By Maura Casey
Senior Associate, Kettering Foundation
There is something about deliberative forums that is as old-fashioned and comforting as talking to a neighbor over a backyard fence. They are blessedly free of internet trolls and Twitter attacks. No access to Facebook is necessary. Hope may be the biggest intangible asset of these gatherings: the idea, based in the experience and optimism that forums generate, that most of the problems of the world could be solved if we could just talk and weigh trade-offs together.
In the last five years, the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forum (NIF) network have developed ways to convey a deliberative experience using computer technology. Common Ground for Action (CGA) is an online forum Kettering launched in 2014 using interactive technology. Via computer, a moderator convenes a group of participants who are often in widely scattered locations. They are anonymous to one another; there is no audio or video. Instead, deliberation takes place through texting. Because CGA features before, during, and after surveys of people’s opinions, it displays through graphics the movement of opinion in real time during the forums. The graphics and interaction through texts keeps participants engaged.
CGA forums are used across the country in college classrooms and community settings. They are also being used to gather information for the Hidden Common Ground effort taking place with Public Agenda, NIF, Kettering, and USA TODAY. James Madison University faculty Kara Dillard has recently convened a dozen forums to help augment the Hidden Common Ground project, but that is only a small indication of how busy she has been. She has trained 100 moderators in using CGA since February and has moderated 15-20 CGA forums in the first few months of this year. Five of those forums involved 150 students from 10 different colleges. And, she points out, many in-person forums were scheduled to take place across the country this spring.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, upending plans and creating an unanticipated experiment on a grand scale.
The pandemic created the necessity of using technology in a different way to bring people together. Not every moderator was prepared to conduct CGA forums, and the nationwide need to quarantine ended in-person forums for an indefinite period.
Zoom, with its “Brady Bunch” grouping of faces on a screen, and its ability for many people to come together at the same time, created a whole new experience for those attending deliberative forums. The technology also made it possible to continue the work of and conduct forums for Hidden Common Ground at the very moment the entire nation was in lockdown.
Three deliberative forums took place in April using Zoom. All three used the NIF issue guide Health Care: How Can We Bring Costs Down While Getting the Care We Need? They illustrate the potential of using this powerful tool to interact face-to-face over the internet. The three forums were as follows:
On April 15, Elizabeth “Lissa” Staley, community connections librarian for the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library in Kansas, moderated a forum with people associated with the library and library staff.
On April 21, Rev. Gregg Kaufman convened from his home in Jacksonville, FL, a forum of six men and six women from diverse locations. One lived in his neighborhood. Another was in Georgia.
On April 26, in Cincinnati, OH, Bill Muse moderated an hour-long Zoom forum just before Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church services, which were also scheduled to take place via computer. About a dozen women participated.
What follows is a roundup of observations.
Talking in Topeka
Staley has held several in-person forums at the library, which has an auditorium and an additional four rooms that can be used for meetings. “We are still in the baby steps of making deliberation a thing that we do here,” she said. The library serves the city of Topeka, with a population of 120,000, and bookmobiles serve the remaining, more rural population of 50,000.
With the COVID-19 crisis, the library has canceled all in-person programs until the end of the summer. Holding forums via Zoom, Staley thought, would help her keep forums going. So she held a Zoom deliberation on health care with about a dozen people associated with the library. They are staff members or members of the library board.
Staley admitted to being nervous before the forum. “My apprehensions were around facilitation and making eye contact. I was worried about people staying engaged and my not seeing people’s body language.” Staley told everyone in the first few minutes of the forum that she might call upon them from time to time, but if they were not comfortable participating, they could just pass.
During the lively discussion that followed, Julie Valez, a public services specialist for the library, self-disclosed that the issue of health care is a high-stakes one for her because she suffers from a chronic health condition. Medical savings accounts don’t help her, she said, because her need for ongoing health care makes it difficult to save money from one year to the next. Her willingness to share a personal story provided an insight that helped deepen the discussion.
Later, Valez said that Zoom enabled her to speak up in a way that an in-person forum might not have. “Being able to see everyone’s faces at the same time was actually helpful to me,” she said. “Around a long table in a room, you can’t always see everyone. I was nervous when I spoke up. Public speaking isn’t my forte, but seeing everyone’s head nod was helpful.”
Valez said she thought Zoom was an asset, particularly involving people in rural areas. “A Zoom forum can bring people in who don’t have to drive two hours. And, right now, we are safer at home.”
The one aspect of Zoom Staley worried about was the lack of the “hallway conversations” that take place in person. “Part of the thing with public deliberation is that it is a very vulnerable act to share. I help a lot of people debrief after a forum. But the hallway conversations that take place afterwards are hard to figure out on Zoom. Planning how people can have a debriefing session is an issue because just logging off a video and sitting in your house alone with nobody to talk to can be really hard.”
The “newbies” convene
Kaufman has conducted scores of in-person forums, and he approached holding a Zoom deliberation with the planning he brings to all of his efforts. A week ahead of time, he sent out the health care issue guide to all 12 participants; he also included a step-by-step “how to” guide to Zoom, complete with pictures. His forum was the most diverse in age, gender, and background, and each participant was a “newbie,” that is, this was his or her first experience of attending a deliberative forum.
