Why online tools for public deliberation?

Public deliberation is as old or older than the Athenian agora; why should we feel the need to use online tools to augment it? However, the point has been made by many authors for the need for tools to support collective decisions. (In particular, see Turoff. [http://www.hicss.hawaii.edu/HICSS_35/HICSSpapers/PDFdocuments/CLCSC03.pdf]Murray Turoff, Starr Roxanne Hiltz, Hee-Kyung Cho, Zheng Li, Yuanqiong Wang. «Social Decision Support Systems (SDSS)». IEEE, , Proceedings of the 35th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 2002.)

  1. Involve more stakeholders

    The first reason is that online dialogue can engage a greater number of participants, because dialogue happens in parallel. Many participants can read the arguments of one another simultaneously, as opposed to a face-to-face debate where only one orator can speak at a time. This can be achieved somewhat if the discussion is broken in small groups, but it is possible that a person with relevant knowledge will not be in a given group. (This is somewhat mitigated by use of OpenSpace techniques [http://www.openspaceworld.com/]Owen, Harrison. Open Space Technology, A users guide. Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 1997..) By providing a searchable overview of the arguments, an online tool can allow participants to focus their attention.

    • Online and offline

      Note that this does not imply that face-to-face meetings are unnecessary, or that online tools should be used as the only mechanism for decision-making. Indeed, much valid criticism has been leveraged against online deliberation, most importantly around the bias it introduces because of the digital divide. Usage of online tools should never mean that citizens with superior skill using complex tools, or more simply with better access to those tools, are in a position to provide input that other citizens cannot provide. This is a valid criticism, insofar as it is a transposition of a basic criticism that can be made against representative democracy. However, much as representative democracy nonetheless has a place in the political system, I believe that this criticism does not rule out the use of online tools as one component of a public deliberation process; at least so long as it is complemented by other means to involve citizens on the other side of the digital divide in the conversation, in a way that does not penalize them. To insure that, I would recommend either a back-and-forth between online and in-person processes, or even the use of online tools to augment in-person meetings.

  2. More dynamic deliberation

    As opposed to in-person debate, online tools allow participation from more people. But polling techniques, or referendums, already allow a large number of people to give their input on an issue. The most important benefit of using online tools, compared to those techniques, is that the content of the deliberation can be altered in-process: as participants raise new arguments, which may in turn underline new issues, the participants may react to the updated state of the debate, raising an awareness of the complexity of the issues at hand. This is possible because the terms of the debate are on an electronic support, and can be updated.

    • Overview and details

      However, if a great number of participants introduce contributions, the number of contributions can be such that no one participants can review them all. It is important to always maintain a simple overview of the main issues and options. Again, an online tool can allow the presentation of an overview in hypertext form, where details can be obtained on demand. But maintaining such an overview cannot be fully automated; participants are still required to continually maintain the overview's structure, so as to keep the main issues intelligible.

    • Structured debate vs free-form input

      For the debate to remain intelligible, the options and arguments also have to be presented in a succint, well-structured manner. Again, an online tool can help give an overview of the state of the debate, through argumentation visualization techniques. The most well-known such technique is that pioneered by Horst Rittel, called IBIS [http://kmi.open.ac.uk/publications/index.cfm?trnumber=kmi-05-18]Simon J. Buckingham Shum, Albert M. Selvin, Maarten Sierhuis, Jeffrey Conklin, Charles B. Haley, Bashar Nuseibeh. «Rationale Management in Software Engineering», Hypermedia Support for Argumentation-Based Rationale: 15 Years on from gIBIS and QOC, 111–132. Computer Science Editorial. Springer-Verlag, 2006.. It displays a network of deliberation steps, where nodes are either issues, options or arguments. The issues are linked to related options, and those in turn to pro and con arguments. However, this formal description of the terms of the debate, though it makes the debate easier to read, requires some training to write. This cannot generally be expected from all members of a community, who may not be experienced with formal debate or online tools. It is quite important that free-form input should be allowed, to avoid creating another digital divide. This means that an online dialogue support tool should assist users in the task of transforming free-form input into structured arguments. I believe this is where most existing tools are lacking: most specialize either in free form content or structured content, and do not bridge the gap between the two.

    • Processing status

      As inputs are structured in this way, it is possible to give feedback to participants and tell them how their input has been integrated; this confirms to participants that their contribution has been heard, and should strengthen the sense of community. Similarly, even structured input should have a status to show how often it was read, rated, etc. Those that have not yet been rated could be proposed as reading to a few users. This could help ensure that no proposal is to fall by the wayside.

  3. Complex voting

    As we have pointed out, once the key issues have been explored in a deliberative process, their relative importance should be determined through an independent voting process so as to access the wisdom of crowds. Another advantage of using online tools for public deliberation is that the computing power available allows for more subtle forms of voting. For example, someone may disagree with a measure because they believe it to be detrimental, or because they believe it is positive but inadequate; they may consider an argument unconvincing because the effect is insignificant, or because they believe the argument is false; someone can support an option, yet disagree with a specific argument used to support it. All these distinctions should have an impact on policy, and are best recorded in an online tool.

    Murray Turoff et. al. have analysed forms of voting that take these distinctions into account, in a method that they call Delphi [http://web.njit.edu/~turoff/Papers/CDSCMC/CDSCMC.htm]Murray Turoff, Starr Roxanne Hiltz, Michael Bieber, Jerry Fjermestad, Ajaz Rana. «Collaborative Discourse Structures in Computer Mediated Group Communications». Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 4(4), jun 1999. . It is possible to have a running status of the vote on each distinct argument for or against a given proposal; thus, participants can easily identify the most contentious issues, and focus their attention on solving them.

