the international conversation on these issues, and happy to share our learning and ideas as we go.

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