Online Deliberation

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
52
Matt Powell
The Evergreen State College
Douglas Schuler
Problem: 

People working together to conduct business as a group are often plagued by the clash of personalities and shifting rivalries of factions and subgroups within the group. Also, without structure, a discussion can become random and rambling. It can be dominated by powerful individuals or other factors. The emergence of these negative group dynamics can adversely impact the ability of the group to achieve it's shared objectives. Other factors, such as distance to the meeting, inconvenient scheduling, or costs of getting to the meeting can obstruct effective and inclusive participation. Current online systems don't provide the structure that groups of people engaging in deliberative meetings or discussions need to help them efficiently move through a decision making process that is accessible and ensures equal participation by all.

Context: 

Board meetings, committee meetings, administrative panels, review boards, volunteer organizations, non-profit community groups.

Discussion: 

Everyday conversation, though often purposeful, is informal; it doesn't rely on an agenda, defined roles, or precisely delineated rules of interacton. To overcome the unpredictabilty of this type of human interaction, systematic rules have been created to facilitate purposeful group meetings whose objective is to produce collective decisions. One of the earliest set of "parliamentary procedures" was formulated in 1876 by Henry Robert in a treatise entitled "Roberts Rules of Order". "Roberts Rules", as they have come to be known, have been widely adopted as a means to fairly and equitably conduct the business of group meetings and provide a method to ensure that all parties within the group have the opportunity to participate in the decision making process. At the same time Roberts Rules ensure that no minority interest can exert undue influence on the process.

The advent of the Internet has provided an opportunity to combine the democratic principles (such as Roberts Rules of Order), with modern interactive communication technologies, to provide new web-based meeting facilitation systems. Ideally, online deliberations systems would allow people to come together as peers in an "on-line" environment and conduct "official" business meetings without being present in the same physical location. The plethora of online discussion systems, especially when contrasted to the scarcity of deliberative systems suggests the difficulty of this enterprise.

While working in and with a team of students at The Evergreen State College the authors of this pattern were involved in the development of e-Liberate a working prototype devloped using Linux, MySql, Apache, and PHP. The application provides facilities to create groups and to create and schedule meetings. Then, using written (typed) rather than spoken input, the system facilitates meeting by coordinating user interactions (such as making motions), conducting and tallying votes, and providing an archive facility for official minutes.

Online deliberation substitutes one set of advantages and disadvantages for the set that face-to-face deliberation offers. In general the broad criteria of either approach include access to the process, efficacy of the process (including individual involvement and process as a whole, and the context (including legal requirements, etc.). Of course these criteria overlap to some degree and influence each other.

Although face-to-face deliberation is basically "low-tech," physically getting to meetings may involve costly, "high-tech" travel. Then, once physically present at a face-to-face meeting, effective participation depends on the skills (including, for example, how to use Roberts Rules of Order), intentions and knowledge of the individuals. It also depends (of course!) on the skills, intentions and knowledge of the other participants in the meeting — including the chair.

By making access to a computer (connected to the Internet) a prerequisite to participation online deliberation adds an access hurdle comprised of cost, geography, and computer fluency. Depending on the characteristics of the potential attendees this barrier may be more than offset by the advantages that online deliberations could provide. If, for example, the meeting attendees are drawn from western Europe and the United States, it is likely the case that costs associated with computer communication will be less than transportation costs. As a matter of fact, online deliberation makes the prospect of more-or-less synchronous discussions / deliberations among people around the world possible, although here the tyranny of time zones and humankind's intrinsic circadian rhythms (which encourage us to sleep at night and stay awake in the daylight hours) become a mitigating factor: making decisions while many of the attendees are sleeping is one formula for dysfunctional meetings. The very fact that worldwide meetings become possible however provides an enormously fertile ground for civil society opportunities. (See, for example, the World Citizen Parliament pattern.)