The participants ranged in age from 40s to 70s, with military veterans, businesspeople, and retirees among the six men and six women who signed on. One man said that he frequently disagrees with Kaufman, who lives across the street from him, and implied that he was conservative in his viewpoint. He came with a list of objections to national health care, and others listened carefully to what he had to say. At the end, he said he was surprised at how often he found himself agreeing with aspects of others’ viewpoints, even when they differed from his own.
Kaufman’s forum differed from the others in that he left 15 minutes or so at the end for a debriefing of sorts, asking people how they felt and helping them process the deliberation. In general, they said it was an interesting, positive experience.
“I prefer in-person forums,” Kaufman said. “You love the humor, the laughter, that occurs in a room.” But there are downsides also, he said. “One thing is the practical, physical space issues. It is important to get participants in a circle. But you can’t always do that. If I, as a moderator, look left and right, it is hard to see everyone,” he said.
“Contrast that with the online gallery view on Zoom. You see names, you see expressions. Compared with in-person forums with soft speakers, the audio is better. One of the other advantages of Zoom is that people don’t have to get in their cars and drive to churches [to meet],” he said. “And I was more successful convening a diversity of opinions and voices on this online forum. Maybe we can attract more people this way.”
Deliberating before church
Bill Muse, president emeritus of the National Issues Forums Institute, brought his experience of moderating scores of forums to this new world of Zoom. He convened a one-hour forum with a group of women who attend church with him and, as church services were scheduled to begin after his forum was over, he could not extend the time. Still, the deliberation was wide ranging and had a variety of viewpoints. The participants had diverse backgrounds: one was a medical doctor, another a physical therapist. Several others were retired.
They all had interesting views to contribute. The physician, for example, explained that because of federal regulations, if a doctor accepts one patient on Medicaid, he or she must accept 100, despite the fact that reimbursement rates are poor. As a result, many doctors won’t accept patients on Medicaid. She also explained how her ability to help others is compromised when the costs of tests are prohibitive or when insurance is inadequate. Without being able to order the correct tests, inaccurate or incomplete diagnoses become far more likely.
At the end of the forum, most people seemed satisfied, even surprised, at the depth of the deliberation. But not all. Elizabeth, a retired teacher, said she much preferred in-person forums. “I like warm bodies!” she said.
Muse said he was apprehensive before conducting his first Zoom forum. “I love the face-to-face interaction because of the reactions of the people involved. But I was convinced after the first Zoom forum that this will work.”
“I was a little surprised,” he said. “I am an old man and I spent my whole life believing that face-to-face communication is an integral part of my career. Zoom opens a whole new experience for us of getting people involved in deliberation,” he said. “We should see it as something that goes beyond the pandemic and use it to expand the market for people to get involved.”
From eight interviews with people using Zoom and CGA technology and from the experience of observing all three Zoom forums mentioned here, it seems clear that technology cannot replace face-to-face, in-person forums.
But it can come close.
The moderators interviewed for this report all admire Zoom technology for its ability to help participants see and hear others as though they were sitting in a room together. They noted that Zoom enabled people to get together from the comfort of their living rooms, helping people in scattered, rural areas to attend a deliberative forum without having to drive long distances.
But they also praised CGA for providing, in real time, a measure of how deliberating together influences opinions of individuals and the group.
Kaufman articulated the mixed feelings to which others alluded. “CGA has some advantages over Zoom. It actually shows the movement of dialogue, with areas of support, disagreement, and movement captured,” he said. “I don’t want Zoom forums to detract from CGA forums.”
So, would it be possible to use both CGA and Zoom together in forums, using the strong points of both?
Dillard has used both technologies together in a few forums she has run in college classes. She thinks using both is feasible—with practice.
“It takes moderators thinking outside the box. It will take moderators willing to manage the technical components rather than just managing the discussion,” she said. She added that it is much easier if two moderators are present, one managing the CGA experience, and one running the Zoom forum. Participants can use CGA to register opinions but use Zoom to talk through the issues. The co-moderator tracking the opinions in CGA can share on the Zoom screen how people are feeling about an issue in real time.
Complicated? Not really, according to Kara Lindaman, professor of political science at Winona State University in Minnesota. She used both Zoom and CGA in the same forum on April 6 with 10 students in her public administration class. Several of the students had already experienced in-person forums. Lindaman used the issue guide A Nation in Debt for the experiment. She moderated the forum in Zoom but regularly paused to give her students a chance to fill in their opinions in CGA.
Lindaman shared the students’ evaluations, which were effusive. Two students preferred this “hybrid” to an in-person forum. All said harnessing CGA technology focused the deliberation and kept it clear and productive. They felt as though they were truly accomplishing things together and engaged with the issue more.
In short, in Lindaman’s words, “It’s the best of both worlds.”
No matter how long the quarantine lasts, it is clear that NIF is experimenting, and succeeding, in fostering deliberation both online and off.