Feb 23, 2021

6 min read

Deliberative Spaces in Times of Emergency

By Antonin Lacelle-Webster

The COVID-19 pandemic has reconfigured our social and political environment and disrupted how we engage with one another. It has increased political uncertainty, placed a premium on trust in government, exposed gaps in governing capacities, and in many places challenged democratic governance. Above all, it has exposed and exacerbated the vulnerabilities of many groups and communities. As we think about how to respond to the pandemic and its impacts, we need to capture citizens’ life-experiences in order to better understand the values and principles that should guide the recovery. We can do so through processes that are inclusive and deliberative, forming and channeling citizens’ values, hopes and fears, and ideas in ways that underwrite better policies and good governance.

“Climate Assembly UK members on Zoom” via Involve

How should we think about deliberative processes in times of emergency when information is often scarce, incomplete, and constantly evolving? Participedia has created the Citizens’ Voices and Values on COVID-19 initiative (CVVC) to explore this question. While multiple forms of participatory action have emerged in response to the crisis, this initiative focuses on projects grounded in public deliberation. The goal of CVVC is to share conceptual, organizational, and methodological resources by documenting experiences of deliberative engagement that address the pandemic as well as providing access to many of the tools — such as process designs, survey instruments, briefing materials, guidelines, and reports — used to implement them.

The projects we have gathered as of this writing provide a window into how to engage citizens in ways that broaden our capacities to identify and work through the immediate and long-term policy challenges and trade-offs facing governments, citizens, and vulnerable groups. These experiences provide opportunities to re-think the ways in which citizens can come together, think together, and act together. At this point, three features can be identified.

1. Repurposing deliberative processes:

Deliberative processes established before the pandemic have been able to rely on their existing infrastructure, legitimacy, and connections to respond relatively quickly to the crisis. While they have had to adapt their processes to a virtual setting, they were able to respond to a desire from their members — already mobilized and familiar with the process — to integrate the crisis and its impacts into their agenda. For instance, the French Citizens’ Convention on Climate held an additional online session in April 2020 at its members’ request to discuss — within the boundaries of its mandate — the impacts of the pandemic and its recovery. They decided to submit, ahead of their final report, fifty of their recommendations to the French executive to help respond to the emergency. The Climate Assembly UK, the first citizens’ assembly to shift a significant portion of its work online, discussed similar issues in May 2020 during its sixth and final (online) session organized upon request from Parliament and the assembly members. The session focused on members’ experiences of life in lockdown and the impacts of the crisis on the objective of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Following this session, the assembly submitted an interim briefing to inform the government’s response. The Chairs of the six commissioning House of Commons Select Committees wrote to the Prime Minister urging him to take the assembly’s views into account. Similarly, Connecting to Congress in the United States used its deliberative online town halls with elected officials to help disseminate information about the government’s response to the crisis and respond to citizens’ questions.

2. Identifying emerging needs:

The need for timely decisions to address the crisis has pushed institutions and deliberative processes to pilot new approaches that capture emerging needs and concerns. For instance, in Australia, the COVIDSafe app raised worries about surveillance, discrimination, and data privacy. The Australian Centre for Health Engagement, Evidence & Values convened a deliberative process to consider the trade-offs related to this contact tracing technology and how it should be used. A partnership between four organizations in the UK trialed a rapid online deliberation process, the #LockdownDebate, on citizens’ views on contact tracing technologies. Similarly, that topic was also the object of deliberation during a multi-pronged deliberative pilot project in Canada that combined community conversations with small and large-group deliberations to develop rapid and meaningful input to supplement the government response. Considering the urgency of the situation, a citizens’ assembly in Nantes (France) created an “advisory mirror group” composed of volunteer members of the assembly who meet with elected representatives to keep them informed in real-time about concerns and observations raised by the assembly regarding the emergency measures.

Participedia Case: COVID-19 Culturally & Linguistically Diverse Community Forums: South Australia

3. Reflecting a plurality of lived experiences:

While citizens are asked to follow public health protocols and guidelines, deliberative initiatives help people rethink their roles in controlling the pandemic and offering well-considered suggestions for better or less burdensome rules. Because the pandemic impacts people and communities unequally, deliberative processes are an effective way to convene a representative cross-section of the population in formats that allow them to identify issues and gaps in the government response, develop public recommendations, and share insights with broader publics. Citizens’ assemblies organized in Oregon (US) and Bristol (UK) are other examples of spaces in which a representative sample of citizens were convened to share their life-experiences and situations as they crafted recommendations to inform public policies.

Some processes are also tailored to reflect the needs of specific groups. For instance, a deliberative initiative was organized in South Australia to engage leaders from a range of culturally and linguistically diverse communities. In partnership with the Academy of Medical Sciences in the UK, Ipsos MORI ran a workshop with individuals from non-white ethnic backgrounds. They also conducted another workshop with individuals who the National Health Service has identified as extremely vulnerable and individuals who are caring for someone in that situation. Similarly, a citizens’ panel in the West Midlands (UK) included in its selection criteria individuals with mental health challenges and physical disabilities and individuals who, like in the previous example, are considered a higher-risk group.

The cases presented here are just a subset of the many efforts being made to engage citizens in this time of emergency. Their capacity to adapt to new circumstances, capture emerging needs, and reflect people’s lived experiences provide useful insights for engaging citizens in future crises. Despite challenges in translating the principles of deliberation into a virtual environment, these experiences have led some practitioners to point toward future hybrid processes that combine the strengths of face-to-face and online formats. Moreover, as shown by the UK and French climate assemblies that were able to re-adjust their work to address the crisis, deliberative processes that are more institutionalized could enable citizens to share their views, experiences, and wisdom rapidly and efficiently, even in times of emergency. Crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic require not just rapid and efficient responses, but also responses that benefit from community buy-in, trust, and legitimacy. These qualities depend upon organic, community-based processes that capture the variety of ways, including deep inequalities, in which people are impacted. In other words, effective and efficient responses to a crisis like the pandemic require more democracy, not less.

Participedia is gathering information about initiatives and resources on public deliberation on COVID-19. If you would like to share a project with us, please email: