Digital tools for participation come in many shapes and sizes.
Some are dedicated tools that have been developed for a specific engagement purpose, while others are general tools that can be purposed (or repurposed) for engagement. Some are free to use and/or open-source, while others are a software as a service (with varying price tags).
In the database of digital tools (below), we have categorised the tools according to 12 different uses or functions. Some tools fulfil multiple (often connected) functions, but no tool can do everything. Sometimes, they’ll be best used in combination with one another to perform different tasks in an engagement process.
These tools are used to collect and map the different arguments of a debate. They can help to uncover useful insights into how different opinions are connected and display where there are areas of consensus and divergence. While the insights can be useful, they typically require participants to complete surveys, which can be unengaging and unappealing compared with other discussion-based formats. Probably the best-known use of argument visualisation is the development of the Pol.is platform for vTaiwan.
Many of us will be familiar with using co-drafting tools to collaborate at work. They allow groups to work together to write and edit texts. They are typically best used with an established group where there is a common purpose and established norms around collaboration, though they can work in other circumstances. One of the most interesting examples of this currently is the Coronavirus Tech Handbook.
Commenting / feedback
These tools have some of the features of co-drafting tools but are more geared towards collecting responses to a pre-written text. For example, they might be used to collect comments on a policy proposal or project plan. In this way, they are at the consultation end of the participation spectrum (rather than collaboration or empowerment), but they typically offer a much better experience than typical consultations, which often consist of inaccessible PDF documents uploaded onto websites. One of the benefits of this type of platform is that participants can see the comments of others, which allows some discussion and development of points.
These tools enable participants to make suggestions or report issues by pinpointing their location on a map. They have been used for a wide variety of purposes, from reporting potholes, to directing disaster relief; proposing improvements to the local community, to tracking election fraud. They can provide a quick and effective way of collecting insight from the local community about a place, but in return, they require a high level of responsiveness and feedback to participants.
These tools aim to organise group discussions in a way to facilitate decision-making. They take different forms, with some resembling souped-up discussion forums, while others are based around argument visualisation. Some are geared towards finding consensus, while others are more majoritarian. As with co-drafting, they are perhaps better suited to established groups where there is a common purpose and established norms, but may work in other circumstances.
Discussion forums have been around since the very early days of the Internet. Nowadays, they take a wide range of formats and have a lot of different uses. From a public engagement perspective, they enable discussion of issues among participants. At their best, they can enable the sharing and exploration of different opinions, but at their worst, they can become dominated by keyboard warriors and trolls. To be successful, they need to be well moderated, with clear norms established to promote respectful discussion.
These tools allow participants to submit ideas in response to a question or challenge. They often include commenting and voting functions to enable others to respond to an idea, with the expectation that the cream will rise to the top. However, they can be prone to a bandwagon effect, where the highest voted ideas rise to the top of the list and therefore receive more votes. Some platforms try to prevent this by randomising the order of ideas. One of the most significant uses of an ideas generation platform was DecideMadrid, which enabled residents to propose ideas for new legislation.
These tools are best used in conjunction with conferences (online or in-person) to enable audience participation during talks and presentations. For example, they allow participants to give feedback and/or propose questions, which others can help to prioritise.
Again, these tools are best used in conjunction with video-conferences as a visual way in which to undertake exercises and/or record discussions. They are at their best when they are integrated into a well thought through facilitation plan. In this way, they can be used very flexibly and imaginatively for a whole range of activities.
These tools are geared towards enabling groups to collect and organise knowledge together. They take different forms, with some resembling Wikipedia while others are closer to discussion forums. Companies often use them as a replacement or supplement to customer care teams, by supporting loyal users of a product to answer the questions of others.
Over a month into lockdown, we are all now very familiar with video-conferencing platforms. They are the best option where deep discussion and/or deliberation are required and, as such, are now being used to complete the work of Climate Assembly UK and continue work of the Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat. Video-conferencing can be very demanding on participants and, therefore, will only be appropriate in particular circumstances that require this level of engagement.
Voting / prioritisation
Voting and/or prioritisation is a function that is built into a number of different types of platform, particularly ideas generation. The danger of some of these platforms is that it pushes people into binary positions of liking or disliking options or propositions, rather than uncovering the nuance of reasons for choices and the values behind them. Survey platforms can, of course, be purposed to run online ballots as part of a broader engagement process.