    • Commitment counts

      We have proposed to focus on commitment rather than preference; this raises some issues in terms of whether the vote should be secret or public. Traditionally, secret vote is preferred as a measure to deter vote-buying; but it meant that public commitments were empty. Advances in cryptography could allow one to make a commitment (in time or money) to an option that could optionally remain anonymous unless the option is chosen, yet can be tallied in the meantime.

    • Delegated expertise

      Another advance allowed with online tools is the possibility to delegate one's vote on specific topics. This is sometimes referred to as liquid democracy [http://fc.antioch.edu/~james_green-armytage/vm/proxy.htm]. If I do not understand a certain issue in depth, but I trust someone else to understand it, I can delegate my vote to that person on that specific issue. This reintroduces representation without sacrificing direct democracy, as I can always focus my direct vote on issues I understand in depth.

  4. A richer dialogue dynamic

    Another aspect to consider with online tools is that each medium seems to favour a certain communication dynamics: discounting one-to-many media (whether old like radio or new like listservs), we find that unmoderated newsgroups or web forums can often erupt in flame wars (it has been theorized that media that display interaction chronologically encourage speakers to have the "last word"); wikis tend to favour consensus, but can become tangled unless tended; dialogue between blog authors can be fragmented, between the entries and comments on either blog... The point here is not that these media are flawed; clear communication is always labour-intensive, but different media exhibit different strengths and weakness, which must be overcome in specific ways. More important, it shows that a certain communication dynamics could be encouraged by designing tools in a certain way. Online tools have the advantage of being easy to reconfigure; so it is possible to study the impact of certain interaction designs on the deliberation process itself. For example, a tool can encourage someone to read (and rate) some of the key counter-arguments before expressing support for an option. Just as there are clearly certain features of in-person communication, or rather of certain modalities of in-person deliberation, that have no equivalent in an online system, the converse is true: on-line discussion also allows certain interaction styles that are difficult to reproduce otherwise.

    A good example is the use of collaborative editing tools during some recent conferences. Anecdotal [http://many.corante.com/archives/2003/07/24/step_away_from_the_podium.php] evidence [http://strange.corante.com/archives/2004/07/14/blogtalk_a_week_on.php] has [http://www.headshift.com/archives/000992.cfm] suggested [http://www.oreillynet.com/digitalmedia/blog/2003/04/etech_the_hydra_collaborative.html] that it can allow the audience to comment on the main speaker's argument in a way that can transform the traditional conference into a more collaborative event (or, sometimes, subvert the original speaker's intent!) AmericaSpeaks [http://www.americaspeaks.org/services/town_meetings/tour.htm] provides another example, where they use real-time voting to enrich a plenary session. More generally, though we can only listen or read to one thread of reasoning at a time, our peripheral attention can integrate information from other channels to give us a more complete picture of how this thread is situated within a larger universe of discourse in a community.

    • Communities and trust

      This is another area where the back-and-forth between online and in-person deliberation is necessary. When communities are deeply divided, perspective shift requires the possibility of challenging the choices and assumptions of the majority. (Deep democracy [http://www.deep-democracy.net/what.htm], Action science [http://www.actiondesign.com/action_science/]Chris Argyris, Robert Putnam, Diana McLain Smith. Action Science. The Jossey-Bass Social and Behavioral Science Series and The Jossey-Bass Management Series. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco and London, 1985. .) This process can be felt as threatening, and there can be a backlash unless it is done in the context of trust, and building this trust is more difficult in the anonymous context of most online communication; so in-person deliberation with trained facilitators is probably most appropriate for some of that process. However, it is easier to build trust when one has a strong sense of security, and some findings (from the School for Peace [http://sfpeace.org ]Rabah Halabi, Ed. Israeli and Palestinian Identities in Dialogue: The School for Peace Approach ) suggest that it is beneficial to sub-communities to have access to a "safe space" for discussion among themselves (or with a single neutral facilitator.) More and more communities rely on online communications for this space, especially when they are thinly spread. For this reason, and others, a deeper intertwining of online and in-person communications may be most appropriate for addressing divisive issues. Also, on a practical level, it would be less disruptive to divide time between intra-group safe space and inter-group questioning in an online setting. Finally, when bridges have been built, the trust rests between individuals, not between abstract ideas; but the resulting decisions, which hopefully address concerns of both parties, should bear traces of how those concerns have shaped the final decision, and a structured argument record, as provided by an online argument structure, may provide a lasting access to that process.

  5. Community learning of deliberation processes

    We raised the issue of facilitation at two moments: about the need for progressive structuration of input, and about the need for trust building in divided communities. Deliberation is an acquired skill, and facilitation even more so; making the process of deliberation more visible and more accessible online gives many opportunities for these skills to be seen in action, emulated and shared. More than that, the opportunities for training and mentoring could be built into the design of an online system. In the first case, participants that see their input reformulated and restructured can interact with the participant doing so and learn about proper argument structure. It may even be possible to detect automatically breaches of argument structure; this would then provide instant feedback to participants who are learning the formal argument structure format. (However, such automation is error-prone and should always be under the control of an experienced user.)

    In the second case, when a facilitator applies conflict-resolution techniques, this can be made explicit to the participants (perhaps after the resolution) so they can review the steps and start applying them as new conflicts arise.

We see that online tools, while they do not solve all the needs for in-person deliberation, offer new opportunities for more people to be involved in complex debates, help participants express public commitment for a project, and may even facilitate solving divisive issues. I hope that I have convinced you that using such tools could be an asset to the process of decision making. However, though many benefits that I have pointed out are available now, others would only be fully realized as the tools are developed and improved, through further usage and research.