What is digital deliberation?

A discussion with Megan Girdler and Max Hardy

What is digital deliberation?
Max Hardy and I caught up recently to discuss what makes digital deliberation possible and plan a groundbreaking new training program on the topic.

Max is a world-leading deliberation guru who's designed Citizens' Juries and other varieties of deliberation since 1999. I've been working at the intersection of community engagement and technology since 2006.

Together, we'll co-facilitate a six-week, part-time course - which includes two full day training sessions and four weeks of online exercises. The world-premiere of the course will start during February 2019, in Melbourne, Australia. (More dates/locations to be announced in the future.)

Megan and Max talk about digital deliberation over a glass of wine. From the Future Boutique image library.

You'll be pleased to know we got the training plan finished before we opened the wine. 😉

Our definition

We think that digital deliberation combines these well-known public sector engagement techniques:
  • Deliberative engagement: invites a small group of everyday people to weigh up evidence, appreciate complex issues, and discuss challenging situations over a significant period of time (usually face-to-face). The group then ultimately makes judgments and recommendations for decision-makers.
  • Digital engagement: invites a large, diverse audience to 'weigh in', explore or influence public projects and policies using the web and connected devices.

When you combine the two, you get digital deliberation! An approach that allows you to gather broad and deep insights on complex topics using online tools and face-to-face deliberation.

Would you add anything to this definition? Do you agree or disagree? Join the conversation on Facebook or LinkedIn.

Our discussion on digital deliberation...

Max, how did you first get into deliberative engagement?

I read a book reviewing the use of Citizens' Juries in the UK, back in 1999. It inspired me and made me realise they offered something very different and useful. I was keen to find an opportunity to run one. It wasn't long before a local government client told me she was tired of doing 'the same old thing', and we gave deliberation a go.

From there I wrote about it and then talked about it at various conferences. A highlight was a session we did in Banff, Canada - where I co-facilitated an IAP2 Conference session with Doug Nethercutt (who was then Executive Officer of the Jefferson Center). Then, I came to know Dr Lyn Carson, University of Sydney and Cofounder/Director of the newDemocracy Foundation. Carson taught me a great deal about deliberative democracy - and the network of people across the world who innovate in the space.

I've designed around 35 deliberative processes (but to be honest, I've lost count of the exact number). As well as being a deliberative engagement consultant, I'm also an IAP2 licensed trainer and have introduced many people to deliberation design and theory through training sessions around the world.

Megan, how did you get into digital engagement?

My exploration of digital engagement for the public sector began in 2015 at VicRoads, when I created and launched engageVicRoads using Bang the Table's EngagementHQ. Before that I specialised in online collaboration, change management and digital strategy for big corporates and non-profits. By 2015, I'd already managed/created more than 20 websites and had built 10 prototypes of digital products. Since then, I’ve worked on 25+ online engagement projects for government and social enterprises, including Melbourne Water, Renton & Co, and Impact Investment Group.

I've noticed that in the public sector, digital engagement extends the reach and accessibility of traditional community participation activities such as information events, pop-ups and door knocking. Whereas, private sector digital community engagement usually refers to customer relationship management, content marketing and social media.

I founded Future.Boutique in 2017 to explore digital engagement in all its forms across the public and private sectors. My new mission is to cross-pollenate digital techniques from the private sector into public sector participation, and visa versa.

Max, why do you think deliberative engagement is so popular at the moment?

This is for quite a few reasons:

  • Participants, practitioners, facilitators and clients generally have positive experiences during deliberative processes.
  • newDemocracy has built relationships with important advocates, mostly former politicians, which has helped to open doors.
  • Practitioners everywhere despair of processes that simply invite superficial public opinion (without any enquiry or critical thinking).
  • More decision makers are asking 'what do people think when they're given time to really think about the issues?'
  • The success of recent processes puts the wisdom of everyday people on display, and continues to inspire community members, professionals and decision-makers alike.

Megan, some people say that deliberation is not really possible in the digital space. What have you got to say about that?

Digital deliberation is already here. While it’s early days, tools and techniques are available for people to try to see how they can make digital deliberation work for them.

There are companies who make technology and tools to better support face-to-face deliberative processes; and other organisations working to make digital engagement processes more deliberative. In a recent webinar, Dr Crispin Butteriss, Chief Practice Officer at Bang the Table discussed how surveys, forums and other tools can encourage digital deliberation. Additionally, platforms such as Synthetron empower large groups of people to have a one-hour discussion about a topic to help organisations make decisions.

It seems, digital engagement can be made more deliberative by structuring online content differently. This encourages people to consider more detailed information and take more time to think through their responses before sharing views online.

Meanwhile, online tools can enhance face-to-face deliberation through polls, online collaboration software and video conferencing (to name a few). Also, participants in a deliberative process could use digital engagement tools to test ideas with the wider community.

Max, how have you used digital tools in deliberative processes in the past? How do you see yourself using them in the future?

I feel like I haven't used them nearly enough! But do I use polling apps often during face to face deliberative processes. Programs like Poll Everywhere allow you to: collect feedback to questions, crowdsource ideas and build word clouds.

I also see online forums as an interesting opportunity for digital deliberation. When moderating online forums I pose questions to invite people to appreciate the complexity of the issues and have seen some success. That said, I'm certain technology is at a point where digital engagement can be much more deliberative.

Megan, we both see digital deliberation an opportunity gather broad and deep insights on complex issues. What do you think makes this possible?

I’m a big believer that digital engagement works best when paired with some kind of real-world discussion, face-to-face activity or event/s. This is especially true for complex topics where people’s families, emotions, health, property and livelihoods are impacted.

Deliberative techniques invite a small cross section (12 - 400 people) of the community to: discuss complex issues, weigh up options and contextual information, and take time to think critically about their views. This generates ideas and recommendations from everyday people who have become experts on an issue; and deep qualitative insights.

In contrast, digital engagement techniques generally provide short snippets of information and encourage a broad range of people to share high-level views on issues. The project is made accessible to many more community members (100 - 10,000+ people). But, they'll likely have short attention spans and will provide even shorter answers. This is currently most useful as quantitive evidence of what the wider community thinks.

Combining digital with deliberation allows more people to be involved and provides you with both broad and deep insights. This allows organisations to design outcomes and make decisions with full visibility into community views and needs.

While you're here

Check out our other blog posts on community engagement. Thanks for taking the time to read our stuff! 🙂

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