Our field’s readiness to engage people online

As part of the Online Facilitation Unconference that’s going on right now in the midst of IAF’s International Facilitation Week, I’d like to engage people around a compelling report produced by our friends at AmericaSpeaks, an NCDD organizational member.

AmericaSpeaks_LogoThe report is nice and short (just 5 pages long!), and focuses on how we might use new forms of media, digital platforms, and citizen engagement principles to reengage the center and those who have turned out due to apathy and disgust. Download it here.

It’s a good read, but I wanted to encourage us to reflect on / respond to a few points made in the article that question our field’s readiness to move into the online realm. For those new to NCDD who might be coming in from the unconference, by “our field” I’m talking about the community of practitioners and innovators whose work centers on participatory practices like dialogue and deliberation.

The authors make a compelling and troubling statement about the readiness of dialogue and deliberation practitioners to move into the online realm:

Many resources exist within the field of “deliberative democracy” about ways to create effective and meaningful citizen engagement that is linked to policy making. However, this field is historically linked to in-person, face-to-face engagement and has been challenged to successfully translate to online and digital engagement….

Some efforts have been made from within the dialogue and deliberation community to create online dialogue forums, but they have not been able to attract participants and have not yet proven that they would be effective with large numbers of participants. Could some form of online tool that combines a reputation system, peer monitoring, language processing, sentiment analysis, and targeted interventions by human facilitators overcome this challenge? This is an area that requires considerable experimentation along with some research and development.

Practitioners of citizen engagement have been hampered by their inability to separate methodology from the principles discussed above. It is difficult for experienced practitioners to set aside their traditional methods. In order to find new ways of achieving these principles in online engagement, extensive collaboration with those experienced in digital engagement will be necessary.

Do these statements ring true to you? A lot of it certainly rings true to me, but I’m curious whether others will disagree.

And if our community needs to separate our allegiance to specific face-to-face engagement methodologies in order to be more successful engaging people online, how can we best do that? What principles and practices do we need to hold onto, and what can we let go? Do you agree with the principles the authors cited as needing to be upheld whether engagement happens face-to-face or online — linked to decision making, diverse representation, informed participation and facilitation? What else would you add?

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