Digital deliberative & participative democracy — the future is here now!
Online deliberative forums and other forms of digital engagement are now established platforms and tools, not especially ‘innovative’ and definitely not ‘experimental’ so why are they not being used more? Lack of experience has been the biggest problem to date, but that’s about to change!
As those who’ve been following my Tweets will know, over the past 18 months, I’ve advocated for greater adoption of ‘Digital Democracy’, including greater use of online channels, platforms and tools to enhance deliberative & participative democracy.
More specifically, I’ve advocated for more use of online tools to avoid having citizens assemblies and citizens juries being narrow deliberative forums — lots of depth but very little breadth (at worst, deeper deliberation at the expense of wider participation) — with intensive face-to-face engagement for a select(ed) few but with little or no opportunity for participation among the many, not even those invited to join the face-to-face Citizens Assembly who registered their interest but were not selected (a practice that is anti-democratic and poor human relations).
It’s not just this issue. I’ve raised many other issues too, including:
~ taking a broad perspective on means to our democracy ends, avoiding blinkered marketing of one particular brand of Citizens Assembly model;
~ an unquestioning, unhealthy obsession with ‘sortition’ rather than exploring all ways of selecting and recruiting participants for deliberative & participative democracy initiatives;
~ misrepresentation of the ‘random’ properties of many assemblies and juries; they are not ‘random samples’ and even where there is (stratified) random selection involved, there’s also a self-selection component in all methods currently being used;
~ a ‘cult like’ sleepwalk or herd mentality by councils wanting to repeat one brand of Climate Emergency Citizens Assembly (like panic-buying a product off the shelves) without trying to develop, adapt, and add value; and
~ damaging, destructive, demonising of established research tools such as surveys and focus groups rather than a constructive, creative blending of all the research, evaluation, engagement, deliberation, and participation tools we have in our toolkit.
But let’s focus here now on online forums/platforms/tools…
The focus on online — from resist to accept…to embrace?!
There’s been a focus in recent exchanges on online tools for two reasons. Firstly, the bias against online methods needed calling out and, now we’ve done so, there’s been a mix of strong support, especially from those (like myself) who’ve been designing and facilitating online research and engagement for many years (see case studies below), and less positive reactions from others, including dismissal, defensiveness, and disbelief.
Some leading ‘democracy advocates’ said there was no bias, despite the weight of evidence to the contrary — instantly demonstrating the (unconscious) bias!
Others tried to make their case for why, in their belief system and/or based on their experience, “it can’t be done online”. Those being more reasonable tend to say “I can’t imagine the same depth of deliberation we can achieve face-to-face in an online forum”.
Those being unreasonable, and just not thinking too deeply, throw in prejudice and create false binaries like “online forums will be unrepresentative and dominated by the loudest voices” — not true, of course, with structured recruitment and facilitation.
Secondly, along came Corona Virus (COVID_19 or SARS_CoV_2) sending us all into an unexpected and unprecedented phase of Physical Distancing (and it’s Physical Distancing not Social Distancing, especially as the digital world has enabled a high degree of social connection online). Suddenly, everyone is searching around for solutions for ‘keeping calm and carrying on’, particularly digital communications solutions.
From local meetings to national assemblies, like ClimateAssemblyUK and similar Citizens Assemblies in France, Ireland and Scotland, there have been postponements without knowing when they will re-convene, potentially losing the energy and momentum (and memory store of knowledge and reflective views) of several weekends of face-to-face meetings. Also, final votes and recommendations could be delayed, and crucial deliberations around core issues, eg the date when Net Zero Emissions should be achieved (which ClimateAssemblyUK said would be covered in the final weekend).
And, yet, these assemblies, juries, forums and other meetings could quite easily take place online. There could be a seamless continuation of national Citizens Assemblies like ClimateAssemblyUK. We have the technology and technical know-how, and more than a decade of experience of designing and facilitating online engagement (including voting or polling participants being a standard piece of functionality in all the main platforms as well as discussion boards and prioritisation tools).
The only barrier is in the heads of those who are still wedded to old beliefs and are having difficulty adapting to the digital world — and their number is shrinking rapidly! More and more democracy advocates are saying “let’s try this” or “let’s look at the digital platforms available” or “let’s experiment”.
