Deliberating online in a crisis: yes we can (and why we should)

Can we trust the public to have constructive conversations to inform decision-making in a national crisis? Based on two online, public deliberation forums that they ran and analysed during lockdown, Rachel Thompson, Anna McKeon, Stephen Elstub and Oliver Escobar argue that public deliberation should be a critical element in any crisis response

Democracy in a crisis

In times of crisis, opportunities for meaningful citizen participation are more important than ever. However, as in many other countries, the UK Government’s pandemic-era approach to public policy, from March 2020, has been conventional. It assumes that the public are there to be led, rather than to be part of the leadership effort, through (for example) deliberation about evidence, policy options and collective action.

We challenge the lack of public input. We offer evidence that despite the rapidity of responses, the technicality of Covid-19, and the inability to meet in person, the public can make a valuable contribution to policy. Where governments do not provide opportunities for public reasoning, the public sphere can generate them.

Online deliberative forums

In the summer of 2020, we designed and facilitated two online deliberative forums in England and Wales. We convened them in response to the lack of public involvement in policy by the UK Government(s). Pre-pandemic, deliberative processes in the public sphere would frequently occur face-to-face. They would involve anything from dozens to hundreds of people, convened in one location over several weekends, often involving months of preparation.

In comparison, these new processes explored the practicalities of running public deliberations fully online, in a short timeframe, and responding to real-time events. These were significant firsts for this type of practice in the UK; organisers, facilitators and the public all developed new capabilities as the processes unfolded.

the quality of online deliberation provided evidence of civic communicative resilience during the pandemic

The two cases produced research findings, publications and public recommendations regarding the pandemic response. We shared these recommendations with stakeholders in policy and industry. To better understand the extent to which deliberations had been successful, and provided initial evidence of their value in times of crisis, we analysed transcripts of discussions. Analyses found that the quality of deliberation online in both cases was good in many respects, providing evidence of civic communicative resilience during the pandemic.

Deliberation and emotion

Contributions from participants were focused on the topic, and demonstrated high levels of respect for each other. They often appealed to the common good, demonstrating pro-social views and attitudes. Important aspects that contributed to the deliberative quality of these processes were clear justifications for views, and also storytelling.

We were particularly interested in exploring how heightened emotions regarding the pandemic might influence public deliberation. Would strength of feelings that were widespread during the lockdown inhibit productive conversation? Our analysis showed the opposite. The greater the pandemic-related emotion, the more common it was for participants to justify their views and use productive storytelling. This meant a higher quality of deliberation overall.

Would strength of feelings widespread during the lockdown inhibit productive conversation?

Emotion plays a wide range of complex but crucial roles in public deliberation. It is sometimes framed as a threat to rational, logical argument. Yet, emotion underpins the empathy and solidarity that motivates people to come together and deliberate in the first place. These qualities are essential in determining what is worthy of taking forward from deliberations; and they play multiple communicative functions, while providing motivation for action afterwards.

Emotion can lay the groundwork for solidaristic arguments and demonstrate pro-social behaviours along the way. Emotions are therefore indispensable, enabling both reasoning and decision-making. The unprecedented, shared circumstances (pandemic and lockdowns), combined with associated fear and uncertainty, highlighted the importance of emotion to quality deliberation.

Deliberative processes promote solidarity

Political leaders subject to media focus are more concerned with public opinion than public reasoning, and even that concern is limited. Public opinion may be shaped by top-down communication, whereas public reasoning must be enabled through deliberative public engagement. These are fundamentally different approaches to democratic governance, with substantial implications for addressing this and future crises.

deliberative processes reduce group polarisation and promote solidaristic behaviours

Growing evidence suggests that deliberative processes reduce group polarisation and promote solidaristic behaviours. Our research shows that even in times of crisis, rapid change and heightened emotion, deliberation is not only possible but supports the quality of public reasoning and debate. It can provide a much-needed alternative public space to social media, which can increase polarisation and misinformation.

Don’t marginalise the public in a crisis

Our experience suggests that governments should not use the excuse of urgency (or complexity) to dismiss citizen involvement during crises. Rather, they should create opportunities for public participation and deliberation.

Despite the more demanding conditions a pandemic presents for citizen deliberation, experimentation and innovation can occur. These participatory and deliberative forums should feed into the pandemic policy process, to increase democratic legitimacy and the quality of public policy. Expediency is not a reasonable excuse for unrestricted executive powers. Covid-19 is not a strategic actor, like a wartime foe. Thus, there is no justification for foregoing transparency, engagement, and accountability. Our work, and others’ ongoing work, shows that it is possible to respond rapidly with good quality deliberations. These deliberations speak to national and local issues, online and during a crisis.

Our study offers a comprehensive, systematic, and in-depth analysis of the deliberative capacity of ordinary citizens in a pandemic. Importantly, the findings are relevant for other types of crises too.

When similar events occur in the future, members of the public should not be marginalised from public policy. They should play a pivotal role in public reasoning that informs decision-making – and hold decision-makers to account.

With colleagues, the authors recently published The Resilience of Pandemic Digital Deliberation: An Analysis of Online Synchronous Forums in the Journal of the European Institute for Communication and Culture

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Rachel Thompson Rachel Thompson Research Associate in Information Governance and Public Engagement, Department of Population Data Science, Swansea University More by this author
photograph of Anna McKeon Anna McKeon Head of Engagement at the social impact consultancy Traverse More by this author
photograph of Stephen Elstub Stephen Elstub Reader in British Politics, Newcastle University More by this author
photograph of Oliver Escobar Oliver Escobar Senior Lecturer in Public Policy, University of Edinburgh More by this author

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