//Deliberating online to inform policy making: examples to learn from

Deliberating online to inform policy making: examples to learn from

During the Covid-19 pandemic there has been an increased focus on the possibilities for deliberation and dialogue to be run online as policymakers try to better understand public views on issues from the safety of their homes.

The following case studies highlight a range of ways in which online deliberation has worked in the past.  It is by no means exhaustive and its purpose is to illustrate to commissioners that online deliberation has happened and been successfully used within a range of contexts.

The list is growing and many of the Sciencewise contractors have undertaken recent online deliberation work including the transformation of some current Sciencewise funded projects to online in response to social distancing restrictions. Our project pages will update on these processes in due course.


In late 2014 Jaclyn Tsai, the Taiwanese Minister for Digital Affairs, invited civil society movement g0v to design a neutral platform to engage experts and relevant members of the public in large-scale deliberation. vTaiwan is a forum for constructive conversation and consensus-building between diverse opinions and perspectives, covering a range of topics including alcohol sales, Uber regulation, and financial technology.

Facilitators and g0v volunteers use web tools, timelines and email updates to guide people through each stage. These include an ‘objective’ stage for crowdsourcing facts and evidence, and a ‘reflective’ stage (using mass deliberation tool Pol.is) to form a ‘rough consensus’. Key stakeholders are then invited to a live-streamed face-to-face meeting to draw up specific recommendations; 3D cameras allow observers to immerse themselves in VR representations of those conversations. All contributions are transcribed and published in an open, searchable format, so anyone can see how conversations and decisions develop.

As of February 2018, 26 cases have been discussed through the vTaiwan process (80% of which have led to decisive government action), with 200,000 people taking part in vTaiwan discussions as of August 2018. Successful outcomes to date include the passing of a crowdsourced bill on Closely Held Company Law, the resolution of a disagreement between civil society activists on the topic of internet alcohol sales, and the ratification of several items on Uber regulations.

Sciencewise – Decarbonising Heat Sounding Board

Sciencewise’s Decarbonising Heat Sounding Board aimed to engage a small sample of public participants in an online discussion with analysts at the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an independent statutory body tasked with advising the government on how to reduce carbon emissions. Discussions focused on the potential for uptake of low-carbon heating technologies (e.g. heat networks, heat pumps), barriers to uptake, and potential solutions to those barriers.

Introductory discussions with the 17 participants were held on 3 & 4 February 2016, with a substantive deliberative discussion on 6 February. Half of the participants were drawn from previous dialogue projects supported by Sciencewise, and half via an external recruitment company. Sciencewise circulated materials in advance and subsequently facilitated a synchronous online discussion between policymakers and participants. You can find out more about the sounding board here

Findings from the Sounding Board project informed the CCC’s evidence base for advice to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, as well as helping set the agenda for future discussions. Given the small sample size, the views expressed via the Sounding Board should not be interpreted as representative of the public at large. However, this new form of deliberative engagement provides a means of opening up the policy process to a broad range of perspectives, especially when time and resourcing constraints rule out more in-depth processes.

Crowdsourced Off-Road Traffic Law in Finland

Off-road traffic laws regulate traffic beyond established roads, e.g. snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles. The Ministry of Environment (which regulates off-road traffic in Finland) partnered with the Committee for the Future to run a crowdsourcing project on this topic. The previous government was unable to pass a new off-road traffic law, therefore lawmakers consulted Finnish internet users to generate ideas, inform decisions, enhance public understanding, and learn new engagement methods. The project ran from January-June 2013.

Using an online platform, participants could propose ideas, vote, and comment on proposals. The Ministry also set up a website (www.maastoliikennelaki.fi) to provide more information about off-road traffic laws. Across the four stages of the project (problem mapping, problem solving, evaluation, law writing) more than 700 citizens took part in online debates, and the website was visited by 14,000 individuals. Participants were unable to communicate synchronously on the platform with policy makers (e.g. ministers, civil servants); moderators gathered questions and forwarded them to civil servants (who responded selectively), then posted responses back to participants.

