How can digital tools support deliberation? Join the conversation!
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Co-authored by: Claudia Chwalisz
As part of our work on Innovative Citizen Participation, we’ve launched a series of articles to open a discussion and gather evidence on the use of digital tools and practices in representative deliberative processes. This work builds on the forthcoming OECD report: Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions: Catching the Deliberative Wave (June 2020).
The report and this series focus on representative deliberative processes, which entail a randomly selected group of people who are broadly representative of a community spending significant time learning and collaborating through facilitated deliberation to form collective recommendations to policy makers, like the Irish Citizen Assembly.
In collaboration with our colleagues working on digital government and public sector innovation, we will build on the research done by MySociety, NESTA and many other innovators and practitioners to analyse the state of the art in terms of digital support for deliberative processes.
Here we outline the main questions that this series will explore:
1. How can digital tools support representative deliberative processes?
The current context is obliging policy makers and practitioners to think outside the box and adapt to the inability of physical deliberation. How can digital tools allow planned or ongoing processes like Citizens’ Assemblies to continue, ensuring that policy makers can still garner informed citizen recommendations to inform their decision making? New experiments are getting underway, and the evidence gathered could also be applied to other situations when face-to-face is not possible or more difficult like international processes or any situation that prevents physical gathering.
This series will cover the core phases that a representative deliberative process should follow, as established in the forthcoming OECD report: learning, deliberation, decision making, and collective recommendations. Due to the different nature of conducting a process online, we will additionally consider a phase required before learning: skills training. The articles will explore the use of digital tools at each phase, covering questions about the appropriate tools, methods, evidence, and limitations.
They will also consider how the use of certain digital tools could enhance good practice principles such as impact, transparency, and evaluation:
- Impact: Digital tools can help participants and the public to better monitor the status of the proposed recommendations and the impact they had on final decision- making. A parallel can be drawn with the extensive use of this methodology by the United Nations for the monitoring and evaluation of the impact of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
- Transparency: Digital tools can facilitate transparency across the process. The use of collaborative tools allows for transparency regarding who wrote the final outcome of the process (ability to trace the contributors of the document and the different versions). By publishing the code and the algorithms applied for the random selection (sortition) process and the data or statistics used for the stratification could give total transparency on how participants are selected.
- Evaluation: Data collection and analysis can help researchers and policy makers assess the process (for e.g., deliberation quality, participant surveys, opinion evolution). Publishing this data in a structured and open format can allow for a broader evaluation and contribute to research. Over the course of the next year, the OECD will be preparing evaluation guidelines in accordance with the good practice principles to enable comparative data analysis.
The series will also consider how the use of emerging technologies and digital tools could complement face-to-face processes, for instance:
- Artificial intelligence (AI) and text-based technologies (i.e. natural language processing, NLP): Could the use of AI-based tools enrich deliberative processes? For example: mapping opinion clusters, consensus building, analysis of massive inputs from external participants in the early stage of stakeholder input. Could NLP allow for simultaneous translation to other languages, feelings analysis, and automated transcription? These possibilities already exist, but raise more pertinent questions around reliability and user experience. How could they be connected to human analysis, discussion, and decision making?
- Virtual/Augmented reality: Could the development of these emerging technologies allow participants to be immersed in virtual environments and thereby simulate face-to-face deliberation or experiences that enable and build empathy with possible futures or others’ lived experiences?
2. What are the limits of using digital tools for representative deliberative processes?
The use of digital tools in deliberative processes faces the same limitations as in many other participatory processes. The series will also explore and uncover limitations, such as:
- Lack of social interaction: Online interaction might not have the same effect as face-to-face. However, there are interesting studies on the socialization quality in online spaces. The cases of online communities like Anonymous or social bonding during social movements (Occupy, Arab Spring, Sunflower Movement, Indignados) can help gather evidence on social interaction online. An additional comparison could be done with the e-gaming community and the subsequent social interaction built through online and digital tools.
- Digital divide: In order for digital tools to allow an inclusive and equal participation among participants, we need to address the different types of exclusion (skills, access, gender, income, uses) and how to mitigate them.
- Harmful technology: Technology is not neutral and can have negative impacts on the democratic process (dependency on proprietary software, privacy concerns etc.) When using digital tools, organisers, policy makers and participants should be aware of the associated risks and give due consideration to the ethical implications of any use of technology or personal data.
- Trust and legitimacy: What are the impacts on trust between participants, and also the public’s trust in virtual processes? What are the public’s perceptions of legitimacy of deliberative processes conducted online?
3. In what other contexts could these learnings be applied?
While the primary focus of this series is on how digital tools can enhance representative deliberative processes, such as citizens’ assemblies/juries/panels, many of the takeaways could be relevant for other situations.
The question can also be flipped. National parliaments, universities, and political parties are using digital tools to adapt to the methods and dynamics of the 21st century. This series will also include highlights of practices of the previously mentioned institutions to adapt the core phases of a deliberative process drawing on their experience of using digital tools for deliberation and citizen participation
The Digital for Deliberation series focuses on the use of technology, but the goal is to contribute to the general discussion on representative deliberative processes for policy making and more broadly, to the implementation of the open government principle of citizen participation.
Are you a practitioner delivering a representative deliberative process fully or partially online? The OECD has put together this survey for practitioners about what they are doing, how, and why. Answers are publicly available from the moment they are submitted in this viewable Airtable database (except for the name, job title and email of the individual filling out the form).
This post is part of the Digital for Deliberation series. Read the other articles:
We are opening a discussion on the use of digital tools for deliberative processes, in collaboration with our colleagues working on digital government and public sector innovation.
It may seem like designing the unthinkable. An online citizens’ assembly? One of the core elements of a citizens’ assembly is to create the space for people to meet face to face. That is where the magic of citizens’ assemblies lies. Why go online then? Marcin Gerwin offers some ideas.
Just as the architecture of a meeting hall affects whose voice can be heard, the design of our digital tools provides and forecloses certain political possibilities. Jessica Feldman outlines where engineering decisions need to be made.
Ruth Shortall and Anatol Itten consider how understanding and measuring the influence of certain features on the quality of online text-based deliberations can help us make better design decisions.
Lyn Carson in conversation with Graham Smith about transferring face-to-face deliberations to an online environment.
The online contributions from the wider public on the Decidim platform enriched the work of the in-person assembly, writes Eloïse Gabadou.
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.
The coronavirus crisis should be a catalyst for institutionalising the use of digital tools in parliament, argues French MP Paula Forteza.
Reflections from government on the challenges of digital engagement by Niamh Webster.
Pablo Hilaire writes that by promoting conscious uses of digital technologies in favour of open justice, we have learnt that to facilitate and promote deliberation and participation online, we need to put citizens at the centre, from the design to the collection of data and feedback.