When and how to deliberate online

Our Centre for Deliberative Research approaches deliberation as a spectrum of involvement.

Each project is different, but our work is always driven by understanding public opinion through dialogue. We recently explored when and how to deliberate online with experienced researchers who are new to deliberative methods through our NCRM training course, ‘taking deliberations online’. Over two days of dialogue with delegates we explored what deliberation is, when to use it and how to take it online.

What is deliberation?

Deliberation is the process of carefully considering or discussing something. In public discourse, this is different to debating because it is about considering different evidence, rather than seeking to undermine your opponent’s premise to ‘win’ an argument. In social research, deliberative methods are different to traditional qualitative research because the focus is less on personal experience and top-of-mind opinions, and more on designing a method that supports people to consider their views on a social issue. To deliberate we need information, time and good conditions.

  • Information: People deliberating need access to the same information so that, as much as possible, everyone has a shared knowledge base and premises. This is often achieved through inviting experts and preparing accessible materials.
  • Time: People need enough time to hear, process and consider different opinions and evidence. Typically, deliberation takes place over days rather than hours and involves exercises such as prioritisations and trade-offs, where participants are encouraged to challenge each other’s thinking.
  • Good conditions: It’s not easy to disagree with strangers, nor is it easy to process information about social policies. The facilitator needs to establish a safe and inquisitive environment where people are supported to discuss in this way. This often involves activities that move towards consensus building or identifying shared principles.

When is deliberative research useful?

When considering how deliberative approaches could work for them, delegates on our NCRM training course thought about when to use deliberative methods, who to involve and the ideal output.

Contentious and complex issues that are prone to polarisation in the media are good candidates for deliberative research. Our recent deliberation on Brexit immigration policy provided people with the time, information and conditions to consider an issue where views can often be reported in a simplistic way through the media.

To avoid deliberative research recreating polarised social media debates, we often want to involve a mix of perspectives and concentrate on people who sit somewhere in the middle ground of the issue. Through attitudinal sampling we often try to ensure participants would at least, in principle, be open to re-considering their views on the topic under discussion. This is a principle of criminal juries – no one wants to be judged by someone who has already made up their mind.

Finally, deliberation is often thought to lead to opinion change, and this can be seen as evidence that deliberation has been effective. But opinion change in deliberative research isn’t always straightforward. Our recent work on Brexit immigration policy shows one outcome of deliberation can be a ‘softening’ of views in unexpected directions, rather than people changing their views and perspectives entirely. This outcome reflected the complexity of people’s opinions on immigration and highlighted aspects of their views that will and will not soften in response to deliberation with fellow citizens.  

Taking deliberation online

Online deliberation includes some and excludes others, and we’re still learning more about how to manage inclusion.

We can now bring people from Darlington and Devon together online in a way that the traditional town hall discussion never could, which increases the opportunity for some to participate in civic life. However, going digital by default excludes other populations who cannot get online.

To make the online space as inclusive as possible, our NCRM training explored approaches to facilitation, timing and informal space.

  • Facilitation: Many body language clues and more ‘natural’ ways to include everyone in the conversation are not possible online, but newer ways to ‘check in’ on quiet respondents and ensure everyone participates are available through the chat function.
  • Timing: Communication is more direct online, and ‘screen fatigue’ can mean people run out of energy. We tend to find that it is better to offer more, shorter sessions online and fewer, longer sessions face to face.
  • Lack of informal spaces: This shortened, more direct way of deliberating removes some of the spaces that traditionally support people to ask questions and get comfortable with those they deliberate with – in face to face sessions, this was done through the tea and coffee break. Online, we discussed possible design solutions such as building in tea and coffee breaks long enough for people to discuss the issue with people at home or using online platforms to keep the conversation going in between sessions.

An interesting time ahead

Our discussions with delegates in our training confirmed that it is an interesting and important time for deliberation, and a challenge for researchers to work out what elements they can apply to their design. In discussions with delegates, we encouraged a fluid approach that doesn’t need to ‘fit’ certain criteria in order to be considered ‘proper’ deliberation. Instead, we recommended applying the principles of the process of deliberation to support people to participate differently in policy engagement and development.