The restrictions on public gatherings brought in as a response to the coronavirus pandemic pose challenges to those seeking to set up and run effective citizens’ assemblies. For those involved in the already-running Climate Assembly UK, those challenges had to be understood and met without the benefit of the preparation time future remote assemblies might have. Sarah Allan explains how she moved that assembly online.
Climate Assembly UK moved online at the end of March 2020. Since then, we’ve held two assembly weekends online, with all assembly members still involved.
A fair few people from around the world have been in touch to ask how this worked. The answers to their questions and my wider reflections on online assemblies are too much for one blog post, but this is a start.
For those less familiar with it, Climate Assembly UK is the first UK-wide citizens’ assembly on climate change. It was commissioned by six cross-party committees of the House of Commons to look at how the UK should meet its target of net-zero emissions. You can read more about that and the assembly here.
The assembly was meant to meet over four weekends in Birmingham between late January and late March 2020. The first three of these weekends took place as planned. However, the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic led to the fourth weekend being postponed, and then to the decision to move the assembly online.
This was a first. No citizens’ assembly in the UK – or in the world, as far as we’re aware – has ever taken place online, with the exception of one meeting of la Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat.
There were lots of considerations about whether, and how, to make this shift. Here I focus on four themes. The description of each is not exhaustive, but I’ve highlighted some of the points that feel most important.
1. Ensuring everyone can take part
When we told assembly members about the postponement of the fourth weekend in Birmingham, they were very disappointed. Their enthusiasm and commitment for finishing the assembly were clear. But that by itself didn’t make moving the assembly online a given.
Before we made any decisions, we asked assembly members about their internet connection. One assembly member had no means of accessing the internet at home and a small number of others had poor connections that were unlikely to support video conferencing. We felt these numbers were low enough to make proceeding online viable, but they had a number of implications. They confirmed that we needed a video-conferencing platform that allowed some people to dial-in to meetings, as opposed to joining online. They also meant that we needed to design assembly sessions so that assembly members did not have to be able to see our screen-shares, or each other, in order to participate. More on that below.
Test calls that introduced assembly members to Zoom were also key. We set up test calls with around seven assembly members at a time, providing instructions on how to access Zoom from a computer, tablet, smartphone and phone. By the time we got to the first online assembly weekend, we had completed at least one test call with all but two assembly members.
We also took other steps to ensure the assembly remained accessible, including:
- Buying the toll-free call add-on for our Zoom account to allow assembly members to dial-in for free;
- Breaking up the assembly weekend into smaller chunks (see below);
- Sorting out alternative arrangements for key workers and others where necessary, including pre-recording speakers for them to watch in their own time and facilitating their Q&A with speakers over email;
- Sending slides to assembly members in advance and ensuring they were numbered. If you’ve listened to the assembly livestream, you’ll have heard all our speakers say ‘…and now moving to slide two …and now moving to slide three….’ This is for assembly members who can’t see the videos of the presentations as we play them;
- Providing time for assembly members to chat and say hi around formal assembly discussions.
Assembly members still receive a financial gift for their participation too.
Of course, access needs don’t just apply to assembly members. We also thought about our facilitators and speakers.
2. Making sessions shorter and spreading them out
We’d planned the face-to-face version of weekend four to run over one weekend, from Friday evening to Sunday lunchtime. The assembly day on Saturday would have run from 9am to 5.30pm, not including dinner. When we moved online, we changed that.
I don’t know how you’re finding the lockdown experience, but I certainly wouldn’t want to spend a whole weekend on Zoom. It just wouldn’t be enjoyable. Spending a whole weekend on a phone call would be even worse. It’s also just not feasible for everyone. I don’t have young children, but my colleagues who do were of one mind on that question.
The online version of ‘weekend four’ is therefore, in fact, three non-consecutive weekends. Each weekend has three sessions: one on Saturday morning, one on Saturday afternoon and one on Sunday morning. We checked that this worked for all assembly members before we finalised it. No session is more than about two hours long.
3. Designing the assembly
One thing that became clear quite quickly when we moved the assembly online was that key steps of the process could stay the same. Assembly members can still hear from speakers, question them at their ‘virtual tables’ (breakout rooms), discuss their views in small groups, and vote by secret ballot. They are spending pretty much the same amount of time on each of these activities as they would have done in Birmingham too.
Beyond the similarities, we purposefully took the decision to keep the design simple. We could have tried collecting and theming assembly members’ questions for the speakers or getting them to prioritise their questions in groups. But it was easy to create a design that allowed each assembly member to ask their top priority question to each speaker directly, so we went for that instead.
We’ve also kept the technology simple. The variety of ways in which assembly members need to join the calls limits the tools we can use. We didn’t want to use something like a virtual whiteboard if some assembly members wouldn’t be able to see it (those dialling-in) or edit it (those not joining via computer). This has definitely helped – although I’d suggest it presents a challenge for those looking more widely at what can and can’t be done with online engagement. It’s always important to factor in the possibility of participants not being able to use the wide range of online tools available.
4. Safeguarding and wellbeing
Safeguarding and wellbeing have been critical parts of the assembly from the start. Here too there were some additional considerations that came with moving online. These included:
- The security and privacy implications of the platforms and tools we’re using. We have kept a close eye on the discussions around Zoom and have adjusted settings and joining instructions for assembly meetings accordingly. We have done due diligence on the other platforms we have used, for voting for example, too;
- Thinking through how to safeguard under 18s during online meetings, including looking at the minimum number of people that could be in a breakout room at any one time and the roles we gave to DBS checked staff;
- Protecting people’s contact details and full names. In Birmingham, no one ever saw each other’s surnames. They were always ‘Joe’ or ‘Joe B’ or ‘Joe B from Glasgow’ if two people had similar names. We showed all assembly members in advance how to edit their names on Zoom to hide their surnames, and help people who forget or find it difficult. We edit how people dialling-in by phone appear too so that people cannot see their telephone numbers;
- Providing an online Quiet Room. If I’m honest, I am not sure we’ve cracked this one yet. In Birmingham, we had a Quiet Room where people could go if they needed some time out. Our online version is providing all assembly members with a phone number to text or call if they’d like to talk. Our offline Quiet Room got a reasonable amount of use. The online one none at all. We haven’t yet concluded whether we think this is a problem or not and, if it is, what we can do differently.
Before I finish, I’ll admit that one theme that is perhaps conspicuous in its absence above is facilitation. Less obvious but another omission is the role of the Support Team at assembly weekends. Both of these teams face important changes in the shift from offline to online. These are too much to cover here, but look out for separate posts on these areas in the coming weeks over on the Involve website.
If you’re a facilitation or engagement specialist and are interested in discussing any of the above themes in more depth then I whole-heartedly recommend joining our practitioners’ network.
This post originally appeared on Involve’s website and is reposted with permission. It is the latest in a series of Unit blogs in response to the constitutional challenges posed by the coronavirus. To see past blogs in the series, click here. To be notified of future blogs as they go live, sign up for updates in the left sidebar.
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About the author
Sarah Allan is Head of Engagement at Involve. She was Design and Facilitation Lead for the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit and overall lead for the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care.