The Covid-19 measures on social distancing are forcing researchers to assess how they can continue to find out what the public think when we cannot meet them in person. This is particularly true of work like mine, which involves wanting to know what people think after they have had the chance to consider new information and deliberate about it.
Our current work on the Future of Britain project is a good example of this kind of research. It is investigating what the public think should happen in the UK on certain policy areas once we leave the EU. To do so it is using an approach called Deliberative Polling, in which people are brought together for a weekend both to question experts and deliberate among themselves. The impact this deliberation has on their attitudes is measured by surveying their views both before and after the event.
We were planning to conduct such a poll in Birmingham in June – but now can no longer do so. However, an alternative approach to Deliberative Polling that we tried last year points to a possible solution – not just for Deliberative Polling but for all forms of deliberative research.
Deliberative research is based on the belief that it makes for better democracy if people have a chance to have a say in the policies and issues that will affect them. In this type of work at NatCen, we regularly bring together anything 30 and 300 people to discuss one of a range of subjects. Traditionally, the deliberations involve convening people in a workshop that lasts a few hours or events taking place across several days, finding venues with good logistics and accessibility and making sure there is a plentiful supply of biscuits. Practically, they consist of a mixture of plenary type sessions and small group discussions and trying to avoid people getting lost as they move between them. Most of the things researchers already know about whether or not these are valuable ways to involve people in democratic processes – and what might be good conditions in which to undertake deliberations – assume participants are meeting in person.
However, in June of last year, the Future of Britain project branched out from this traditional face to face approach. It ran the UK’s first (and we think largest) Deliberative Poll using videoconferencing software. Over one (very sunny) weekend we brought together 180 members of the public from across Britain, together with NatCen research staff and panels of experts on the subjects we were discussing – immigration, food policy and consumer regulation. The event was held using Zoom and comprised a mixture of plenary sessions with the experts and moderated small group discussions. We were purposely testing whether the conditions needed for effective deliberation could be replicated online – and, indeed, whether there are additional benefits of doing so, such as reaching people who are not usually able to attend events with a high time commitment. And, of course, online deliberation also holds out the prospect of being less expensive.
Much of our experience was positive.
Participants were willing and able to deliberate online. People talked freely but respectfully about difficult and contentious topics (e.g. immigration) in their moderated small groups. The software enabled us to switch participants between their small groups and the plenary sessions with relative ease. We did secure the participation of some people who might not normally find it easy to attend an extended face to face event (either due to caring commitments or health issues). Participants’ evaluations of the event suggest that for them the experience compared favourably with that of face to face Deliberative Polls. Anecdotally we also came away with the impression that participants found it more congenial to be involved from the comfort of their own home.
“[the weekend] exceeded expectations and I learnt a lot.”
“Thanks for being such a good host on our event, I found the whole weekend very interesting and informative.”
“I loved it – I loved every minute of it, I wish I could do it again!”
“Thanks to you and all the team for your help and support during an interesting and stimulating weekend.”
As I discussed at the SRA annual conference in December, on the basis of this experience we have also identified best practice for moderators in an online setting. This addresses in particular how to manage group dynamics and the role of non-verbal communication, as this differs from face to face interaction.
So, does this approach provide a potential solution to the challenge of undertaking deliberation during the public health crisis?
Well, we still have to grapple with the question of digital exclusion. Our participants were recruited from a random probability survey (the NatCen panel) which many had completed online. For those who did opt in, being online was an increasingly familiar experience, and we were able to put in place the guidance and tools they needed to be able to access the event. But this still leaves the substantial body of people for whom – until now at least – videoconferencing is still unfamiliar or inaccessible. As might be anticipated, our experience suggests that both older people and non-graduates are less likely to report having access to the necessary technology.
Retaining people once they had said they would participate proved more difficult. The drop-off between agreeing to take part and actually doing do was higher than in our previous experience of face to face deliberation. The very sunny weather over the weekend of our event in June may well not have helped – but our experience underlined the possibility that people may find it easier to drop out when all they have agreed to do is to log into an event rather than attend one where their hotel and travel costs have all been paid.
Thanks to the impetus provided by the COVID19 crisis, NatCen will be trying to refine the use of digital interaction, which we believe holds promise not only for deliberative research but also a wider range of qualitative research. Meanwhile, as we do more research this way, I will be keeping my attention on the wider question of how going online with deliberations can be a thoughtful tool for democracy. According to one of our colleagues on the Future of Britain project, James Fishkin, ‘deliberation is democracy when the people are thinking’. It might be that the current health crisis heralds a new era in digital deliberation that will enable this to happen.