Public policy on the COVID-19 crisis requires public engagement. This project trialled an online deliberative process designed to produce rapid public input for decision-making processes in a context where the subject matter is ever-changing.
Problems and Purpose
The COVID-19 crisis requires public authorities to make rapid decisions in an uncertain and quickly changing environment. However, some decisions would benefit from having more significant public input to deal with questions of judgements and values and to supplement scientific expertise . This project aimed to test a methodology that would help integrate public deliberation into decision-making processes in an ever-changing context that requires rapid public input. Its four objectives were the following :
- Influencing research content by defining the relevant questions that need to be explored to inform the design of policy around contact tracing
- Generating timely research data and contributing to the evidence base on relevant public perceptions and values in relation to contact tracing in time to inform policy making and design
- Influencing research strategy by demonstrating to research commissioners that inclusive, deliberative research can be done online in policy-relevant timescales
- Testing and learning from an approach to conducting deliberation online, asynchronously, and under shorter timescales than typical deliberation
Background History and Context
The COVID-19 public health crisis has forced deliberative exercises to be held virtually, requiring a reflection on the process itself. One of the main challenges this form of public engagement faced is how to uphold deliberative principles in this context. Also, the fast-paced news cycles, the rapidly evolving policy context, and the tension of examining values during a period of uncertainty posed further challenges . The objectives for the “Lockdown Debate” reflected the desire to trial a new process of rapid and online deliberation that could produce relevant insights.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The recruitment process relied on an open invitation to local online groups (e.g., mutual aid groups, local resident forums). Participants were selected from that pool based on criteria such as age, ethnicity, approximated social grade, rural and urban, and gender . Fifty-four citizens expressed interest, and from that pool, thirty-one invitations were sent, and twenty-nine accepted to take part in the project (one dropped out throughout the process) . The number of participants, however, varied from session to session.
Methods and Tools Used
Deliberation occurred via the online platform Zoom, which provides technical tools (breakout rooms and chat) to facilitate exchanges. Participants were divided into eight small groups of eight people to engage in a facilitated discussion. Asynchronous activities on the online platform, Engagement HQ (from Bang the Table), were integrated into the process for the participants to complete a range of different activities each week. The activities included individual journaling to foster reflection among participants throughout the process, idea generation activities, and short surveys. The learning phase of this project relied on five expert presentations that were made online. All materials, including the presentations, were posted on the online platform for participants to revisit in their own time.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
For three-and-a-half weeks, the panel’s participants discussed the following topic: “how COVID-19 exit strategies are shaping or changing the way the public thinks and feels about areas such as privacy, trust, solidarity and human rights” . More precisely, the deliberation focused on the change in citizens’ attitudes toward norms in response to the introduction of data and digital technologies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Following deliberative principles, the project provided evidence to the participants by resorting to experts’ participation, allowing adequate time for the participants to reflect and develop their views, and discussion in small groups to reflect a diversity of viewpoints.
In practice, the process entailed three weekly components. First, the participants met for a 90-minute session in which one or two experts spoke for 10 minutes, and the remainder of the time was for the participants to ask questions. Second, they had to complete two activities on the online platform, Engagement HQ. The activities included generating ideas, journaling about their experience of life in lockdown, and answering surveys. Third, they had to participate in a 60-minute discussion in a small group of eight . Due to the small amount of evidence on the subject matter available in the public domain during the process, this project did not seek to create recommendations. The participants were invited to share their divergent perspectives to help understand the values and beliefs behind one’s position. The goal of the process was to cluster, prioritize, and synthesize the questions and ideas that emerged over the course of the three weeks.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
While the “LockDown Debate” contributes, on the one hand, to the methodological discussion on how to best run online deliberative processes during times of crisis, it also produced findings on navigating trade-offs related to using technologies in mitigating the propagation of COVID-19. The Ada Lovelace Institute published the report “Confidence in crisis?” that explores these findings. The rapid and online deliberative process they trialled identified four requirements for developing and using technologies in response to COVID-19 :
- Provide the public with a transparent evidence base
- Offer independent assessment and review of the technology
- Clarify boundaries on data use, rights, and responsibilities
- Proactively address the needs of, and risks relating to, vulnerable groups
The deliberative process highlighted the importance of public confidence to respond to the challenges of COVID-19: “During times of crisis, public involvement is more important than ever: the effectiveness, and perceived legitimacy, of any response or intervention will depend upon public confidence and trust” .
