Researchers at the University of Turku in Finland convened 70 people for a citizens’ assembly on COVID-19 policies. The goal was to research the evolution of the participants’ attitudes concerning containment measures and the extent to which expert hearings influenced them.
Problems and Purpose
In many countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated the adoption of containment measures developed by epidemiologists, medical researchers, and other health experts. This policy shift is exemplifies ongoing concerns about the trend of political decision-making moving increasingly further away from citizens and even politicians and into the hands of expert advisors and experienced bureaucrats. Given that one of the original purposes of deliberative mini-publics is to help counter such developments, the reliance, in this specific context, on extensive knowledge and scientific and technical expertise highlights the question of just how influential experts truly are in these settings.
Scholarship on the influence of expert hearings in mini-publics remains quite modest. Thus, the purpose of this citizens’ assembly on COVID-19 was to address this gap by researching how expert information influences participants’ views in a deliberative process. This experiment provides information on how participants’ attitudes on containment measures evolve during the deliberative process and to what extent expert hearings have resulted in knowledge gains and changes in trust assessments regarding different actors.
Background History and Context
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected countries the world over, forcing many governments to adopt restrictions and issue recommendations related to social life in order to contain the spread of the disease and lessen the strain on health care systems. In many places, these measures have been proposed by experts who are not directly accountable to citizens for their decisions. Some of the harsher restrictions have also contravened civil rights, for example, by restricting freedom of movement. As a result, citizens have come to views these measures in a variety of ways and obey them to varying extents. In light of this phenomenon, the citizen's assembly organized by researchers from the University of Turku aimed to investigate how expert advice influenced Finnish people's interpretations of and attitudes towards COVID-19 pandemic related restrictions.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The citizens’ assembly was organized by researchers from the political science unit of the University of Turku. The research was funded by the Academy of Finland COVID-19 Special Funding.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
An invitation to the Citizens’ Assembly was mailed to a random sample (n=6000) of Finnish people aged 18 to 80. The invitation included information about the topic, the date, the length of the process, and notice of a 75€ reward for participants. If interested, the potential participants were required to to fill out a recruitment survey online. In total, 261 (4.4 percent) people completed the survey. Of these, 163 (62.5 percent) declared that they would volunteer as participants for the Citizens’ Assembly. All were invited, and 80 individuals confirmed their participation. On the first day, 74 people showed up. Two participants dropped out during the first day, and another two failed to show up on the second day. In total, 70 people had completed participation throughout the two-day event.
Methods and Tools Used
The Citizens’ Assembly was carried out online and took place over the weekend of March 13-14, 2021. There was approximately four hours of deliberation each day. Participants were divided into small groups of six to eight and deliberated in “breakout rooms” on a Zoom platform. The experts’ hearings were conducted in one large group. Trained moderators were facilitating the discussions. During the sessions, the Zoom chat function was disabled to avoid distraction or confusion and make facilitation more manageable. In addition to the recruitment survey, the participants filled out surveys at the end of each of the two days. These surveys were used to monitor changes in opinion and knowledge level, among other things, and to receive feedback from the participants.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The Citizens’ Assembly intended to measure whether the outcomes of the mini-public can be affected by the type of experts heard and whether the order of expert hearings had an impact on the participants’ views. Therefore, the participants were divided equally into two treatment groups. Both groups wrote questions to the same four experts recruited beforehand by the researchers, but the order in which they heard from them varied.
On the first day, the two treatment groups started by watching a short video presentation of two experts. The first group heard from a university professor of public law who way studying the pandemic’s effects on the Finnish legal system and civil rights and from a research professor who was studying the impacts of the pandemic on citizens’ welfare, livelihood, and mental health as well as on inequalities between different groups in Finland. Concurrently, the second treatment group gathered information from two other experts. First, they heard from a medical superintendent in charge of the local response to the pandemic in a large Finnish city. Then, they heard from a research professor and epidemiologist who was focusing on questions of national health and statistics on the propagation of the virus in Finland and abroad.
After watching the experts' video presentations, participants broke off into smaller groups to formulate questions for the experts. Each small group wrote four questions and ranked them. When they could not reach a consensus on the questions or their ranking, a vote was organized. Then, the participants reconvened with their main treatment group for a Q&A session with their two experts. After two questions from each small group were presented and answered, backup questions were asked one at a time until the sessions ended. In total, between eleven and thirteen questions were asked during the Q&A.
Following the session with the experts, participants went back to their small groups to deliberate on the restrictions and guidelines for containing the COVID-19 pandemic in Finland. Participants decided the themes and issues that would be discussed; the organizers or moderators did not suggest any specific measures or topics for deliberation. The process was the same on the second day, the only difference being that the two treatment groups swapped experts. Participants only interacted within their small group, meaning that there were no discussions with the whole treatment group nor an opportunity to comment on the experts’ answers.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Since the Citizens' Assembly was organized for research purposes, a report concerning the planning and execution of the mini-public was written by the researchers and sent to experts and participants. The report also included some preliminary results of the research carried out in conjunction with the mini-public. It was published online in Finnish. 
As of yet, no results have been published in academic peer-reviewed journals. However, some preliminary results have been reported in two conference papers, which have been presented at the Annual Conference of the Finnish Political Science Association 2021 and The NEXT GDC symposium at KU Leuven in 2021. The results [see footnote 1] show that participants’ opinions did change during the event: both treatment groups became slightly more supportive of clear restrictions and orders instead of mere recommendations, and specifically became more supportive of the restrictions introduced in Finland. The academic field of the expert or the order of expert hearings had no significant impact on the participants’ opinion change. There was also a modest increase in knowledge among the participants. Together, these results seem to alleviate some of the concerns researchers initially had regarding expert domination in mini-publics.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
No peer-reviewed academic systematic analyses on this mini-public have yet been published. At this time then, the main takeaway of the mini-public can be summarized as follows: deliberative mini-publics can be organized online without losing their core principles and features. In an ex post facto survey, a majority of participants indicated that the online deliberative process went as well as they would expect a face-to-face event to go [see 1]. Deliberative norms, such as including different viewpoints, listening to others’ opinions, reflecting on issues from multiple points of view, and deliberating on one another's arguments were upheld even in an online environment. Only a few of the participants reported major technical problems during the mini-public.
 Kulha, K., Leino, M., Setälä, M., & Ylisalo, J. 2021. “Puntaroiva kansalaiskeskustelu koronatoimien hyväksyttävyydestä,” Kansalaiskeskustelun loppuraportti, PALO-tutkimushanke 2021, https://www.utupub.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/152217/Kansalaiskeskustelun%20loppuraportti.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
The entry was written by Mikko Leino.