Designing for deliberation

I’ve been pulling together bits of background reading over the last two weeks, particularly in the area of interface design for e-participation and designing systems for deliberation. This is far from an exhaustive list of papers, but I hope I have covered the main points regarding design for deliberation and e-participation.

An important starting point for  electronic enhancement of deliberation may be seen as far back as 1970 with Kunz and Rittel and their IBIS collaboration framework, then Conklin & Begeman in 1987 developing a GUI on top of IBIS (gIBIS) – an early example of the harnessing of technological advances to enhance collaborative processes. This framework was actually “a deliberative platform for design” in the software industry rather than a design for deliberation but serves as a good basis to start the discussion of collaborative and deliberative connected software. Online collaboration proliferated with the growth of the internet and online communities through the nineties, but there was a noticeable scepticism with which this was treated by some (in contrast to the media furore about the dot com rise) – various authors pointing out weaknesses in the internet model and in particular two concerns: first, the “hypersegmentation” created by multiple channels and the “digital loneliness” that this leads to; second, the creation of enormous quantities of public content – or “masses of gibberish” and “mere chatter”.

In fact, in terms of deliberative content, by 2003 when Beth Noveck wrote at length about the subject, deliberative systems were extremely rare and only a handful (she found seven examples worldwide) of e-participation initiatives existed. She states that “the absence of appropriate technology to transform private conversation into public deliberation is at the root of electronic democracy’s stunted growth“.  Deliberation is a “function of a particular type of structured speech” and in cyberspace the architecture, the code itself, “directly shapes and structures conversation“. To tackle this problem Noveck create Unchat an online, real time (synchronous) discussion tool which enabled a global community of invited lawyers to participate in type-written (as opposed to speech) group conversations. When developing Unchat Noveck discussed the factors affecting, and required for, deliberation offline and developed them into a set of values to which online systems must adhere in order to foster real deliberation. They are listed below, along with explanations of how Unchat design implemented them:

  • Accessibility – Noveck discussed technical accessibility but not issues such as the digital divide
  • No censorship – freedom of speech must be protected
  • Autonomous – allow users to configure the system and set their own rules
  • Accountability and relevance – minimise anonymity to create accountability, but blended anonymity model suggested
  • Transparency – Conversation archives kept and web logs stored for analysis.
  • Equal and responsive
  • Pluralistic and inclusiveness – role-based permissions and moderation, set up to reflect the community
  • Appropriate moderation/facilitation – facilitation is “a clear risk to democracy” but can also improve conversation and teach people to deliberate and participate effectively. Facilitation can occur but flexible models should be available (e.g. moderator can be elected/deposed and can give private or public feedback during facilitation)
  • Informed – data summarized and stored, presented to participants, transcripts available to latecomers to “catch up”. Noveck also hints at the possibility of post-debate content analysis
  • Speed bumps – the navigation system forces participants to be exposed to relevant information before entering a debate, encouraging them to read it and become informed, rather than just heading straight in and talking. Taking this a step further, a quiz was introduced before debate to expose participants to key concepts and arguments, possibly design to target arguments that they have not previously considered.

Of course, there is more to an e-participation system than simply deliberation. Factors such as integration into policy making also influence their effectiveness. Ann Macintosh has written a number of articles about evaluation of e-participation systems producing a framework to be used for the purpose. In 2004 she described ten key dimensions of e-participation initiatives:

  1. Level of participation
  2. Stage in decisionmaking
  3. Actors
  4. Technologies used
  5. Rules of engagement (privacy, registration, site rules)
  6. Duration and sustainability
  7. Accessibility (digital divide and WAI)
  8. Resources and promotion
  9. Evaluation and outcomes
  10. Critical factors for success

A lot has been written about the topics included in Noveck’s values and Macintosh’s key dimensions. James Fishkin wrote about his “Deliberative Polling” platform in 2009, addressing points of accessibility and representativeness, highlighting the difficulties of engaging with representative samples and the effect of pressure groups and lobbyists on e-participation initiatives as well as the deliberative costs of systems that attempt to solve some of these problems without the others. Noveck, and similarly Fishkin, was convinced of the deliberative qualities of synchronous over asynchronous deliberation, due to the time commitment required to participate fully in an asynchronous debate. Cavalier, Kim and Zeiss, in their 2009 paper about the PICOLA project, also preferred the synchronous method of deliberation, claiming that use of new technologies in carefully designed interfaces could replicate the level of deliberation of face-to-face conversations. Noting the scheduling difficulties of synchronous participation, the group combined this tool with asynchronous discussion areas to create a 24-hour platform for participation. Tucey (2009) described weaknesses in synchronous models such as difficulty in expressing an opinion due to speed of conversation and suggested a hybrid strategy in which highly engaged groups might interact synchronously but with limits to their frequency of posting. Tucey, like Noveck, also advocated breaking large groups into smaller ones (up to 24 people) in order to replicate the deliberative quality of face-to-face conversation. Both Tucey and Fishkin highlighted the importance of repeat interactions between participants, perhaps a requirement to discuss issues weekly for several weeks, in order to help them get to know each other and understand their contrasting ideas. In fact, asynchronous debate ( in the form of bulletin boards/messageboard/forum systems) has dominated internet participation. Ann Macintosh wrote in 2004 “Typically e-engagement is based on discussion forum technology” and described online communities based upon discussion forums as examples of empowerment but described how e-engagement initiatives of this form imply that an indication of level of agreement with proposals is sought. Tucey (and others before her such as Wright, Coleman) suggested that moderation can help to increase deliberative conversations in groups but can be impractical at times and should be tailored to the group involved. Scott Wright wrote about “The necessity of moderation” in 2009, citing Kearns et al., Barber and Blumler & Coleman when describing how moderation, and indeed facilitation, can be vital in turning the uncontrolled expression of free speech into more focussed and useful discourse. Wright stated that moderation was justified as the anonymity and physical separation allowed by the internet causes behaviour that requires moderation. He described two models of moderation (as well as the third model of no moderation): content moderation, in which humans (and also possibly automated programs) pre-moderate content against pre-defined criteria, and interactive moderation, in which the moderator acts as a facilitator, giving feedback, supplying resources and directing the conversation in productive ways. Wright also illustrated the problems of poorly designed or implemented moderation strategies and the necessity of distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate moderation by highlighting the problems that the latter can bring, particularly for governmental platforms where the issue of censorship may be raised.

