Citizens' Assemblies go online

12. November 2020 Uhr

"Keep your distance" is the slogan of the Covid-19 times. Consequently, events with a larger attendance are just not possible. In several cases, citizens who had been randomly selected for a citizens' assembly have already virtually gathered in front of their computers instead of in a hall. And it works.

At first, the Covid-19-wave interrupted citizens' assemblies that were already in the middle of their work. So before the participants had to shift to online, they had already met in person and got to know each other. This was the case, for example, with the Climate Citizens' Assembly in France and the UK. Both finished their work in online meetings. The French Climate Citizens' Assembly only met once more in person in Paris to decide its climate recommendations.

Time to change

However, some citizens' assemblies took a long time before switching to online. For example, the citizens' assembly on gender equality in Ireland took six months. The citizens' assembly on the topic of care in the German-speaking community in East Belgium also took six months for its last meeting, which, like the previous meetings, was an in-person event. Here the decision was against using online methods. After a several-month delay, the Citizens' Forum on the renovation of the Stuttgart Opera House began online.

Citizens' assemblies that started later in the year were able to adapt to the new conditions in time. Thus, meetings with randomly-selected citizens in Canada, Scotland, and the US state of Oregon continued online from the very first meeting, as did those in the English cities of Adur & Worthing, Brighton & Hove, Bristol and Kendal, Nantes in France, and Turku in Finland.

There are pros and cons of online citizens’ assemblies. A compilation of the advantages and disadvantages follows.

Advantages

Little demands for participants: By avoiding long travel times and absences from home, it may be possible to include those randomly selected participants who would normally have had to decline an invitation. The same applies to speakers from all over the world. The implementation of the citizens' assembly is more flexible in terms of time, i.e. participants and other people involved do not have to keep themselves free for several weekends and travel to a central location, which is time-consuming. The citizens' assembly working sessions can be better integrated into everyday life. Those interested in the citizens' assembly can also watch the event more easily via livestream, and livestreaming itself is easier to achieve, as filming is required anyway for digital broadcasting to the participants' homes.

Cost savings: For organizers of nationwide events, a virtual format helps avoid high costs incurred by renting a premise, and paying for travel, accommodation, and catering expenses for participants.

An opportunity for introverts: Anyone who shies away from asking a question in front of a large audience, or who is not able to take the floor due to a large number of requests to speak, can use the chat function to ask questions or make a comment.

Simplification and flexibility: Any number of small sub-groups can be formed, as digital rooms can be used inexhaustibly compared to a physical room. Questions from citizens to the experts and inputs can be quickly collected and sorted online. For the breaks, more varied offers can be offered, e.g. coffee breaks, yoga sessions, or individual work tasks. Digitally, a variety of methods can be used which would not be possible so quickly in a physical space. For example, various moderations boards, quick formation of groups of two participants, collecting and prioritizing topics and questions in the plenary, and the possibility for everyone to ask questions at any time.

Continuous process: The regular, maximum weekly, working sessions provide participants with a continuous thought process that is not limited to the working weekends of in-person meetings.

Documentation: Participants of the online citizens’ assembly have the opportunity to watch the recorded stream, to fast-forward or rewind, and to study presentation slides for as long as they wish. A complete documentation of the meeting is assured. Misunderstandings can be avoided more easily

Disadvantages

Selection through technology: Only those who have the appropriate technology and know-how to use it can participate in an online citizens' assembly. Not only is a basic computer with loudspeaker and microphone required, but also a stable Internet connection that enables a continuous stream. Neither of these is (yet) available to some sections of the population and in certain parts of the country. Even a smartphone, which in principle would allow participation in video conferencing systems, is not (yet) available to everyone. However, Internet participation creates new social exclusion. The organizers could provide participants with the necessary technical equipment, provided they are financially able to do so, but this would not improve a poor Internet connection. Additionally, a lack of computer skills on the part of participants could be an insurmountable hurdle.

