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Common Ground for Action (CGA): A Case Study in Design-Build Innovations in Online Deliberation

Democracy
Political Participation
Internet
Kara Dillard
James Madison University
Kara Dillard
James Madison University

Abstract

Understanding how online deliberation platform designs interact with their citizen-users in ways that shape democratic practice and talk is critical to advancing the field of deliberative democracy. The scholarly trend of exploring questions of design impact on online citizen deliberation has fielded a wide variety of results. Online deliberation positivists argue that such spaces encourage more politically indifferent people to participate and that talk will be free and equal, whereas cyber-pessimists posit barriers like access, speed, and anonymity make online deliberation problematic. At the microlevel, explanations of deliberative talk online has mainly fallen into two categories: Shoehorning different online talk into deliberative frameworks or ideals; and taking the Habermasian ideals of deliberative talk and assessing whether online talk matches those ideals. All of these overarching strategies of assessing online deliberation often ignore the software design and features that enable and constrain deliberation in these spaces. As many studies have argued, design matters (Friess & Eilders, 2015; Janssen & Kies, 2004, 2005; Rossini & Stromer-Galley, 2018), but much of what we know about online deliberation stems from platforms not intentionally designed to encourage deliberation. This essay explores the development, innovative features, and uses of the online deliberation platform Common Ground for Action (CGA). CGA’s design was created using agile methodology, a coding practice common among software developers, with iterations developed in consultation with a wide range of deliberation practitioners, public issues facilitators, and serious game designers to create a platform specific and exclusive to small group public deliberation. Two animating questions based on deliberative theory drove the game-design process, making CGA a unique study that challenges previously supported hypotheses and hallmarks of online deliberation: (1) how can we best ensure citizens talk and adopt deliberative attitudes in a space where they can’t see or hear each other; (2) how can we encourage and make visible the choicework process that is at the heart of deliberation. Using three meta-case studies of major projects utilizing Common Ground for Action as the primary deliberation treatment – in online deliberative forums for U.S. Members of Congress, in online deliberations for college students across a diversity of US-based universities, and in an initiative encouraging online deliberation on key 2020 election issues sponsored by a major US newspaper – this essay examines the utility and function of the deliberation theory-based design features of CGA as well as the drawbacks and constraints of game design as they relate to promoting deliberative talk and choicework. Results show that deliberating participants were less likely to use uncivil and outrage language when dialoguing and more likely to adopt deliberative attitudes such as empathy, reflexivity, political efficacy, and finding agreement as well as promoting high quality civic behavioral outcomes such as increased voting rates. This research offers a new way to think about online deliberation design methodology, a new methodological assessment of talk and forum structure, and as a result, advance new lines research for online deliberation.