Adapting established tools and transferable experience is not ‘experimental’!
Of course “let’s experiment” is part of the unconscious bias that exists. Anyone using the word ‘experiment’ is clearly feeling that this is untried technology, uncharted waters, a risky enterprise, something they are being reluctantly forced to try rather than a simple adaptive innovation they are embracing.
The key driver of this unconscious bias is lack of experience, lack of exposure to the (many) digital platforms out there and their application. Once exposed, we tend to embrace it, just like all those now shifting their meetings to Zoom, including teachers delivering lessons via videoconferencing platforms like market leader Zoom or its smaller competitors like Pexip.
Those of us who have been designing and facilitating online research and community engagement for more than a decade (see case history below) are scratching our heads and saying:
“what’s the problem?”
“why the resistance?”
“why not simply run an online forum?”
“why not set up an online forum (or forums) for those invited to a face-to-face Citizens Assembly, expressing interest but not being selected, or saying they’d love to take part but they can’t give up 4 weekends in Birmingham?”
and — in the current COVID_19 induced alternative universe:
“why not just move your face-to-face deliberations online?”!
Case studies in online engagement: the pioneering years (2008–12)
My first experience of online deliberative forums was in 2008 when I was Director & Executive Coach at TNS (now part of the Kantar Group). TNS was a pioneer at that time, including long-form discussion groups and bulletin boards and integrating interactive text and pinboard platforms with video via use of ‘Bloggie Cameras’. I carefully watched what all the research teams were doing, including the consumer research team, the travel & tourism team, the technology team, the qualitative research specialists, and then applied it all to social and government research and engagement.
Several projects followed, including a review of the complaints process for the NSW trains service (CityRail/CountryTrains/RailCorp). We analysed complaints received, including method of complaint, nature of complaint, whether or not resolved. We had one-to-one interviews with ‘activists’ and those making multiple complaints, then held face-to-face group discussions and online forums, stratified by ‘complained and now satisfied’, ‘complained and not satisfied’ and ‘dissatisfied with service but didn’t complain’.
The clients could attend the face-to-face groups and observe. Several did, although usually just one or two groups. They could also log in to the online forums as observers at any time 24/7 (useful for busy executives who were also occasionally in different time zones), and they did so frequently over the course of the forums which typically lasted 3–4 weeks.
This kind of approach became commonplace, designed in to virtually every proposal and project, with appropriate tailoring, and with continuous innovation. One project which was featured at several conferences, as well as in the TNS client newsletter, was for Queensland Rail (QR), to help shape its policy on ‘graffiti’ — what to allow (even encourage), what to discourage or clamp down on, when to prosecute, what policy options?
We were able to use online forums with communities including anonymous participants who had been recruited and screened on the basis of their ‘graffiti’ (negative label) or ‘street art’ (positive label) behaviour.
QR said it gained many new insights from this research, eg on what is regarded as ‘fair game’ and what are the most attractive ‘canvases’ (from high profile static structures next to train lines to the trains themselves) which helped them determine policies and future practice.
Many projects were for local government, state government, and federal government delivery agencies to try and improve services and communications, but some were high level policy and key national decisions, eg setting the level of the Minimum Wage. The Fair Work Commission asked TNS to assist with the annual engagement and consultation process.
Again, there was a mix of face-to-face and online engagement. Each had pros and cons. Each could target cross-sectional samples of the population and targeted sub-groups such as those on low incomes or with highly variable incomes.
With face-to-face forums, it was more difficult to assemble the same people more than once, although we could conduct recall surveys, and carry out deliberative polls.
With the online forums, it was much easier to continue engaging with the same people over a longer period, ‘opening out the engagement diamond’ in deliberation around all the issues and options, before ‘closing the diamond’ in a process of convergence to the final recommendation and decision.
It was highly successful and the Fair Work Commission repeated the process several times.
Case studies in online engagement: the peak innovation years (2013–15)
Although there are democracy advocates in the ‘Deliberative Wave’ who are pushing a narrative of “digital is where the next phase of innovation needs to take place” and “this is experimental”, for many researchers and engagement professionals like myself the peak innovation years were around 2013–2015. I will highlight what happened in this period with sample projects below.
