The problem with current e-deliberation platforms
Current e-deliberation approaches aim to build the perfect platform (e.g. Loomio) with many parallel integrated tools for different types of users and then they struggle like crazy to engage and form the participants to use all that complex
stuff. For example many software employ a community space for community building, a task space for deliberation, a restricted access space for super-users etc. etc.
A potential solution: sequencing offline & online participatory devices
Since my 2012 experiment with the Deliberatorium I wanted to try a sequential approach that increases complexity
over time like a videogame tutorial level. The new spin that I have figured out only this year due to the UK Citizens’ Assembly project is that it might make sense to start offline, and not online. To me the real plus of face to face is emotions, capacity building and group formation,
basically type 2 deliberation plus other instrumental tasks that require a captive audience. Type 1, the rational argument giving stuff, can easily go online, as my 2012 experiment and many real life e-collaboration task show, type 1 requires
lots of time and careful reflection. Type 2 is too noisy for asynchronous environments, there is a huge loss of information, as any newspaper comment section shows. We have emoticons exactly
to solve that problem. Capacity building and group formation devices are also less efficient offline due to lack of captive audience. People can easily dual screen, do other stuff and
generally not pay attention during a video tutorial, a learning game or other type of remote capacity building exercises. An hybrid process allows to combine a face to face space in which
type 2 deliberation and capacity building is optimal, with a modern e-deliberation space that is optimized for type 1 deliberation.
What can we learn from Stracraft and mistery dinners?
The current examples of hybrids deliberative processes are super simple, but promising (see Text, Talk,
Act). Today I discussed with the talkshop guys the possibility of following a simple face to face small deliberation to form a group of friends and do some capacity building, with an easy online space that is the gateway to the
complex e-deliberation space a la deliberatorium. It is a spin on the tutorial level of Starcraft and mistery
dinners, or if you want a more serious comparison, it is a less paternalistic adaptation of the ladder of engagement masterfully implemented by the Obama campaign. In Starcraft you first
learn how to move one unit around, then shoot things, then you learn how to use multiple units and more complex tactics, then you can start the game. In a mistery dinner you are invited to a
small group dinner in which people play a game together. Many people that go to mistery dinners are not familiar with role playing games and the process is designed to teach the rules while
having fun at the same time. The idea that I want to try is to combine the two, starting with a short face to face meeting and then a sequences of progressively more complex online
But why shorter face to face events?
When we invite people to Citizens’ Assemblies or Deliberative Polls lots of people decline because they do not have the time. Our
canvasser via phone this year got recurrently the message ‘can I come just for one afternoon?’. To give some more concrete data, the sampling process we used this year for the UK Citizens’
Assemblies did not provide monetary incentives and generated around 1% conversion rate (number of people that come/number of invites), Deliberative Polls that pay people 200 dollars a day at
best achieve a 30% conversion rate (and in my opinion that is a very very very generous ‘official’ upper bound, sampling firms are like a sausage factory when you actually discover how it
works you do not want to eat sausages anymore...). That means that in the current best case scenario we lose 70% of the people we invite. Good luck making the case we represent the
population! Looking at the demographics of the participants in the UK assembly the group that is almost completely absent is the adults between 30 and 40, i.e. those that work and have young
kids. And it make complete sense, if you are working all week you want to play with your kids during the weekend. Even providing daycare is not a big incentive if you loose the entire
weekend. The problem is not who takes care of the kids, the problem is that the parents that work all week want to spend quality time with their kids! A typical mini-public is a 9 to 5+
activity, plus travel time. Many minipublics take an entire weekend. The Grandview-Woodland Citizens’ Assembly organized in 2015 in Vancouver that I observed had 10+ Saturday 9 to 5 meetings.
This year in the UK we did two weekends, each was 9 to 6 on Saturday and 10 to 3 on Sunday, offering the hotel room as incentive. The weekend was totally lost for the participants. If instead
we shorten the face to face component to a few hours me might be able to include many more people, and we would save the cost of the hotel room.
How many hours?
Personally, considering the logistics of registration and ice breaking, I would probably start with 4. Basically two small group
discussions of 1 hour each plus 3 short plenaries, beginning, mid and end. Why 4? Because in my experience the attention span of people is totally dead after 4 hours. After four hours the
capacity of the majority of participants to actually own the process is gone and they enter zombie mode. I would dedicate the entire event to design together the rule of discussions, collect
suggestion on the type of information required by participants to effectively deliberate and try out the online spaces. As a side note, this approach instead of imposing an informational
package on the participants (i.e. the ‘neutral’ briefing material) allows them to co-design it with the organizers. And I would set aside money for daycare, or even better some fun group
activity for kids about democracy! The latter might become an incentive in itself. Finding new smart activities to do with kids is not so easy. Obviously this strategy is untested and is just
a hunch that requires experimentation. It might totally fail because 4 hours are too short even for these simple activities. But in such case I would probably attempt to split the face to
face entry phase in two meetings of four hours each. The first for group building and ice-breaking and the second for more on task activities. Attrition is a non issue in democratic
innovations, but that might be an artifact of the current biased sample of participants we get that are super eager to participate.
The lesson of the UK Citizens’ Assembly Pilot: start face to face
Why starting face to face? Why not start online? Because it generates massive results in terms of online engagement. The CA assembly
pilot had a Facebook group that followed the face to face discussion and it had unprecedented levels of engagement. In Assembly North (Sheffield) 100% of women generated content, I had never
seen anything like that nor online nor offline. Lots of people posted more than once. In the three weeks in between the two face-to-face assemblies participants were asking questions to the
organizers, were sharing new information they had come across, and information about other political events. The discussion was totally civil, the latter is not surprising for those that have
a little of experience with these type of e-deliberations, but many do not have such experience so it is important to highlight it and have experience only with the comment feed of youtube.
Obviously I had designed a careful e-engagement strategy with pre-prepared posts aimed at promoting horizontal interactions among users, but I always do that and I rarely get such level of
engagement. Women particularly tend to participate less. The facebook group remained significantly active since Christmas, 2 months after the end of the first assembly. Then it got active
again for two weeks around the third shorter face to face meeting we organized in February. Currently (April) is still used once a week or so, after 6 months from the last
The future is hybrid (and multichannel)
Putting my Nostradamus hat on, I think the future is hybrid, with short and cheap face to face meetings integrated with a new breed of
e-deliberation platforms that not only allow for multiple types of users, but also generate a different ladder of engagement for each. Personally I want to try a sequence that would look
something like: open engagement for recruitment oversampling minorities (it’s pointless to spend 200k for recruitment to get results that are biased anyway as this
article shows) -> short face to face deliberation -> simple e-community space -> complex e-deliberation
space -> short face to face deliberation. And nothing prevents to include some parallelism (i.e. all the online spaces remain open and participants can jump from one to another), targeted
channels, capacity building, playful environments, and transform the sequence in a cycle that repeats itself. Nothing also prevents to start a channel of engagement that begins online and
goes face to face and another one that starts face to face and then goes online. After all my observation on the CA assembly is one data point. And I think that the future is not only hybrid
but also multichannel. If anybody tries it before I manage to setup a field experiment let me know, I would love to do an impact evaluation on such design!