Summaries and reports were published during and after the process to inform participants and the public; many participants stated that they learned from this experience. Citizens acknowledged the democratic potential of the project but believed it unlikely that their ideas would be part of the actual law. As noted by Aitamurto & Landemore in 2015, despite this process being ‘designed explicitly for crowdsourcing knowledge’ (as opposed to legislative reform per se), it ‘is undeniably more inclusive than the traditional law-making process in which only a handful of civil servants and lobbyist group members draft the law’.

Sciencewise – Environment Agency Sounding Board

Sciencewise’s Environment Agency Sounding Board was developed to enable public input into the research priorities of the Environment Agency (EA) – a key environmental regulatory body – regarding onshore oil and gas. It was also intended to help the EA’s technical experts understand lay concerns. Discussion topics included the environmental impact of onshore oil and gas, how the EA could address public concerns, and what would build public confidence in EA research.

17 public participants were involved in the project, which ran from January-March 2016. Participants were recruited by a specialist agency using stratified random sampling. Information materials were circulated to support synchronous discussions involving public participants and EA researchers and the project was carried out using only online-only interactive sessions.

 The EA valued this opportunity to confirm expectations about participant views, as well as seeing how these views developed over the sessions. The EA also reported that the project had helped them think about how to involve the public in future research planning. In feedback from the participant survey respondents, 92% said they had learned something new as a result of taking part, while 93% said they were likely to get involved again in similar activities.

Sciencewise – Global Food Security Food Futures Panel

Global Food Security (GFS) – the UK cross-government programme on food security research – commissioned a public panel for online and face-to-face engagement activities exploring different aspects of food security research. These included urban agriculture, the food system, buying British, and using insects as animal feed. Sciencewise provided support and co-funding for key aspects of the project, which ran from February 2015-March 2016.

600 panel participants were recruited from 6 UK locations. The sample was designed to broadly reflect UK population demographics, a mix of urban and rural areas, and areas with different agricultural and food culture profiles. Recruitment was conducted face-to-face, followed by online registration. An online platform was designed as a central hub for panel members, providing information in a range of formats. It also provided channels for panel members to interact with specialists, the project team, and each other.

The panel delivered four multi-activity projects utilising a range of online methods, as well as face-to-face workshops for larger projects. GFS specialists subsequently felt inspired to engage more with members of the public, while the process itself enabled a raft of learning about public panels as an engagement model. The process also demonstrated that there are significant savings to be made (in terms of costs and time) using a panel approach.

Climate Assembly UK

Climate Assembly UK is the first UK-wide citizens’ assembly on climate change. It was commissioned by six cross-party committees of the House of Commons to look at how the UK should meet its target of net-zero emissions by 2050. Climate Assembly UK has 110 members, representative of the UK population, recruited after 30,000 invitations were sent to randomly selected households in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Involve ran the assembly alongside the Sortition Foundation and e-democracy project mySociety.

The assembly was scheduled to meet over four weekends in Birmingham from January-March 2020. The first three of these weekends took place as planned. However, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic the fourth weekend was postponed, and then moved online. Weekend four was originally scheduled to run over one weekend, which for an online assembly was considered unfeasible. Therefore, weekend four took place across three non-consecutive weekends, each comprising three sessions of around two hours.

The assembly mirrored its offline equivalent in synchronous deliberation: hearing and questioning speakers, small group discussions, and secret ballots. This represents a pioneering case of an online citizens’ assembly. The assembly report will provide valuable evidence for politicians and policy makers on public preferences for reaching net zero. The assembly’s work will inform the CCC’s analysis of the UK economy, and the commissioning Select Committees will also use the results within their scrutiny of Government on net zero.

World Wide Views on Biodiversity

World Wide Views on Biodiversity was co-ordinated by the Danish Board of Technology in September 2012. It sought to engage citizens in the process of policymaking via online deliberation, while also raising awareness on the topic of biodiversity. The deliberation took place across 25 countries, including Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, and Uganda. The project formed part of the UN Decade on Biodiversity (2011-20), addressing the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) target of making people aware of the values of biodiversity.

