Practical Values for Virtual Participation

Everyone is talking about online engagement these days. Yes, those are eight different links to eight different articles, all from one quick dive into social media this morning.
 
There is so much being written, in fact – so many weeds to get into – that I hope we don’t lose sight of a bigger picture, of what is important in planning for online deliberation. With that in mind, here are three core values that are top-of-mind for me at the moment, while designing for virtual participation.
 
I’d love to hear what values you’re keeping in mind. Drop us a tweet!
 
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Prioritizing accessibility.

Why?

At the core of our programs is the belief that everyday people have a universal right to be involved in decision making. We go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that we’re getting as true a microcosm of a city or state in the room as possible. Typically, our programs include:

  • Substantial stipends for panelists, typically at the level of average wages.
  • Transportation reimbursements, but also travel arrangements and concierge services.
  • Child and eldercare reimbursements.
  • Lodging, as needed – even for regional programs, if commuting times are prohibitive.
  • Good food. (It’s so important!)
  • Materials in large print and clear language.
  • Translation and interpretation services.
  • One staff member solely dedicated to panelist support.
  • Additional one-on-one support for any panelists with special needs.
  • Process designs that are flexible and accommodate different learning modes.

Some of the measures we’ll need to take to ensure broad accessibility online are different – we can’t cater a delicious digital lunch, sadly. But we should expect no less than this level of commitment to panelist accessibility in our online programs.

We measure accessibility not only in theoretical terms – who has the opportunity to participate – but also in practical ones – who actually participates. The same should be true online.

 
How?
We need to think well beyond existing platforms, most of which were built for enterprise applications and for folks who are generally comfortable with computers. That is not necessarily our use-case.
 
We need dead-simple solutions: no email sign-ups, no switching between different applications or tabs, no having to search for options in drop-down menus – actually no having to search for options at all.
 
We need to think about hardware, as well: sending laptops and hotspots to participants who need them, and making this technology as out-of-the-box plug-and-play as possible.
 
We need to design processes to include a new corps of tech support staff, with one-on-one tech support possible for some participants throughout the process.
 
To help prepare for our upcoming work this year, we are currently seeking technical partners to help us create a light-weight, flexible, and radically accessible online platform. This is a near-term project that won’t reinvent the wheel – it will use existing open-source tools to create a simple platform we (and others) can use right away. Here is a proposal we put together recently, addressed to a group of tech-industry volunteers. Please email me if you’re interested in collaborating on this project, either on the technical or programmatic side.
 
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Designing for humanity.
 
Why?
There is something arguably even more difficult than making online processes accessible: making them human.
 
The online world is hardly known for its humanity – in digital form, we can so easily become unsympathetic shadows of our normal selves. But it also opens some new opportunities for expression and interaction.
 
This excellent review of research on digital life and social wellbeing among young people paints a very mixed picture of online impacts. Whether social media encourages or discourages empathy, for example, appears to be highly variable and context-dependent. But we know this: we must be deliberate in designing for as pro-social a context as possible.
 
In processes like ours – that deal with difficult, values-based political issues – success depends as much on the natural camaraderie built through personal interaction as it does on organization, process design, or facilitation. Our processes use lots of iterative small group work that we think will actually translate relatively well to the online world. What won’t translate so well: the coffee breaks, the one-on-one conversations, the jokes, the hugs, the friendships. Replicating those things in some form will be the big challenge.
 
How?
We have some ideas:
  • Create something like a “homeroom” for every panelist. Panelists would be randomly selected into a small group on the first day, which they would come back to for a few minutes at the start or end of every session throughout the process. The group wouldn’t have content-related tasks, but would rather take time to get to know each other, to debrief, to talk about the process, to give logistical notes, to perhaps even play a game, and to generally take a breather from the topic at hand. Since we randomly reshuffle all other small groups throughout the process, this could provide some stability, and hopefully a built-in group of friends – for talking shop or having fun.
  • Set up social hours. Lots of us are experimenting with different kinds of Zoom shindigs these days. Why not bring a little of this pizazz to a deliberation?
  • Capitalize on the new opportunities of an online setting to allow participants to learn more about each other. Home tours are problematic, but introductions could include, say, “an item personal to you from your home.”
  • Consider internal social-networking opportunities, offline from the panel but exclusive to panelists. In general, offline (a.k.a., asynchronous) work is something we want to avoid because of highly differential rates of participation – someone who’s working full-time, for instance, is going to have much less chance to participate in this unpaid, unstructured time than someone who’s not. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be social interaction outside of the panel’s official time together. At a Citizens’ Initiative Review, this happens naturally – panelists often go out to dinner or drinks together in the evenings after a day of work. Perhaps we can inspire a bit of that friendly spirit here.
  • Work to make work-time more human, even less digital where possible. We know of one example where organizers sent every panelist a sort of self-facilitation package, with a flip-chart, marker, and post-its. And there are other ways for panelists to write, draw, or otherwise be creative in their participation – both using technology and not.

Those are just a few of our brainstorms. We’d love to hear your ideas, too! Here are those Twitter and email links again.

 
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Developing in open-source.
 
Why?
“The only completely consistent people are the dead,” wrote Aldous Huxley.
 
He’s not wrong, but I don’t think that should stop us from trying – in this case, trying for consistency between our programmatic values and any technical development we might sponsor.
 
That necessitates, I think, that we work in open-source when developing new solutions, for both ethical and practical reasons:
  • Transparency of process. We wouldn’t hide the inner workings of our in-room processes, so why would we accept that from a digital platform?
  • Cost and replicability. An expensive pay-per-use digital platform is not nearly as broadly replicable as an open-source solution.
  • Long-term sustainability. An open-source project can be picked back up by anyone at any time. This means that risk of abandonment is diversified, and no one can squat on outdated code.
  • Short-term iterative development. We know from our own projects the potential wisdom of crowds and the value of diverse authorship. Our best chance at creating smart solutions quickly and cheaply is through collaboration.
  • Democratic ethos. We’re about democratic innovation, open government, and cooperative management, so open-source seems naturally mission-aligned.
How?
Not only does it match our values, but many hands make light(er) work. There is a whole wide world of open-source enthusiasts out there, folks whom this unfortunate situation has given us, fortunately, a reason to finally contact with. There are geeks – and I write that with love – in both the software and hardware world who will be enthusiastic to work with us, as partners in another open-oriented field. We’ve found a few of them, but we have more work to do.
 
It should be said: we use proprietary technology all the time; there’s nothing wrong with that. Here at HD, we currently exist in a mysterious forest of Doodles, Zooms, and Google Docs. But when we develop new technologies – like the one mentioned earlier – open-source licensing and practices will be our friend.
Linn Davis
Program Manager, Healthy Democracy