I was particularly struck with the  2007 paper by Schlosberg, Zavestoski and Shulman, which analysed a number of online initiatives including e-rulemaking and showed how online systems can be just as deliberative, though not more than, offline methods. They described with clarity how internet systems can either constrain or promote deliberation and showed how functionality and interface design can be an important factors in deciding how deliberative input will be. Scott Wright and John Street also wrote about the importance of design for deliberation in 2007, illustrating how design determines deliberative quality, but can either facilitate or impede it. They stressed that they were not describing technological determinism, partly as the technology was not a guarantee of the use it would generate, but also because the technology used was often the result of political choices made when the system was designed and commissioned. It was these choices, they argued, that were influencing the quality of deliberation rather than the technology itself.

Scott Wright’s later work stressed the importance of looking for trends across platforms and not focussing just on new innovations and technology as well as the importance of less “institutional” discussion fora. Many non-political sites host somewhat deliberative content and Scott has stressed that these “third spaces” are potentially an untapped resource of political opinion, or at least a model of engagement that could be used as an example in future work. This led me to think about the real strengths of the internet and where its potential lies. There is much debate about the usefulness of online platforms for deliberative purposes. For sure, small scale deliberation can take place on specialist platforms and deliberation occurs to varying degrees in asynchronous fora. But how do we effectively design for representative engagement and deliberation on a very large scale, harnessing the greatest strength of the internet: the ability to connect and promote interaction between large, national and even global communities? As Scott Wright showed, there are communities out there in cyberspace, willing to discuss politics and even deliberate. How do we engage those people in constructive ways? Beth Noveck has shown clearly with her peer-to-patent platform that online collaboration is possible. Increasingly, numerous web platforms offer commenting services that prove to be wildly popular, if not deliberative. So how do we turn this potential and enthusiasm into integrated, deliberative political participation?

Aside from the problem of recruiting participants and keeping their attention and faith, a possible method for maximising the usefulness of their input may lie in structured argument visualization (AV) interfaces which combine many of the technologies, designs and principles of the systems mentioned here. Ann Macintosh has written a number of papers describing how computer supported collaborative argumentation (CSCA) or computer supported argument visualisation (CSAV) (possibly based on IBIS) could be utilised to provide graphical representations of arguments to enable better deliberation. Simon Buckingham-Shum has written a number of texts describing the problem of knowledge representation and management and the potential of technology to provide platforms for successful visualisation of knowledge and argument in public participation decision making and planning systems. He has been involved in a number of innovative public-participation initiatives including the development of tools such as Compendium, a “hypermedia and sense-making” tool used to structure and represent contents of public planning meetings which can be used to inform web consultations (and vice versa).

    Argument visualisation has been shown to be of great potential in a number of policy making situations. But there are parts of these models that can be looked at in more detail. Presenting information and challenging, even educating, the participant is important and the visualisation techniques required to help participants make informed contributions are vital. However, providing a platform on which they can contribute deliberatively, to interact and work towards a consensus is also vital. Allowing reciprocal and networked input is vital for deliberation, though structures to allow this on a very large scale are few, if any. Furthermore, large-scale contributions need to be analysed and integrated into decision making. The list of values above is applicable to every part of these AV systems and there is room for research into how interface design, social technologies and content analysis can be best combined to produce effective very large scale deliberative systems.


    About birchallchris

    Research Associate in the School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds, teaching digital media practice and theory to students on the BA/MA New/Digital Media programmes. I research digital citizenship, using innovative digital methods; trying to bridge the gap between vary large scale phenomena and the individual human.
    This entry was posted in Literature, PhD, Research Notes and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

    2 Responses to Designing for deliberation

    1. Tim says:

      Nice overview. I’ve added your post as a reference here:

    2. Pingback: PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: December 13, 2010 | PlaceMatters

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