The difference in experience and perception is important for a number of reasons. One is that those only just discovering online deliberative forums and digital democracy often use the “this is experimental” barrier or the “this is innovative” filter to claim it’s all new.
I also hear sceptics making defensive demands like “show me an example of a Citizens Assembly that has been carried out wholly online in the past 6 months” rather than drawing from the past 10 years of transferable experience, applying it, and running an Assembly online! Or at least adding more online components to the exclusive f2f model for a more rounded approach.
Around 2013–15, there were lots of events and conferences (like AMSRS 2014 and IIeX 2014) where the latest innovations were presented with suitable case studies:
Research Should Make a Difference
Paul Vittles, MRS Fellow and Director of Instinct and Reason, will be speaking at the IIeX Asia-Pacific Conference in…
but, in a fast-evolving marketplace for commissioned social and government research and community engagement, we move on. When practitioners are including online research and engagement as ‘standard’ in almost all their projects, they cease to write about it in newsletters, blogs or articles and cease to deliver presentations at conferences. It’s not new any more.
Academic researchers of course tend to write up their projects, especially where they have been seminal and on a national scale on key issues, so it’s easier to access such case studies. But there’s often a significant time lag, so a lot of what academic researchers currently think of as innovative or even ‘experimental’, eg online deliberative engagement, has been practiced for more than 10 years, with a peak in innovative adaptation and experimentation in 2013–15.
Anyway, after being encouraged to do so, I’ve taken the opportunity to write up and share my own experience during this formative period:
Growth in online panels and online communities
I was attending lots of conferences in the early 2010s where there were more and more presentations on qualitative online forums being applied and also large scale online communities, with market leaders Vision Critical and Communispace and many smaller operators (Insites developed as a key player later in the decade, with Engagement HQ emerging strongly from the community engagement field too). They were showcasing initiatives for big corporate clients such as McDonalds and the big 4 banks.
The size of online communities and panels was growing with 100,000+ membership as the technology and learning developed. Customers were recruited from a range of sources, the ‘panel’ or ‘community’ was effectively a huge database which could then be used for ad hoc or continuous data analysis, surveys and longitudinal tracking, as well as recruiting to (online and offline) qualitative research and engagement — focus groups, workshops, idea generation sessions, sensory lab testing, accompanied shopping, mystery customer studies, diary documentation, online deliberative forums.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)
By Easter 2013, we had enough case studies to be able to see some clear patterns and trends, and to start seeking more innovative transferable adaptations. At that time, I was Director of an Australian research and strategy consultancy called Instinct and Reason. We were working with the Australian Government to develop and launch the ground-breaking National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
Our NDIS work included classic strategy consulting, assisting with developing the practical concept of the NDIS, stakeholder engagement strategy, communications strategy, and launch strategy.
Then the Government set up the ‘Practical Design Fund’, we bid for a research grant, and were awarded $300,000 to carry out research to help work out how to recruit the additional staff (estimated at 75,000 by the Productivity Commission) to deliver the NDIS.
We had one-to-one stakeholder interviews, focus groups, surveys, discrete choice modelling, but we also had online forums with some of the key sub-groups that we suspected the new workforce would come from.
Online forum to find breakthrough ideas for suicide prevention
I was then asked to assist with a project to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Samaritans in the UK and the 50th anniversary of Lifeline in Australia, celebrating positive achievements in suicide prevention but also challenging the status quo to come up with fresh thinking.
I designed and facilitated a global online forum ‘Big Ideas for Suicide Prevention’ and challenged stakeholders from around the world to generate breakthrough ideas. This led to 10 Big Ideas and it flowed through to other initiatives, including establishing the ‘National Suicide Prevention Research Fund’ and, more recently, Australia’s first national strategy for suicide prevention. More of this story here:
Saving Lives: the ultimate example of research & engagement having impact - Esomar Foundation
Optimal Workplace Mental Health, Suicide Prevention, and 'Making a Difference' At the AMSRS Conference in 2014, I…
Incidentally, we had also carried out a global evaluation of online research and engagement platforms (assessing design, look, functionality, ease-of-use, cost, service, responsiveness, etc) and GroupQuality (based in Tasmania) had emerged as the best, so we had formed a partnership with GroupQuality to carry out our innovation programme. For the ‘Big Ideas for Suicide Prevention’ forum, GroupQuality provided its platform without charge, which further emphasised its credentials.
