#LockDownDebate: Lessons for rapid online deliberation

11 May 2020

#LockDownDebate: Lessons for rapid online deliberation

This page captures real time learning from the joint Ada Lovelace Institute, Traverse, Involve, and Bang the Table online deliberation we ran on COVID-19. For more information on the project and the findings see our case study here. We shared our learning week by week through the project. 

1. Designing a rapid process: lessons from the setup phase

2. Running online discussions: lessons from week one

3. Creating an online buzz: lessons from week two

4. Building public confidence and trust (by the Ada Lovelace team)

Designing a rapid process: lessons from the setup phase

Our main challenge has been refining and confirming the research questions we will explore with participants.

-          How do you design deliberation on an ever-shifting subject matter? We’ve talked to a number of people about the best focus for this work to make it as useful as possible and to build on other work being done in the space. However, things change daily, and, for example, we’re not sure by the time we are talking to participants what the status of the NHS app will be, whether the lockdown will have been lifted to some extent. In response to this, we have decided to start broad, and use this as an opportunity to give participants some autonomy over the process by asking them to prioritise the subjects they would like to discuss.

-          Is a subject still worth discussing if the news cycle has moved on? There feels a great responsibility to be as current as possible, but just because we’re not talking about (for example) symptom tracking as much as we were when the ZOE app was launched, that doesn’t mean the issues have gone away or that it’s not relevant. We’re trying to ensure that we focus on the long-term implications for citizens, and some of the big questions that surround many of the proposed intervention to ensure the work remains relevant.

-          How do you do something quickly and thoroughly with a constrained budget? Well, with some difficulty. Firstly, we know this work will have its limitations and we will be as explicit about that as possible (expect a blog on that coming shortly). Secondly, we’re assuming that even if it doesn’t seem that much other similar work is occurring, we know that there is – take, for instance, the Sciencewise Sounding Board pilots in 2015, the efforts to move the Climate Citizens’ Assembly online, and that insights from that work and other more emergent work shaped by lockdown will also help test and situate our findings. Thirdly, we’re trying to collaborate as much as possible to use feedback and challenge from partners and friends to make our work more robust.

Running online discussions: lessons from week one


We are running this project as rapidly as possible, and one consequence of this is that we are limited in how strict our sampling criteria can be. Compared with the sortition approaches of projects like the Citizens Assembly, our approach of an open invite to local online forums and groups is fairly crude. We are by default only including those who are online, although by using local groups set up specially to support communities during lockdown we’re hopeful this is a broader pool than it might have been three months ago.

That said, within about a week we managed to recruit a sample that within spitting distance of national levels for age, ethnicity and approximated social grade, split across rural and urban populations. Interestingly the one criteria we struggled most with was gender, even after snowballing from our initial respondents (e.g. we asked them to help us recruit more male participants). This isn’t an unusual finding, but it is likely that the method of recruitment (mutual aid groups, local resident forums) leans heavily female and this needs to be managed actively from the start of recruitment.

Logistics of zoom rooms:

In our first online session we had 26 participant, plus facilitators, notetakers, speakers and observers, bringing us up to around 35 people in the intro session. At this scale the chat function can feel a bit frantic, but it worked well for information giving. As soon as we broke out into smaller groups (around 6-7 people) the dynamic was much better and easier to facilitate. This was fairly easy to manage in Zoom, so highly recommend it.

Also – that thing where participants show up early? That’s true online too, your waiting room will be busy so be aware of that!

Group dynamics:

We’ll say more about this in subsequent weeks as the groups spend more time together, but initial feedback from our facilitators was that some of the usual dynamics (e.g. more dominant personalities getting more air time) were strongly present and a little trickier to manage online. Some of the tools we use as facilitators to manage discussions, from speaking more quietly to model a calmer discussion, to how we physically arrange a room, aren’t immediately available online.

We’re also finding that the process of establishing a productive discourse takes more time. we had originally planned one hour discussion sessions, but this is just too short, for us and for our participants – we were just getting going. And too much structure can get in the way of the discussion, and takes longer to explain online, so keep it simple. 


