It’s been over 12 months since the first lockdown in the UK , pushing all of us to reevaluate our practices and adapt them to a new, and unexpected, reality.

During this period there have been numerous learning experiences on the merits and drawbacks of moving deliberative processes online. As lockdown restrictions ease, we also prepare to move forward with this acquired knowledge and ask the questions: what will participatory and deliberative processes look like in the near future, and what learning do we want to take forward from the last year?

In June 2021, a workshop of the Deliberative Democracy Practitioners’ Network reflected and considered what comes next for the sector. The session focused on two main questions:

1. What key learning do we want to bring from our experience of adapting to and running processes online into our future work?

  • What do we keep?
  • What do we lose?

2. Are hybrid processes feasible? What could they look like and how could they work? What are the opportunities and challenges hybrid processes could pose?

Key learnings:  What do we want to keep from our experiences of running processes online?

When exploring the first question in small groups, a number of themes emerged around what should be kept in the future of deliberative processes. Some of these related to the practical advantages of using online methods, while many others focused on the relationship with and wellbeing of the participants.

The novelty of interacting online has made room for understanding, forgiveness and kindness as perfection is not expected.

Online spaces have offered an opportunity to improve practices around accessibility and inclusion:

  • Being able to join a meeting from any device anywhere has greatly lessened barriers related to geography, mobility, caring responsibilities and health conditions among others
  • The initial challenges of moving processes online created space to appreciate different learning styles as participants are encouraged to contribute in a variety of ways (e.g. chat, emojis)
  • Working remotely has allowed for a greater range of speakers and a wider reach of experts and commentators with different perspectives on the topic

The flexibility that comes with online spaces has also opened us up to using innovative practices and approaches:

  • Online tools and platforms such as Zoom and Google Sites have made meeting and sharing information easier and more accessible for both organisers and participants. Tools we may not use in face to face settings have expanded options - from using music, through to using Mentimeter. 

The novelty of interacting online has made room for understanding, forgiveness and kindness as perfection is not expected. This is also reflected in the advantages that online spaces bring to our relationship with the participants:

  • Through the online on-boarding processes staff have the opportunity to develop valuable relationships, especially when investing time in supporting people to get online despite not being confident with technology
  • Care packages and wellbeing handbooks have also been used to support the participants throughout the process
  • Being able to be honest about experimenting with new practices and seeking participant feedback to improve processes

Key learnings:  What do we want to leave behind from our experience of running processes online?

On the other hand, when exploring what should be lost in the future of deliberative democracy, discussions actually followed similar themes, especially around relationships with and between participants.

There was a reminder that we need to keep power, access and inclusion factors front of mind in the “rush to get back in the room”.

At least to a certain extent, online spaces require rigidity and structure which make it harder to have casual interactions during the process:

  • Being in different places removes  the possibility for social interactions such as informal chats during a coffee break which are valuable for building relationships
  • Online spaces can’t offer the sense of occasion and ability to read the room and get a sense of where the conversations are heading
  • Creativity is also limited by the lack of interaction between the participants

At the same time, despite the benefits that come from working remotely, there is also a pushback against online deliberation being the default approach:

  • Being online all the time challenges the work/life balance for staff and participants as they are subject to long days and weekends online
  • There are risks of Zoom fatigue 
  • Face to face processes had a slower pace by default so with online meetings there is more pressure from the commissioners time-wise
  • For these reasons, in the future of deliberative processes there should always be the freedom to decide between face to face and online processes based on the context and purpose. 
Vote taken June 2021

Hybrid processes - opportunities and challenges 

In the second breakout room session, the groups explored the feasibility of hybrid processes for the future of deliberative processes. First off the group was asked whether they were being asked to run hybrid processes. 

When discussing hybrid processes, predominantly people were discussion sessions where participants were both in room and online at the same time. 

In this breakout, similar themes emerged with a specific focus on the relationship with the commissioners when organising and managing a hybrid process. 

Accessibility and inclusion were again brought to the forefront as important considerations for the participants in hybrid processes:

  • Concerns were raised about having some participants in person while others online as this would bring a difference in the quality of experiences for them and could  risk bringing division within the group
  • Hybrid processes would entail diverse learning styles for both modes that will have to be integrated into the planning. 
  • At the same time, there is room for addressing accessibility issues through hybrid processes by building on the benefits of online deliberation as shown in the previous section
  • There was a reminder that we need to keep power, access and inclusion factors front of mind in the “rush to get back in the room”

Another theme that emerged is managing the relationship with the commissioners and the expectations they might have around hybrid processes:

  • Choosing this model will be more costly and time consuming than using face-to-face or online, especially for the on-boarding phase of the process - essentially it will double up that time and not to underestimate this. 
  • It is important to consider the purpose, focus and who is involved to decide what kind of process will work best which will require clarity in the initial conversations with commissioners
  • Trialing hybrid processes will need everyone’s commitment in terms of time and other resources, including the commissioners’

Both blended and hybrid processes also offer the opportunity for innovation and creativity to emerge

The discussion also covered the differences between hybrid and blended processes  and how this could work, here are some of the suggestions that were made:

  • There was a preference for a blended approach rather than a hybrid one so that over the course of several meetings some would be face-to-face and other online
  • By considering place-based options, some sessions could be held online and others in person around specific locations that connect people to each other and the project
  • There could be in person meetings followed by online activities afterwards to allow people to keep sharing, reading and asking questions
  • Buddying systems could help bridge the face-to-face/online divide with participants pairing up with someone that is using the opposite approach to the process, this could ensure the voices of those taking part remotely are heard

Both blended and hybrid processes also offer the opportunity for innovation and creativity to emerge:

  • While being open to a mix of approaches, practitioners should think carefully about what elements fit for that particular engagement - the toolbox of approaches is probably about to get bigger!
  • Experimenting and testing with curiosity has enabled different learning experiences to emerge during the pandemic.  Practitioners should continue to challenge themselves and see what is possible and not lose this creativity  - T the Practitioners’ Network can play an important role in supporting these explorations
  • Technology is also evolving to support a hybrid focus which has the potential to enhance the participants’ and practitioner experience

Though blended and hybrid approaches will be used in the near future, they will also be subject to experimentation and changes.

Conclusion

Suddenly shifting all processes online in early 2020 was a challenge for many, but as the session has shown there have also been learnings and positive changes. As we try to ‘go back to normal’, it is key that as practitioners we ask ourselves important questions about what this normal will look like for deliberative and participative processes.

Accessibility and inclusion as well as an appreciation for creativity and different learning styles were the main themes to emerge during the discussions. Online spaces have the potential to address issues around inclusivity, while encouraging flexibility and innovation. However, it is important to consider concerns around work/life balance while working remotely and the loss of natural human interactions that are limited when using online tools.

The ‘new normal’ has not been defined yet and might look different for everyone based on the purpose of a process. Though blended and hybrid approaches will be used in the near future, they will also be subject to experimentation and changes. For this new phase to be successful and beneficial to all we must work, share and learn together as practitioners which is what we hope the Network will continue to do.