At this point, with the value of online deliberative forums established, and the process finely-tuned, we issued a challenge to all Instinct and Reason clients: give us a topic and/or audience where you don’t think it’s possible to engage with them online, and (at cost, no margin) we’ll try to achieve it online. We had a lot of takers!
Older people engaging online
One of the first cabs off the rank was the ABC, Australia’s national public broadcaster. They said “we have a lot of TV viewers and especially radio listeners who are aged 75+ and we would expect that it’s hard to engage with them online”. Wrong!
It’s actually hard to engage with them offline because many live in remote areas and can’t easily travel to central locations for face-to-face research or engagement. Most of those in the most remote areas had computers or smartphones and internet access (elderly people in urban areas tend to be least likely to have the hardware).
We had control samples of younger people. The younger people were quicker to join the online forums but quicker to disengage too. The older people were slower to join and get going, and needed more hand-holding, but they stuck with it longer. Within a week, they were engaging with each other in the online forum. Within two weeks, they were flirting with each other online!
Online discussion and deliberation around funerals
Another client was InvoCare, a $200m company which had effectively ‘corporatised’ the funerals business by, amicably and with fair price purchases, buying up many small family funerals directors’ firms, and had then developed brands for different types of funerals — core packages around which each funeral was then individually tailored.
InvoCare was very sensitive and research-focused so it listened to customers’ views, experiences, needs, expectations, preferences, and priorities. A key challenge though was finding a way to listen sensitively as close to the loss experience and funerals’ organisation experience as possible. Face-to-face research traditionally waited 2–3 months after the funeral to get feedback but like any ‘customer experience’ memories fade.
With the full permission and informed consent of those with the loss/funeral experience, we started inviting people into online forums earlier — more immediately after the funeral, and then pre-funeral, so we could get a much better sense of the experience and how it could be improved for others. The online forum platform enabled customers to document their experiences in diaries, posts, photos, videos and artistic expression…before then exchanging views with other customers.
A Vision for Ryde — developed online
At this point, we issued further challenges to clients “what can’t be done online?”. One of the Sydney Councils, City of Ryde, said it wanted to map out a new vision for Ryde and we planned a mixed methods approach which included an online forum with a cross-sectional sample of 100 Ryde residents, similar in many respects to the citizens assembly model.
We briefed them on what to expect, invited them in to the forum, gave them induction in how to use the platform, did some test posts, and answered queries. Then we had gentle initial questions such as “what are the best things about living in Ryde?” and “what annoys you about living in Ryde?”.
Then a step up to “over the next 10 years, what aspects of living in Ryde do you hope don’t change?” and “what aspects do you want to change?”.
Ideas free-flowed on the online discussion boards. Residents could post any time 24/7 at their convenience, and we also agreed to ‘hothouse’ or have synchronous meets at certain appointed times. I facilitated with two colleagues so there was a high intensity of facilitation early and a high level of facilitation throughout.
Next we had an open opportunity to describe the desired future, open questions and open answers, with probing questions to make the suggestions as specific as possible.
Around 50 suggestions were whittled down to 30 in our qualitative deliberations, and quantitative review brought the list down to 20. These suggestions were further discussed as well as being inputted into a questionnaire for a ‘desired state planning’ survey among a fully representative sample of 1000 City of Ryde residents.
The online forum ran for 4 weeks with the opportunity to gradually build the vision, refine the vision, make it more specific (to the point of being measurable), prioritise components, consider each component individually and as a package, review and challenge, and then finally, post it in the forum and say “this is the final version of the Ryde vision that has emerged from the online deliberations, is this what you were expecting?; is this a vision you would support?; any other comments?” and reach a point where all 100 online forum participants agreed it was the ‘right outcome’.
We also discussed how it would be monitored, and most participants agreed to make themselves available for future evaluation.
By now, we had a reputation for being able to adapt the online platforms and tools to any challenge, although please note that many of these projects had comparison or ‘control’ samples of face-to-face methods, and ‘fit for purpose’ mixed methods approaches.