3,000 participants were selected to reflect the demographic diversity in their respective countries and regions. The participants debated the same policy questions synchronously at meetings held in multiple sites on the same day (September 15: beginning at 9am in Japan and finishing 25 hours later in Arizona). 100 participants were involved in each meeting. Participants were provided with information material before and during the day, voting on a set of predefined questions. The votes were collected and reported online for comparison (across countries, continents, genders, ages, etc.).

The results were analysed and presented to CBD policymakers at the eleventh meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP11) in India in October 2012. The CBD Secretariat expressed its wish to collaborate on a similar project in future, to learn whether (and how) citizens’ views had changed. Participants were overwhelmingly positive when asked about future deliberations. Moreover, the worldwide focus of this online deliberation is conducive to democratic governance, engaging citizens and giving them political influence in countries with little or no experience of citizen participation.

Public Input into Pandemic Planning: Deliberating trade-offs in COVID-19 policymaking

This ongoing Canada-based initiative explores inherent trade-offs in the policy response to COVID-19 (e.g. social distancing policies in conjunction with isolation and/or loss of income), utilising public input (gathered through synchronous online deliberation) to inform a collective response and propose next steps. The project has been organised by the University of British Columbia, alongside a multi-disciplinary collective of researchers from British Columbia and Ontario. Participants are recruited via three methods:

  1.     Invitations (via social media, networks, etc.) to host self-facilitated online deliberations (‘community conversations’) with friends and family
  2.     20 facilitated small-group deliberations of 8 to 10 citizens who completed a survey; selected based on demographic, socioeconomic, geographic, and ethnic diversity
  3.     A facilitated large-group deliberation held with 20-24 selected participants who have not taken part in the previous facilitated small-group process

Participants in the large-group deliberation will focus their discussion on the summaries and recommendations generated in the community conversations and small-group deliberations. The organisers identify key questions and trade-offs, creating background information available to participants on the project website. The leaders of the community conversations then submit a summary of their discussion and recommendations on the website. Facilitated groups are recorded and transcribed, with facilitators providing summaries of their group’s discussions.

The research findings will constitute a final report for decision-makers, including recommendations and the reasoning used in support of the policy recommendations. The project is still ongoing in the context of the developing pandemic, however the desired policy impact is to provide public input for planning the next steps in the provincial pandemic response.

Living Voters Guide

The Living Voters Guide (LVG) was first unveiled in Seattle, Washington in September 2010 and ran until 2016. It was funded by the National Science Foundation and created by University of Washington academics (alongside Seattle non-profit organisation CityClub). Using a ‘pros and cons’ online format, the Living Voters Guide aimed to engage Washington citizens in synchronous deliberation on local and state-level political issues. It was informed by uses and gratification theory, positing that political advocates seek out information online that already compliments their views. The resulting aim was to encourage collaboration and reflection, exposing participants to diverse perspectives.

The LVG utilised a ranking system to organise points of view by the majority of participant choices. Participation was voluntary and accessible to all citizens of Washington State, regardless of whether they contributed information or not. If participants did not want to set up an account, they were still able to view the website, local ballot measures, the pros and cons of each measure, and user commentaries. The LVG had a Facebook page and Twitter Account, updating social networks and providing links to its website. The website used the ConsiderIt platform, in which users added their own opinions and commentary.

A key aim of the LVG was to increase voters’ knowledge of political issues. It has not been determined whether the Guide (and its comparatively large information base, in relation to other media) directly affected voter decision-making. However, Freelon et al. observed that a “standout feature that is woven throughout the entire site is the low salience of political identity…the platform emphasizes ideas over personality”. This illustrates the LVG as a demonstration that even when participants are approached explicitly as ‘voters’, it is still possible to facilitate and encourage non-partisan discussion on political questions.

This paper has illustrated some examples of where online deliberation has been successfully run in a range of contexts and on a range of issues. This list is by no means exhaustive, particularly as the number of successful online deliberative processes is likely to continue growing rapidly whilst social distancing measures are in place.

To discuss the opportunities for online deliberation and dialogue, please email [email protected].