"Keep your distance" is the slogan of the Covid-19 times. Consequently, events with a larger attendance are just not possible. The Citizens' Assembly "Germany's role in the world" is therefore going online. The working sessions will take place in January and February 2021 via video conferences.
In several cases, citizens who had been chosen at random for a citizens' assembly have already virtually gathered in front of their computers instead of in a hall. And it works. At first, the Corona-wave interrupted citizens' assemblies that were already in the middle of their work. So before the participants had to shift to online, they had already met in person and got to know each other. This was the case, for example, with the Climate Citizens' Assembly in France and the UK. Both finished their work in online meetings. The French Climate Citizens' Assembly only met once more in person in Paris to decide its climate recommendations.
Time to change
However, some citizens' assemblies took a long time before switching to online. For example, the citizens' assembly on gender equality in Ireland took six months. The citizens' assembly on the topic of care in the German-speaking community in East Belgium also took six months for its last meeting, which, like the previous meetings, was an in-person event. Here the decision was against using online methods. After a several-month delay, the Citizens' Forum on the renovation of the Stuttgart Opera House began online.
Citizens' assemblies that started later in the year were able to adapt to the new conditions in time. Thus, meetings with randomly-selected citizens in Canada, Scotland, and the US state of Oregon continued online from the very first meeting, as did those in the English cities of Adur & Worthing, Brighton & Hove, Bristol and Kendal, Nantes in France, and Turku in Finland.
There are pros and cons of online citizens’ assemblies. A compilation of the advantages and disadvantages follows.
Little demands for participants: By avoiding long travel times and absences from home, it may be possible to include those randomly selected participants who would normally have had to decline an invitation. The same applies to speakers from all over the world. The implementation of the citizens' assembly is more flexible in terms of time, i.e. participants and other people involved do not have to keep themselves free for several weekends and travel to a central location, which is time-consuming. The citizens' assembly working sessions can be better integrated into everyday life. Those interested in the citizens' assembly can also watch the event more easily via livestream, and livestreaming itself is easier to achieve, as filming is required anyway for digital broadcasting to the participants' homes.
Cost savings: For organizers of nationwide events, a virtual format helps avoid high costs incurred by renting a premise, and paying for travel, accommodation, and catering expenses for participants.
An opportunity for introverts: Anyone who shies away from asking a question in front of a large audience, or who is not able to take the floor due to a large number of requests to speak, can use the chat function to ask questions or make a comment.
Simplification and flexibility: Any number of small sub-groups can be formed, as digital rooms can be used inexhaustibly compared to a physical room. Questions from citizens to the experts and inputs can be quickly collected and sorted online. For the breaks, more varied offers can be offered, e.g. coffee breaks, yoga sessions, or individual work tasks. Digitally, a variety of methods can be used which would not be possible so quickly in a physical space. For example, various moderations boards, quick formation of groups of two participants, collecting and prioritizing topics and questions in the plenary, and the possibility for everyone to ask questions at any time.
Continuous process: The regular, maximum weekly, working sessions provide participants with a continuous thought process that is not limited to the working weekends of in-person meetings.
Documentation: Participants of the online citizens’ assembly have the opportunity to watch the recorded stream, to fast-forward or rewind, and to study presentation slides for as long as they wish. A complete documentation of the meeting is assured. Misunderstandings can be avoided more easily
Selection through technology: Only those who have the appropriate technology and know-how to use it can participate in an online citizens' assembly. Not only is a basic computer with loudspeaker and microphone required, but also a stable Internet connection that enables a continuous stream. Neither of these is (yet) available to some sections of the population and in certain parts of the country. Even a smartphone, which in principle would allow participation in video conferencing systems, is not (yet) available to everyone. However, Internet participation creates new social exclusion. The organizers could provide participants with the necessary technical equipment, provided they are financially able to do so, but this would not improve a poor Internet connection. Additionally, a lack of computer skills on the part of participants could be an insurmountable hurdle.
Emotions are more difficult to communicate: Emotions are difficult to convey virtually. There is a difference between someone expressing their anger or concerns live and those who use the chat function.
Body language is more difficult to transmit: Facial expressions and gestures have a serious effect, and nuances can be overheard. Although you can see your conversation partners and yourself in small preview fames, you can never be sure who is looking at you and how the listeners react to your speech.
Visualization difficulties: Collecting and presenting questions and ideas online is difficult, at least for those who are not technically familiar with online pinboards and other tools.
Distraction: After all, virtual discussions - especially if you are only connected via telephone or audio - run the risk that the participants will not stay focused. It is tempting to play on the phone, go to the bathroom, or be distracted in some other way during a (seemingly) boring contribution.
What you can do
However, many disadvantages can be remedied. For example, citizens' assembly participants can be equipped with the necessary technology and trained in the use of hardware and software. If the Internet connection at home is poor, participants can be invited to places with good network coverage and technical equipment. Emotional reactions are also visible online. You can even ask participants to show their reactions - e.g. via small mood cards that you can hold in the camera and which are sent to the participants in advance. Interpersonal contact can be established through virtual rooms in which the participants can move around and where, for example, joint coffee breaks can be held. Citizens' assemblies are therefore also feasible online!
Online citizens' assemblies
- Denmark: Climate Change
- Canada: Hate speech, discrimination and fake news on the Internet
- Scotland: Climate Change
- Oregon (USA): Covid-19
- Turku (Finnland): Traffic
- Adur & Worthing (UK): Climate Change
- Brighton & Hove (UK): Climate Change
- Bristol (UK): Covid-19
- Kendal (UK): Climate Change
- Nantes (Frankreich): Covid-19 measures
- Stuttgart: Opera renovation