Online forum to help gambling addicts
Next was the NSW Government who wanted to find ways to help provide support for ‘problem gamblers’. NSWGov had found it hard to engage with gambling addicts online or by telephone (with take up of helplines not as high as hoped and many breaking off quickly) or face-to-face (they knew those who took up face-to-face counselling had the best success rates in terms of stopping destructive gambling but it was hard to get them to access it).
The client told us “it will be hard to find them” but it wasn’t. We sent fieldworkers to 40 bars and clubs and problem gamblers were easy to find, but we also wanted to include those who gambled online. We carried out random telephone calls, screened, and snowballed. We screened a large online database. Within a very short space of time, we had identified 5,000 problem gamblers. So not ‘hard to find’! But were they ‘hard to engage’?
We carried out one-to-one interviews face-to-face and by telephone for a sample of those who did not want to be in a group. For those happy to be in a group, we set up face-to-face focus groups and online forums. We adopted a deep empathic listening approach. In a 2-hour focus group, I typically asked just 8 questions, allowing maximum opportunity for participants to tell their stories. And they did. But the face-to-face groups tended to be one-offs — so it was harder from a research perspective and tougher for the participants.
In the online forums, we structured the explorations, discussions, deliberations and recommendations so there would be a 3–4 week intensive lifespan with much more opportunity to build relationships (participants could disclose who they were or remain anonymous) with it being made clear at the outset that this was a research and engagement exercise not counselling or therapeutic support, and it would come to an end. All were ok with this.
We gradually built rapport around sharing stories. We asked participants to document their experiences in great detail — the highs and lows and everyday experiences. No judgements, no ‘why’ questions, just ‘what’ and ‘how’, with all ongoing analysis focused on ways of changing behaviour patterns to break the cycle of addictive behaviour.
After 10 days when everyone was bonding and supporting each other, we asked “please describe in detail you lowest point as a gambling addict”. And they did, with some shattering stories which would blow the minds of anyone not previously close to this issue.
We then moved up from the expected trough. We posed discussion questions with 48 hours for each on “what help or support have you sought or used in the past?”, “what has your experience been of helplines, websites, online counselling, face-to-face counselling?”, “when you thought about seeking help and didn’t, just take us through your thinking — what you thought would probably happen and what did happen”.
Towards the end of the life of the online forum, we prepared them for the end, and moved into discussions around the different types of support available. We asked them to share experiences and recommendations with each other, which included several support sites and services we weren’t aware of. And then we added any sites, apps or support services we were aware of that they hadn’t mentioned.
The client said that it was the greatest insight in their 15 years working in the field. Some of the psychologists and communications professionals observing said they had never had such a depth of insight.
Working with the wonderfully creative agency, Loud Communications, an online video was developed from the listening exercise, designed to target a group of around 30,000 gambling addicts, mainly middle-aged men with children who are addicted to ‘pokie machines’ (also known as fruit machines or slot machines). When the video was released online, the number of appointments booked for face-to-face counselling increased 1000%.
The scope of the campaign (“You’re Stronger Than You Think”) was widened but had to be pulled when 500,000 people viewed the video and the demand for counselling exceeded supply — too successful!
Online engagement (either side of f2f workshop) on drive tourism strategy
Up to this point, most of the online deliberative forums were lasting around 3–6 weeks. We found that anything less than 3 weeks and there wasn’t the opportunity to ‘warm up’ the group, bond, build rapport, etc.
In a lot of commercial consumer research, the same online platforms were being used for very short activations, often just 4 days, eg to test a product concept or ad campaign execution. To these researchers, used to 90 minute focus groups, 4 days seemed like a long time, and they were getting richer, deeper insights.
But in our social and government research and engagement projects, we had only just built a sense of community in the first 4 days with perhaps one gentle opening question. We slowed the whole process down for quality of engagement and deliberation.
No matter how interesting the topic and no matter how engaged the participants were, it was hard to keep it going beyond 6 weeks of continuous engagement (24/7, with some synchronous meets).
It was costly of course, and draining on the facilitators, who worked in teams, and on shifts where necessary, eg for global forums. But also the participants naturally tired and lost a bit of interest after 6 weeks. Once there was a clear break, it was hard to pick up the conversations again.
However, in the strategy review project for Queensland Drive Tourism, we has an online forum for stakeholders which was active for almost 6 months! Here’s more details.
