We announced last month that we were supporting Traverse, Ada Lovelace Institute and Bang the Table to pilot a fast, online deliberation looking at online COVID-19 technologies. If you’re interested in finding out more about the project please see the links to two webinars at the bottom of this post.

Specifically, we wanted to involve a small group of the public to explore the social and ethical implications emerging from the uses of symptom tracking, digital contact tracing and immunity certification in order to feed into what is a fast moving and urgent public debate.

Led by Traverse, 25 members of the public took part in around 9 hours of deliberation over seven workshops carried out during a three-week period.  These workshops took place over Zoom with participants asked to participate in activities between the workshops on Bang the Table’s platform, EngagementHQ.

In this post I want to draw on participants’ own thoughts about the experience - captured by their feedback forms - to make three brief reflections. In some ways, this post is a companion piece to Sarah Allan’s post a few weeks ago, exploring the experiences of participants in Climate Assembly UK of moving online.

Picture of a lake with an island and a tree in the middle
Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash

Online works well, but…

A clear majority of those providing feedback found the online process worked well or very well compared to working together face-to-face:

I don't think I would have taken part in something like this if I'd had to travel somewhere. No travel time & instant communication meant it fit into my day nicely. I think the breakout rooms, plus chat function, worked perfectly - it still felt personal, especially with the smaller breakout groups.”

That said, those with technology problems (poor internet) or joining by smartphone rather than computer had a worse experience on the whole than those joining by computer or laptop.

The only reason that I haven't put [the conversation was ‘very' enjoyable] is because my poor internet connection made me miss huge swathes of conversation.

My platform experience wasn't the best - maybe accessing on my mobile phone didn't help.

We mustn’t draw the conclusion that online deliberation is necessarily worse because of these comments. All processes, whether online or offline, have dynamics that make it easier for some people to engage than others. We need to continue to evolve our practice, offline as well as online, to make sure that those who are at risk of experiencing exclusion are able to participate effectively.

As I said when I took part in Ada Lovelace’s panel at COGx this year (video up soon), digital exclusion is, in many ways, a reflection of wider social exclusion and we need to design processes that don’t replicate this exclusion. However, what I didn’t say and should have, is that digital exclusion can make it even harder for those socially excluded to participate in online processes, and we must find ways to compensate.  

Thoughtfully bringing together different platforms works well

The process exploring perspectives on COVID-19 technologies used both Zoom for face-to-face discussions and EngagementHQ for further engagement between workshops. Reading between the lines of the participants' feedback, this was particularly useful for those who prefer to get their information by reading rather than listening.

Having the extra time to think about what was required was helpful as sometimes the live online Q&A requiring immediate response didn't flow

However, the person who reported challenges because they were joining Zoom from their smartphone, also said that they couldn’t access the EngagementHQ platform. While this kind of detail is critically important when we are thinking about the design of processes, we mustn’t draw the wrong conclusion. It isn’t a reason to only run offline engagement processes. Quite the opposite. What it means is that we need to use a range of methods, both on and offline, so that people are able to participate in the ways that work for them.

Adapt to participants’ needs and keep it simple

Which brings me to my main reflection; as with any deliberation, there is no one-size fits all online process. The context matters. The needs of the participants, the facilitators, those providing data and evidence, and the organisation commissioning the process must be taken into account. This means taking time to understand the needs of everyone and designing a process which best meets the needs of those who need the most support.

The challenge is how to design a process that works for different learning and engagement needs while also keeping it simple and ensuring that we are aware of the barriers we are creating and their implications for those participating. We need to have thought through what we can do to minimise them. Some of this is about process design, but some is about thinking much harder about the user experience.

Finally, as I have already said, while this post has been prompted by an online process, these conclusions are just as true of offline deliberations., Given that many are having to adapt their work to the virtual world, considerations around inclusion are coming into starker relief and are forcing many to re-evaluate their practices. This has to be a good thing.

Find out more

Learning from rapid online deliberation (methods)

Tuesday 23rd 12.00 – 1.30pm


Deliberating rapidly and online about COVID-19 technologies (findings)

Thursday 25th 12.00 – 1.30pm