Creating an online buzz: lessons from week 2

When Covid-19 struck right in the middle of the Climate Assembly UK process the organisers quickly adapted and took it online. A follow up survey with participants found that most participants preferred a mixed approach, with some face to face and some online elements. One aspect participants mentioned was the ‘buzz’ of a face-to-face meeting, something we’ve been reflecting on and trying to better define. 

“It is better meeting in person, you know people are focused and there is a buzz missing from the internet meetings.”

When you facilitate a workshop in person, and it’s going well, you quickly become aware of an atmosphere of excitement in the room. This can be caused by a mixture of lots of different things, and as I started to write them down, I realised that underlying all these things is emotion. Emotion is something that we often ignore or try to minimise in professional settings, but it’s a critical part of what differentiates deliberative process, which are explicitly concerned not just with WHAT people think but why they think it, how they express it, and whether it changes. There’s a lot going on in a deliberative conversation beyond simple statements of opinion, or as Graham Smith described in a recent conversation with Lyn Carson:

“Deliberation isn’t a single thing. It’s a bunch of different things that happen; it’s the learning, generating ideas, listening, hearing and creating things together.” 

n our experience, this bunch of things (and more) all have an emotional component:  

Learning: One of the things we hear most often in feedback from deliberative events is that people enjoy the experience of learning. For most adults learning completely new topics just isn’t part of their daily lives, so it’s a stimulating and exciting process.  

Changing minds:  Deliberative processes are based on the idea that views can change, over time, through exposure to new ideas, new information, new arguments, or simply in different contexts. That’s the fundamental difference between dialogic or deliberative communication, which aims to explore the differences in opinion in a relative frame, and dialectic, which poses statements in opposition to each other – as in this model we use to teach deliberative practice. 

dialogue.jpgThe point here is that evaluating our opinions and changing our minds isn’t something most of us experience on a regular basis – and in safe and trusting settings changing your mind can be fun, liberating, and exciting. There can also be a range of other emotions – some negative (I have felt shame, anger, and disappointment before) but the bottom line is that there are emotions involved.

- Forming relationships. Whether this is connecting with someone like-minded, or navigating a new acquaintance who holds very different views to your own, forming relationships is a key part of a deliberative process, particularly in the mini-public or representative model where we explicitly bring together a mix of people much wider than your typical social circle.

- Expressing an opinion: Firstly, the act of forming and expressing your opinion is a social and political act, that many people aren’t encouraged or supported to do. Expressing your opinion in a public space can be scary and exciting if it’s something you’re not used to doing.

- Being heard: Secondly, your opinion being heard by others, being considered, written down, and reported on, suddenly turns it - and you – into something and someone that matters. We know from feedback from many participants in deliberative processes over the years that this experience of being heard, and your view being openly valued, can be immensely powerful. It’s important not to confuse deliberative engagement with therapeutic processes, but some of the principles, like active listening and validation of a persons experience, are similar.

So, is it possible to enable this emotional experience online? Within the Leaving Lockdown debate, we are certainly enabling most of the above. The one that is arguably hardest is supporting participants to form relationships with each other. There are no opportunities for side conversations, for quick chats in the coffee breaks, and the conversation on video conference is necessarily slower than in real-life, with fewer visual cues. We’ve been thinking about how we might do this in future projects:

- “Social” meet ups with participants. As part of the process, but ensuring that at least one session is just focused on getting to know each other.

Paired work or work in threes. In face-to-face, we often use short activities in pairs or threes to give people a different dynamic of working together, and to help build trust. There are ways we could build this into the online process.

Shared activities. In a similar way to the above, we could set participants activities that they must complete in pairs or small groups away from the main sessions.

Chat forums. We haven’t yet used this within this project, as it’s such a short timeframe, and we wanted to focus on simple discrete tasks for participants to start off with. However, it’s something we may well build in, and we know from previous work can then result in valuable trust building and deliberation outside of the main sessions.

We welcome feedback, guidance, critical challenge, and support – so do get in touch if you are interested in having a conversation about this work. Drop Anna a note at anna.mckeon@traverse.ltd

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