The review consisted of desk research, market analysis, stakeholder engagement, customer experience research, expectations research among customers and potential customers, segmentation and predictive modelling.
This mixed methods research and engagement programme included online forums among people who had taken drive tourism holidays in Queensland and potential visitors. It also included a dual ‘digital segmentation’ with the role digital communications technology played in both the booking process and decision-making, and also the holiday experience itself. Online forums were set up with people from each segment to better understand their needs, expectations, preferences and priorities.
For the stakeholders (government, tourism authorities, visitor attraction operators, universities, member associations, drive clubs, motor home manufacturers, etc) we had one-to-one interviews and arranged a stakeholder workshop but, three months in advance of the face-to-face workshop, we set up an online deliberative forum. There was a great deal of activity in the forum, and we continued facilitating it for two months after the workshop.
One of the great benefits of the online forum was taking pressure off the face-to-face workshop and making it a more constructive and productive event when it happened.
The participants had already bonded via the online forum; they had shared their views and experiences; they had shared their research and main knowledge sources; they had shared their individual strategies and plans; they actually began sharing drafts of future plans and indications of future strategies as trust built up; and they shared ideas on what the collective priorities were.
By the time we got to the face-to-face workshop, we were able to ‘hit-the-ground-running’ in terms of discussing key issues, action points, decisions, funding, resources. Whereas many past workshops had broken down at the point of discussing funding and resources, as battles over slices of the pie became quite destructive, on this occasion the deliberations were very constructive with everyone wanting ‘to bake a bigger pie’ and share resources.
The online stakeholder forum continued afterwards to be able to formally agree the strategy; develop more specific action plans; and discuss the final phases of research and engagement with customers and potential customers; including the digital segmentation and predictive modelling in which there was a high degree of interest.
Online forums among society’s most vulnerable people
And, last but not least, we had a project for the Australian Department of Human Services (DHS — now Services Australia) among all of the most vulnerable groups in society.
It was decided to focus the project on online delivery of services — which services could be transitioned to online; which could not or at least not quickly; what the specific needs are for those requiring face-to-face or telephone support; potential for videoconferencing; how best to manage a transition; what support needed in the transition.
And, a core component of the research and engagement project was testing the efficacy of online forums among groups such as older people, people with disabilities, people who have recently experienced relationship breakdown, multiple benefit claimants, and homeless people.
All of these online forums were successful, albeit with each group having a proportion of the target audience not digitally connected, but a shrinking number which could potentially be better supported, and with focused transition support.
There was most interest in the online forum among homeless people. The initial reaction of surprise was mainly due to the classic prejudice of homeless people being thought of as old winos sleeping rough.
Of course, many homeless people are young people who can’t afford their own place and couch surf or move from one temporary place to another. They all tend to have smartphones and internet access. So we were able to get them connected and they were more than happy to share their experiences, expectations, and views.
Once again, the client said it was the most insightful research and the most innovative engagement they had witnessed in their careers. Part of this was because the whole team, including the online platform providers and facilitators were all ‘can do’ positive people with a ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’ mentality — no-one set out to ‘fail’ and then document the failure (as some summative evaluation does) but, instead, we set out on a formative evaluation journey to ensure success.
Case studies in online engagement: the ‘new normal’ years (2015–19)
As highlighted above, much of what is considered “innovative” or even “experimental” in 2020, in terms of ‘Deliberative Wave surfers’ and democracy advocates only just starting to incorporate digital tools and online deliberative platforms was being designed, developed and implemented by researchers and community engagement professionals more than 10 years ago, with the peak of innovation being the period 2013–15.
The past 5 years has really been the ‘new normal’ with use of digital tools and online platforms being so commonplace it’s hardly worth shouting about. Those who do want to ‘shout about it’, or write about it or have events on it, tend to be those without much experience. Those with experience tend to just carry on with the new ‘business as usual’.
The former are challenged by the emerging practice they weren't previously aware of or exposed to. The latter are challenged by those without experience claiming this is ‘new’ or ‘experimental’ even “risky” or “probably won’t work”.
