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Online deliberative research

Going Online with Deliberative Polling

Deliberative research focuses on uncovering attitudes after citizens have been provided with evidence and an opportunity to discuss the issue(s) with experts and others. Our work focuses on citizen engagement with policy making in the context of democratic innovation.

In both its online and offline modes, deliberative polls take a random, representative sample of citizens and engage them in deliberation on current issues through small-group discussions and plenary conversations with competing experts. Participants complete a survey on attitudes related to the issues under discussion before and after the event. 

In June 2019, NatCen ran the UK’s first deliberative poll using video conferencing software. As part of the Future of Britain project, we brought together 180 members of the UK public with research staff and subject experts, who all joined an online event for a weekend of deliberation in a mixture of expert evidence and moderated small group discussion sessions. Our approach tested the potential of whether the conditions for successful deliberative research could be replicated online, and whether there were additional benefits of this mode, such as reaching more diverse voices and doing so in a more cost-effective way.

So far, we’ve learnt that our online approach engaged people who might not normally find it easy to attend an extended face to face event (either due to caring commitments or health issues) and that participants were motivated and engaged to participate online. We have created best practices for moderators in an online setting – addressing the management of group dynamics and role of non-verbal communication as it differs compared to face to face.

Despite the benefits of this proof of concept, we still have more to do around the question of digital exclusion. Our participants were recruited from the NatCen Panel (for which many will complete surveys online). Our experience suggests that, for those who opted in, communicating and completing everyday tasks online was something increasingly familiar. We also put in place the right guidance and tools for them to be supported to access the event. As we bring these lessons forward, and inevitably do more research this way, we are keeping our attention on the wider question of how going online with deliberations can be a thoughtful tool for democracy.

If you want to know more about deliberative research at NatCen, contact Ceri Davies at ceri.davies@natcen.ac.uk.