Online Deliberative Decision Making

Take a look at newspaper comment sections, Reddit forums, and your friends’ Facebook feeds: people are talking past each other, denouncing other points of view, generally hyperventilating. It’s easy to get the impression that deliberative decision making doesn’t—and simply cannot—occur online.

But, actually, this is much like the impression you can get from watching too much cable news—that the only sane thing to do is buy a lot of water and canned goods and move to someplace way, way off the grid. This instinct can certainly strike any of us (particularly when stuck watching something like Headline News in an airport), but it isn’t entirely rational—and neither is dismissing the possibility of deliberative decision making online out of hand.

The problem is that there’s so much conversation online that is so unproductive and infuriating that it produces what psychologists call an “availability error” in our judgment about it. The partisan bickering (or echo chambers), conspiracy theories, flaming, and general trollery, particularly in political conversation, is so repellent that one can subconsciously come to believe that online political talk can’t be anything more than this. But deliberative decision making is a product of conversation, and it is clear that conversation today increasingly occurs online.

Of course, not all conversation produces deliberative decision making. Forums designed to encourage deliberation have ground rules used to promote active listening and the confrontation of trade-offs and tensions. While it is true that few spaces online promote or enforce such rules of discourse formally, neither do most places of face-to-face talk. And yet, at Kettering, we’re gathering evidence that people can indeed find ways to bring deliberative reasoning to their everyday talk. (See Erika Mason-Imbody’s article “Deliberative Opportunities in Everyday Political Talk,” p. 8.) There is no reason to believe that online conversation cannot do the same or at least be a valid part of an organic deliberative system.

That said, the online medium itself has characteristics that may inhibit deliberative reasoning; for example, the shorter attention span and lack of face-to-face social cues. Again, however, face-to-face situations have their own inherent challenges—they’re just different from those online. All of this means that the arena is ripe for experimentation and innovation. Some of these innovations might take the relatively subtle forms of questions or interventions that can be used in everyday communications online. Other innovations might more directly introduce participants of online dialogues to deliberative decision making in more structured ways.

Kettering is closely observing a number of experiments using a variety of platforms and tools to hold online deliberative forums: Joni Doherty (Franklin Pierce University) recently conducted an A Nation in Debt forum using a time-limited, asynchronous online message board format. Betty Knighton (West Virginia Center for Civic Life) is currently partnering with the design firm Intellitics to test its new online engagement platform, which uses a similar set of tools and features, using the center’s early childhood issue framing. We’re also observing a diverse range of other experiments with online deliberation—from Lucas Cioffi’s to the Civic Commons (funded by the Knight Foundation), to games and planning platforms developed by the Engagement Lab at Emerson College. We want to learn how these innovators are working to take advantage of the medium and how they are overcoming its challenges.

We will continue to encourage learning from other experiments. Beginning this fall, Kettering will work with San Jose-based Conteneo to develop an online game engine. The objective is to provide an online experience where people can deliberate with others in order to identify or create as much common ground as authentically possible. Many games exist that help citizens to deliberate over a particular issue, especially in the fields of planning and budgeting, but this template should enable participants to deliberate over any wicked problem, from budget priorities to immigration to privacy. That’s the hypothesis, anyway—the experiment will be the games themselves.

How the game will be played:

  • Participants will join a game with no more than seven other participants, plus a moderator. They’ll watch the beginning section of a National Issues Forums (NIF) starter video introducing them to the issue and the options. Participants will choose and rank their top seven actions. This information is aggregated and saved but not revealed immediately to the participants.
  • Then the actual deliberation begins. Guided by a moderator, participants will discuss options just as they would in a regular NIF forum, but via chat (text, not voice, for reasons to be discussed below). At the end of the discussion, participants will be asked to choose the actions they now support and to rank them. They will then be asked to choose whether they accept, reject, or are conflicted about the trade-off and to enter their reasons in a comment box. All of the participants’ responses will be combined into a single visual graph that will distinguish three kinds of actions: Those that are supported and involve trade-offs that are acceptable, those that are supported but involve unacceptable trade-offs, and those that aren’t supported.
  • This graphic is a visual representation of the common ground they were able to identify or create together. The moderator will then reveal a second graphic showing the pre-deliberative rankings the participants submitted. The group can then compare and contrast the decision the group would have made with the decision they made after deliberating together.

These gamelike features were added to the basic NIF forum design to keep people actively engaged for the length of time it takes to examine options and trade-offs despite the lack of in-person stimuli and to take advantage of the medium’s ability to track the evolution of thinking in a much more detailed way than can be done without digital media. This is the reason we’re beginning with text-only chat, rather than voice—capturing all those citizen conversations and choices will provide a wealth of data to analyze. And because the information is captured as it is entered by the participant, rather than being paraphrased or summarized in a moderator’s report, we think it may be even more useful for policymakers and citizens alike.

We’re designing this game template so that, eventually, any and all NIF issue guides can be used within it. As people participate, they’ll be helping us to test it, which will give us new ideas for changes or additions to the game design. Over time, we’ll be able to test and compare various iterations and really zero in on the factors that affect deliberation.

We’re very excited about the research possibilities—if you have ideas about possible experiments in this area, or know of research we should consider as we begin, please get in touch. Just, you know, no flaming.

Amy Lee is a program officer at the Kettering Foundation. She can be reached at

Connections (2013)
Amy Lee