I’m not going to document lots of other projects here because, frankly, the period 2015–19 was characterised by dozens of very straightforward projects with integrated offline and online methods, and online forums an established approach that we didn’t think about that much after the hothouse innovation incubator of the previous three years.
I also ended up doing a lot of research and engagement in the regulated energy and utilities sector, both externally with customers and key stakeholders (government, regulators, environmental groups, consumer advocates, ombudsman services, etc) and internally (with cross-sections of staff and also specifically with those having mental health challenges).
Online forums for investment and behaviour change in energy and utilities
Online forums were used to engage with customers both from an operational experience perspective and in developing strategy and long-term plans, such as the 5-year Regulatory Plan.
The Regulator (AER) reviewed its schemes to support demand management initiatives, trying to encourage energy businesses to invest in such initiatives, liaise with customers and stakeholders, and devise more effective ways of managing demand to take pressure off the electricity supply network and electricity prices.
There was a statutory requirement to maintain a register of interest for any stakeholder wanting to be involved but no guidance or compliance beyond that. I designed and facilitated an online forum, inviting all of those who had registered interest, plus openly inviting other stakeholders to join.
Also, for those who didn’t want to participate in the online forum, there were other channels to input.
Those who joined the forum had a round of introductions, then they were asked how much they knew about the incentive schemes, and what their experience had been so far. Then we posted questions for discussion around what had worked well, what not so well, what could be improved, etc. And then we asked about priorities for the future.
A ground-up list of options was developed and then a supply-led list was also provided with what the company/sector thought was most important. More deliberation. Then a shortlisting exercise, a vote, a wrap-up. The online forum lasted around 4 weeks.
By this point, I had got so used to designing and facilitating online deliberative forums that I didn’t really think too much about the methodology, just got on with it.
However, I found many in the regulated energy and utilities sector were experiencing it for the first time so there were lots of comments such as “this is really fascinating”, “it’s a real insight into what everyone is thinking”, “I can’t ever recall having us all in the same place together”, and “it was great to all agree on the best way forward”. This cycle continues. Always someone discovering!
An observer from the Regulator logged in regularly and witnessed the deliberations. They were very impressed. Many of the stakeholders argued for more funding for more innovation in demand management, saying that demand-side behaviour change was “the poor cousin when it comes to funding” and yet it can have much greater impact on business efficiency and emissions than many expensive supply-side measures. Following the review, the Regulator did significantly increase the funding available.
Transferable experience and applications? What’s stopping online options?
Since returning to the UK in August 2019, it’s been fascinating to watch both the ongoing, everyday applications of online deliberative forums in research and community engagement projects and, in contrast, the apparent resistance to online forums from those who are otherwise supporters of involving people in decisions that affect their lives, especially those who are focused on models like Citizens Assemblies and Citizens Juries — in some cases feeling that only face-to-face is acceptable, or simply not yet having had the positive experience of online deliberative forums that myself and others have had over the past decade.
The Way Forward?
Probably the best way forward in this situation is to hold some events with diverse attendance where experience can be shared and projects showcased to help raise awareness and knowledge, then positive action and adaptation as a result.
Learn without prejudice, find shared values and goals, collaborate, be relentlessly focused on the end goal and endlessly flexible & creative about the means to achieving those goals.
Don’t close down the possibilities — eg by setting narrow, tightly-defined, prescriptive standards — empower through ongoing adaptation:
Good practice principles for deliberative & participative democracy — shared principles with…
The OECD (and others) have suggested we promote and support innovation in democracy by agreeing good practice…
In what is now a vast ‘global democracy marketplace’ not just for ideas but for transactions worth millions of dollars — with some academics and think tanks becoming heavily invested in providing deliberative forums like Citizens Assemblies not just being research, policy or advocacy bodies — discussing deliberative & participative democracy has become more competitive and less collaborative sadly.
However, when we do build bridges and bring a wide range of stakeholders together, we are often reminded of our common values and shared goals, and we educate each other on both ends and means.
The prejudice against online deliberative engagement over the past 18 months — including creating a self-fulfilling prophecy via not trying online approaches, saying they don’t work, not learning due to not trying, not having the opportunity to see them in action, pointing to successful face-to-face approaches, saying online doesn’t work…rinse and repeat!— has been harmful to our evolution of deliberative & participative democracy.