Analysis and Lessons Learned
This pilot project contributed to the debate on how to involve citizens deliberatively in decision-making processes in times of crisis. Traverse, Involve, Bang the Table, and the Ada Lovelace Institute published a report that outlines the lessons from running this rapid and online deliberative process. Based on the feedback they received from the participants, their analysis proposes a critical reading of their methodology. Regarding the learning phase of the project, they recommend circulating the presentations in advance and finding mechanisms (e.g., short videos on the subject matter, quizzes) to check the participants’ understanding and reinforce self-directed learning . Reflecting on the discursive component of the process, they argue that the small group discussions were too short for the participants to engage with one another in an online setting fully. Instead, they recommend running 90-minute sessions without a break instead . Assessing the virtual component of the process, the feedback from the participants suggest that the online setting provides an opportunity to include people that found face-to-face processes exclusionary in and of itself. However, they note that one key limitation of this project is that they had to rely on a sample that included participants already comfortable online .
 Nuffield Council on Bioethics, Why the Government must engage the public on its COVID-19 response, https://www.nuffieldbioethics.org/blog/why-the-government-must-engage-the-public-on-its-covid-19-response
 Ada Lovelace Institute, Bang the Table, Involve, Traverse, “Leaving Lockdown Public Debate: Rapid, online deliberation on COVID-19 technologies,” Final report, May & June 2020, p. 3.
 Ada Lovelace Institute, “A rapid online deliberation on COVID-19 technologies: building public confidence and trust,” https://www.adalovelaceinstitute.org/a-rapid-online-deliberation-on-covid-19-technologies-building-public-confidence-and-trust/
 Traverse, Lessons for rapid online deliberation, https://traverse.ltd/recent-work/blogs/online-deliberation-covid-19-lessons-weeks-12#weekone.
 Ada Lovelace Institute, Bang the Table, Involve, Traverse, “Leaving Lockdown Public Debate: Rapid, online deliberation on COVID-19 technologies,” Final report, May & June 2020, p. 11.
 Traverse, Rapid online deliberation on COVID-19 technologies, https://traverse.ltd/recent-work/blogs/online-deliberation-under-covid-19-why-it-matters-and-what-were-doing
 Ada Lovelace Institute, Bang the Table, Involve, Traverse, “Leaving Lockdown Public Debate: Rapid, online deliberation on COVID-19 technologies,” Final report, May & June 2020.
 Ada Lovelace Institute, Confidence in Crisis? Building public trust in a contact tracing app, August 2020, p.10
 Ada Lovelace Institute, Confidence in Crisis? Building public trust in a contact tracing app, August 2020, p.22
 Ada Lovelace Institute, Bang the Table, Involve, Traverse, “Leaving Lockdown Public Debate: Rapid, online deliberation on COVID-19 technologies,” Final report, May & June 2020, p. 8.
 Ada Lovelace Institute, Bang the Table, Involve, Traverse, “Leaving Lockdown Public Debate: Rapid, online deliberation on COVID-19 technologies,” Final report, May & June 2020, p. 10.
 Ada Lovelace Institute, Bang the Table, Involve, Traverse, “Leaving Lockdown Public Debate: Rapid, online deliberation on COVID-19 technologies,” Final report, May & June 2020, p. 12.
This entry was written in collaboration with Anna McKeon, Head of Engagement at Traverse.