Emotions are more difficult to communicate: Emotions are difficult to convey virtually. There is a difference between someone expressing their anger or concerns live and those who use the chat function.

Body language is more difficult to transmit: Facial expressions and gestures have a serious effect, and nuances can be overheard. Although you can see your conversation partners and yourself in small preview fames, you can never be sure who is looking at you and how the listeners react to your speech.

Visualization difficulties: Collecting and presenting questions and ideas online is difficult, at least for those who are not technically familiar with online pinboards and other tools.

Distraction: After all, virtual discussions - especially if you are only connected via telephone or audio - run the risk that the participants will not stay focused. It is tempting to play on the phone, go to the bathroom, or be distracted in some other way during a (seemingly) boring contribution.

What you can do

However, many disadvantages can be remedied. For example, citizens' assembly participants can be equipped with the necessary technology and trained in the use of hardware and software. If the Internet connection at home is poor, participants can be invited to places with good network coverage and technical equipment. Emotional reactions are also visible online. You can even ask participants to show their reactions - e.g. via small mood cards that you can hold in the camera and which are sent to the participants in advance. Interpersonal contact can be established through virtual rooms in which the participants can move around and where, for example, joint coffee breaks can be held. Citizens' assemblies are therefore also feasible online!

What citizens' assembly participants say

Despite all the pros and cons, it is important to know what the participants of citizens' assemblies actually say about the online version of their meetings. The organisation Involve has investigated this for the British Climate Assembly.

Involve staff member Sarah Allen was surprised to find that 53 out of 100 survey participants favoured a mixture of face-to-face and online events. 46 were in favour of face-to-face-only events, and three in favour of online-only events.

"A good combination"

Several Citizens' Assembly members said that while it was important for the first session of an assembly to be face-to-face, it should be possible to switch to online meetings after that. "For me it was a good combination. It helped me a lot to have known and seen the participants before the online session," said an assembly member. If the Citizens' Assembly had only taken place online, it might not have seemed as real or even as important," said another survey participant.

Another Citizens' Assembly participant found that "more people spoke in my online discussions and they may not have been as afraid of negative reactions from other participants as they are in a face-to-face meeting."

"Had more from face-to-face meetings"

"I think I got more out of the face-to-face meetings, I felt I was able to have more in-depth discussions both at the tables and during the breaks. I felt that it solidified the information you heard much better because the additional discussions allowed me to speak my mind more often and share knowledge with other members, which could then be fed back into the table discussions.

Some Citizens' Assembly members acknowledged that it works online, even if they prefer offline events. "I would be lying if I said the first two months were not good. It was great to meet new people and it was a nice atmosphere. Although this online method worked great too."

"Nuances of human interaction are lost"

Proponents of pure face-to-face meetings praised their merits. "Face-to-face meeting is much better, so many benefits and so much easier to have a group conversation," said one member.The Citizens' Assembly was much better as a face-to-face meeting.  A lot of the nuances of human interaction are lost in Zoom," said another participant.

Some Citizens' Assembly members also made comments about the atmosphere at face-to-face meetings. "It's better to meet in person, you know people are focused, and online meetings lack enthusiasm," was one response. "The online format feels like a small focus group rather than a representative meeting (because you can't see everyone else all the time). We lose a lot of the sense of diversity, even though the composition of the groups changes from session to session," regretted one participant.

Ideas away from the programme

Some participants also found conversations away from the official Citizens' Assembly programme important. "When you meet in person, there is an opportunity to discuss some of the issues outside the meeting in a more relaxed setting. This can generate some of the best ideas and conversations and helps to have a more productive formal discussion later," summed up one Citizens' Assembly member.

Sarah Allen is in favour of online citizens' assemblies, but is also in favour of having the first meeting as a face-to-face event. Unfortunately, this is not possible in Covid-19 times. Online meetings need a lot of preparation. An online citizens' assembly is better than no meeting at all, she says. "People's voices should continue to be heard," says Allen.

Online citizens' assemblies

Background information