But now we have an unexpected opportunity from the ‘CoronaVirusPanic-We-Must-Go-Online’ community that is growing fast. What better time to get together the sceptics, the hopefuls, the ‘we’ve-just-gotta-do-it’ crew, and those who’ve been doing it for years, along with a range of platform/service providers and facilitators?
Are you up for an event or network to embrace the digital age of deliberative & participative democracy?
Do you want to be involved in a demonstration project to show how to deliver a Citizens Assembly or Citizens Jury online?
I do, and I’ve offered my services (design & facilitation) pro bono!
Paul Vittles FMRS FAMI FRSA is a Research Fellow and community engagement pioneer, who has been an advocate for and practitioner of deliberative & participative democracy over the past 35 years.
Paul has worked with governments at all levels in the UK and Australia, with 80 councils as clients (after being the first Research & Engagement Manager with City of York Council). He has been a consultant to the NHS; many arms-length government agencies and regulators; community foundations, charities and not-for-profit organisations; professional societies & member organisations; regulated energy and utilities businesses; corporates and private developers wanting to engage appropriately and effectively with their communities; and many partnerships and alliances comprising combinations of these.
Paul has designed and facilitated thousands of research, consultation, engagement, and democracy projects and initiatives. In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, Paul led or facilitated many innovative and pioneering face-to-face approaches: including city/community regeneration; new types of school and learning facilities; building health and social care services around service users and carers; involving citizens in traffic and transport planning; and — perhaps most famously — leading the engagement exercise to decide what to do with the site of 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester, the former home of the serial killers, Fred and Rosemary West (Paul met with all the victims’ families before leading the team undertaking engagement with the local community).
Paul presented ‘The Role of Research in a Democratic Framework’ to the 1991 Market Research Society (MRS) Conference, and has presented many award-winning papers to research, evaluation and engagement conferences, as well as serving on national task forces, developing and evaluating national policy (from The Patients Charter in the UK to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, NDIS, in Australia to national suicide prevention strategies).
Paul was founder and ‘Chief Facilitator’ for ‘ListenHear: The Global Campaign for Effective Listening’ which won the 2011 TEDxSydney competition for “the best idea worth spreading”.
Paul was a TEDxSydney ‘Fast Ideas’ finalist in 2014, speaking to 2,300 people at the Sydney Opera House (and many more live online) about #DigitalLifeSaving — using digital communications technology to save lives. Paul also facilitated the ‘Breakthrough Ideas for Suicide Prevention’ Forum, and helped implement some of those ideas.
In 2013–14, Paul pioneered online research and engagement approaches, challenging 120 clients (from the ABC to the Australian Government to funeral services providers) to identify ‘what can’t be done online’ and then doing it — online!
Paul presented some of these pioneering case studies at the 2014 Australian Market and Social Research Society (AMSRS) Conference (written up by Green Book), and subsequent conferences such as the Information & Innovation Exchange (IIeX).
Since 2013, Paul has designed and facilitated 180 online forums, which is why he baulks at the continuing claims by some democracy advocates, as well as democracy critics, ‘this can’t be done online’.
Paul knows from experience that it CAN all be done online (although flexibility, ‘fit for purpose’, ‘horses for courses’ is always the way it should be) — including the citizens assembly and citizens jury models — and adopts a ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ philosophy for his professional practice as well as his personal life!
These days, Paul’s focus is on transformational change projects — in community development (including a project “to design a new community around the happiness and success of its people”), improving quality of life for older people, optimising mental health and wellbeing for all segments of society, suicide prevention and the Zero Suicide Movement — and facilitating sustainable success as a consultant, coach and counsellor.
For the past 7 years, Paul has had a focus on using digital communications technology to find solutions to some of society’s biggest challenges. He is currently working on projects using data analytics, predictive & prescriptive analytics, real-time behavioural micro-targeting, and augmented intelligence for child protection, safeguarding vulnerable young people, ethical behaviour in large organisations, suicide prevention, and ending loneliness.
Paul’s keynote talks, interactive lectures, and workshop sessions on ‘Facilitating Transformational Change’ are often described as “inspirational as well as educational”, as was the case with the recent guest lecture Paul gave for the full-time MBA students at University of Durham Business School (on Friday 21 February 2020).