Knowledge of the topics under discussion, knowledge of the process (Roberts Rules of Order, for example) and command of the language(s) being used in the discussion can also be obstacles to effective and equitable face-to-face as well online deliberation. Online environments, however, have the potential of alleviating, at least to some degree, some of the disadvantages that seem to be intrinsic to face-to-face settings. In the e-Liberate example mentioned above attendees can select a "language pack" so that the appropriate Roberts Rules process word or phrase (such as "I second the motion") will be presented in the attendee's own language. Note that this is not machine ("on-the-fly") translation. Moreover it has no bearing whatsoever on the content of the meeting — what the participants actually contributed — it determines only which of several equivalent language sets of the Roberts Rules "meta-language" is displayed to each user. The possibility for automatic "machine translation" to be put to work on all attendee input so that attendee only saw input to the meeting in their own language. Of course machine translation is imperfect at best — and may always remain so. Try, for example, transforming some verbiage into another language and back again via a machine translation system on the web. The result generally bears no resemblance to the original. On the other hand, translation by humans is not perfect either; relying as it does on the skills of the human translator. For those reasons it may be well-advised for reasons of transparency and integrity of the process to make both (or all) original and machine-translated language versions available for inspection with the other meeting contributions in the database. (Today as I write this a transcript of an interview with me appeared in a Sao Paulo newspaper: my utterance "couldn't" was transcribed as "could" — an easy mistake that totally inverts the meaning!) So, while free and reliable electronic translation is desirable, high-quality human translation could be inserted into the process as appropriate. This could only be as "simultaneous" and as accurate as the skills and availability of the human translator interposed within the process would allow. The needs discussed above for multiple versions and for long-term storage are appropriate in the case of human translation as well.

The online environment offers other potential advantages. One obvious benefit is that only the actions that are allowable within the deliberation process at that time are displayed to the individual participants. This, in theory, can help reduce problems that are commonplace with meeting attendees who are not thoroughly familiar with the Roberts Rules conventions). Online systems can also provide onliine "help systems." Within e-Liberate, for example, users can view descriptions of how and when specific actions are used. Also, as previously mentioned, a meeting transcript can be automatically created and votes can automatically be tabulated as well.

Notes:

  • Of course deliberation is an ongoing process — not just a sporadic occurrence. Should this fact be made explicit in the pattern? I.e. is the title (unqualified) misleading? The ongoing nature of deliberation suggests that an online [deliberative] tool can help maintain critical institutional memory. This pattern is more accurately called Online Deliberative Meetings (or Sessions?)
  • video letters" (seen on CNN while in Sao Paulo) Balkans — "Please tell me where the bones of my children are."
  • Mention problems with synchronous! (do I mean parallel motions??)
  • Online deliberation systems could also be used in face-to-face sessions (or hybrids!) to circumvent the problem of voting before adequate discussion (in the time-zone problem), discussions can be concluded on one motion then put aside (I presume this is legal) until, say 8 hours later.
  • Example screen shots and some descriptive information can be found here or at http://grace.evergreen.edu/~powmat25/RR/Home.html.
  • This pattern does not (yet) discussed the wide range of "extra-system" or contextual issues such as verifying that people are who they say they are; verifiable vote tabulation, such as the controversies over Diebold systems; privacy. Also — access to previous meetings; institutional memory; other collaborative tools — implications for design and basic model.

Solution: 

Development of a network-based application that will provide non-profit, community based organizations with the technology they need to conduct effective deliberative meetings when members can't easily get together in face-to-face meetings. Ideally the tools would increase their effectiveness in addressing their mission while requiring less time and money to conduct deliberative meetings.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

 Group discussions are often plagued by personality clashes and rivalries. Also, without structure, discussions can become random and rambling, or dominated by powerful individuals. To overcome these problems, systematic rules have been created to facilitate meetings that encourage fair decisions. Now is the time to develop Online Deliberation systems that support effective deliberative meetings when getting together in-person is difficult or costly. 

Pattern status: 
Released
Preface: 
People working together to conduct business as a group are often plagued by the clash of personalities and shifting rivalries within the group. Also, without structure, a discussion can become random and rambling. And it can be dominated by powerful individuals. Other factors, such as distance to the meeting, inconvenient scheduling, or costs of getting to the meeting can obstruct effective and inclusive participation. To overcome the unpredictability of informal human interaction, systematic rules have been created to facilitate purposeful group meetings and encourage collective decisions. It's time to develop Online Deliberation applications that provide organizations with the technology they need to conduct effective deliberative meetings when members can't easily get together in-person. Ideally the tools would increase their effectiveness while requiring less time and money to conduct the meetings.
Information about introductory graphic: 

Fiorella De Cindio

Information about summary graphic: 

e-Liberate online deliberation tool; Public Sphere Project