Reflections on 2020, Part One: biases, prejudices, and blind spots.

How COVID19 challenged some biases but not others!

Paul Vittles
5 min readJan 28, 2021

I remember the Johari Window from my early coaching training. We all have blind spots. The challenge is to try and become more self-aware and listen to feedback from others to reveal sub-conscious biases and be able to address them, or at least make them conscious.

There can be individual blind spots and collective blind spots. The bias against online deliberative forums pre-COVID19 was wide and deep, and has not gone away, just been mitigated somewhat.

Throughout 2019, and in the first two months of 2020, I spent a lot of my time highlighting the biases against digital democracy and online engagement, notably those saying that deliberative processes like citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries “had to be” face-to-face, in person.

My first published piece of 2020 was a non-directive good practice checklist for those commissioning, carrying out and/or evaluating deliberative processes like citizens’ assemblies or citizens’ juries:

This piece had a very favourable response with two exceptions.

Some providers of citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries wanted to be much more prescriptive about what a Citizens’ Assembly or Citizens’ Jury is, wanting to tightly define it like a ‘branded product’ rather than treat it as a flexible, adaptable approach to involving citizens. So, some of my suggested ‘questions to ask yourself’ were deemed inappropriate. Have a read, and decide for yourself.

The other main comment was about this question I suggested everyone ask:

“face-to-face (f2f) assembly/jury only, online assembly/jury only, or combined f2f & online?”.

In these pre-COVID19 times in which I was publishing, I was actually ridiculed by some of my critics for daring to suggest it was possible to to run citizens’ assemblies or citizens’ juries online. This was despite the fact I’d been designing and facilitating online deliberative forums since 2008!

So, I made a few more public comments about the bias against digital democracy, and the bias against online approaches for deliberative & participative processes. This bias continued right up until the first COVID19 Lockdown in March.

Immediately prior to ‘Lockdown 1', I wrote this piece highlighting the bias against online once again, and emphasising what can be done online.

After this piece was published, and the reality of Lockdown hit home, I was inundated with requests to help people ‘shift online’ and I remember being interviewed by several people at that time who started referring to me as ‘the online engagement guy’ which was rather weird, as I never saw myself as this nor positioned myself as this.

My ‘position’ has always been to avoid being method-led, and create flexible, fit-for-purpose designs, which maximise opportunities for citizens and communities to be involved in decisions that affect their lives.

For those who’ve accused me on Twitter of ‘having an agenda’, that’s my ‘agenda’ — to maximise opportunities for citizens and communities to be involved in decisions that affect their lives!

I wasn’t trying to ‘promote online methods’, I was trying to challenge bias. I later challenged online service providers who started arguing “we don’t need face-to-face” because that was also bias. I’d spent the past 12 years designing and facilitating hybrid approaches, with ‘natural designs’ around how people communicate. I wouldn’t have previously recommended ‘online only’ and I wouldn’t recommend ‘online only’ in the post-COVID19 future. I was calling out the bias that existed whenever it was suggested using online approaches.

After the first Lockdown, when deliberative processes like citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries were forced online, we started regularly seeing comments like “we’ve tried it for the first time and it seems to work” and “I didn’t realise that could be done online”!

Exposure to online approaches changed attitudes of course.

I raise this point as an example of a blind spot that many people and organisations had pre-COVID19 not to ‘score a point’ as some have recently suggested on Twitter but to ask the question “what other blind spots are there?”.

COVID19 has been challenging in many ways. We’ve had ‘Climate Assemblies’ which pre-COVID19 were struggling to imagine how we might limit long haul air travel, and then watched as flights have stopped completely in many cases.

The pre-COVID19 bias against online methods should make us all think about what other sub-conscious biases there might be.

Having observed behaviour since 23 March 2020, it was noticeable how many providers of deliberative processes like citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries simply tried to move their face-to-face, in person, process online, which became part of ‘the Zoom Boom’.

The bias against online approaches was lessened but certainly not eliminated. Rather than trying to develop new designs which reflect the way people naturally communicate in the (real) digital world, there was still a mode of thinking locked in to a face-to-face model with synchronous communication — then trying to replicate that process online (very similar to what happened when training first shifted from in-person to online).

I was still regularly told “people have to be in the same room at the same time to deliberate”.

Of course, that’s not true. People can deliberate in asynchronous forums, and have done so quite happily and effectively for many years. I’ve also facilitated many conflict resolution and mutual understanding processes over the past 30 years where we’ve had to initially have people in different rooms before then bringing them together at a later point.

So, what other biases are you aware of?

And, perhaps more importantly, what other biases are you not aware of?!

Paul Vittles has been a pioneer and practitioner in the field of participative & deliberative democracy for 35 years. This piece above references Paul’s first published piece in 2020. You might also want to read his final blog of 2020, which includes more on biases — conscious and sub-conscious.



Paul Vittles

Researcher (FMRS), marketer (FAMI), consultant, coach & counsellor who helps people and organisations with transformational change and sustainable success.