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Citizens’ Assembly Podcast

Moving online - The Background

Catherine Day: Hello everyone, I'm Catherine Day, I'm the chair of the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality and I'm here chatting with Mary Clare O'Sullivan the Secretary to the Assembly the Citizens’ Assembly is resuming online on Saturday 17 October after an enforced break due to the COVID19 pandemic.

This will be the first time our members of the Citizens’ Assembly meets online, in this podcast we are going to chat about why and how we are doing this.

We got off to a great start, we had a launch of the Assembly in Dublin Castle in January and then we had our first full weekend in Malahide in February. We have a great group of citizens, they're very enthusiastic about the topic and they were beginning to get to know each-other in Malahide, and then of course COVID19 struck, this was a terrible shock for everyone and so we waited for a while in the hope of being able to meet again in person. My personal preference was and still very much is, for face-to-face meetings but gradually we realized that this couldn't happen anytime soon.

So Mary Clare let's go back over the gradual steps we took before deciding to move online.

Mary Clare O'Sullivan: Well obviously we were aware with so many social and business interactions going online this is an option we could pursue for the Assembly and our research indicated that, initially like ourselves, a number of other countries such as Belgium and Scotland decided to hold off moving online. Like us, I think they hoped the COVID19 risk would diminish and face-to-face meetings would become possible again and I think this reflects a general view of members and academic experts in the field. Face-to-face meetings get the best out of a Citizens’ Assemblies, however in the UK and Australia, they took a different decision and they transferred some of their Assemblies online so we spoke to those involved to find out about their experience. One important difference is, in both cases most of their meetings had been completed they were towards the end of their work. They were finalising their recommendations and as Catherine said earlier, we were at a different stage as we'd only had one full meeting, another interesting fact is that it took both the UK and Australia three weekends online to cover what they had planned in one full weekend face-to-face.

This indicated to us that it's not a simple matter of transferring the same approach online. The Assembly model really needs to be significantly adapted for an online setting.

Catherine Day: Yes, that experience of others and the research that you did, gave us very useful input for our rather reluctant decision to go online. I think both of us over the summer were still hoping that we would be able to meet together in the autumn and in fact we had worked out elaborate plans with the hotel for keeping everyone safe and compliant with government rules but once the new restrictions were announced we could see that we, had no option. We either had to move online or cancel the entire Assembly until an unknown future date. So that meant that you and your team were very busy running the Assembly online because it's so different from how we ran it in Malahide.

So could you just take us through how we prepared for the shift to zoom and the challenges that an online Assembly poses?

Mary Clare O'Sullivan: Yes and of course the Member’s views are absolutely crucial in all this. We started off by finding out what our members thought about going online through a survey, as well as asking them about how they felt about moving online we also asked them about their experience with technology. Whether they had access to a quiet space in their home, whether they had the broadband and I.T. equipment in their house? So 85% said they would be willing to participate in an online meeting with only 7% saying they would not. Generally members had the broadband access and equipment needed to participate. 75% had used video conferencing before, with most having experience of zoom, we did research other platforms but we chose zoom for this reason. As a pilot run, we decided to hold an online seminar in July and the seminar covered two themes - the public submissions received during our consultation process and the impact of COVID19 on our Gender Equality mandate.

So in developing the seminar program we spoke to online learning experts, we spoke to our colleagues in the UK who used zoom to complete their Climate Change Assembly and all of this information led us to decide to pre-record video presentations and send them to citizens in advance. These presentations are all available on our website. We also decided to try and replicate the roundtable discussions at the face-to-face meetings of the Assembly and we did this by assigning members to small discussion groups, generally of around eight people and we also offered zoom training to all our members. We surveyed members again after the seminar and the results were generally very positive, the vast majority, around 82%, had no technical difficulties and they agreed that they could contribute effectively online. Nearly 85% of respondents said they would or they probably would participate in a full online weekend meeting if public health restrictions continued and we felt the small discussion groups also worked well.

However, at the same time, over half of respondents agreed with the statement that an online format was not suitable for the Assembly and most also said that the group discussions were more dynamic face-to-face, for example: one member said ‘the difficulty online is that you cannot replicate the informal debates that happen at a live event’ so we were keeping this under review but then Catherine, things changed again.

Catherine Day: Yes, unfortunately they did and the new public health restrictions on indoor gatherings were tightened in August. It became very clear at that point that there would be no possibility of meeting in person in the autumn. To avoid losing momentum and to eliminate uncertainty we took the decision to move meetings online for the remainder of this year. Now as you've just told us, our members had indicated their willingness to go online and the survey also guided us to limit online time to a maximum of two, two-hour sessions because as we've all learned in recent months working online is very tiring, as well as member’s family commitments. Members indicated that online meetings should be just one day per weekend, so in the light of this, we took a number of decisions as you have said.

We decided to pre-record presentations so that members would know in advance the issues arising for each session. The presentations would be circulated in advance and we pointed out to members that most of them would not be replayed during the meetings. We also asked members to provide written feedback on the videos to help prepare the discussions at the meeting and reflecting the best practice in online learning the videos and presentations that we do circulate will be much shorter than standard presentations. Absolutely no more than 12 to 15 minutes and generally a lot less.

To be as close as possible to face-to-face meetings in the videos we're going to use a mix of expert presentations, presentations from advocacy groups and perhaps what's most popular of all the personal experiences of people affected by the issues we're discussing. Our aim is to organise the sessions so as to maximize the time our members have for discussions. This means we've had to come up with a whole new formula, we are now asking citizens to think in advance of each meeting what issues they want to raise in the discussion groups. We also asking them to begin thinking about areas where they would like to see the Assembly make recommendations. Like most things in life there are pluses and minuses to going online. How do you see this Mary Clare?

Mary Clare O'Sullivan: I'm sure we'll both have a more conclusive view on this towards the end of the process but some of the pluses I’d see right now,  recording the shorter videos for the session encourages speakers to be concise and clear, it also allows us to have more speakers and hear more perspectives, which is definitely a positive.

The approach we've taken also maximises the time for discussion among the members in their smaller groups, so it maximises the time they spend interacting in smaller discussion groups for some members not having to travel to Dublin for meetings could also possibly be an advantage.

I suppose to discuss the minuses then, there is a lack of time for plenary sessions and for the whole group to interact together and of course we are missing that informal contact between the citizens over breakfast and at the coffee breaks, some citizens may be less comfortable interacting online than in person and also it's not possible for media and interest groups to accompany in real time in the same way as they would have been able to before in the face-to-face meetings.

Catherine Day: Yes, that's a real issue because we're both very keen to have the maximum transparency attached to the process. It would be great for those outside the Assembly to be able to see the citizens at work on topics that are relevant to everyone and we have worked to come up with a compromise to this particular problem.

Mary Clare O'Sullivan: We both believe the public engagement and involvement is an important part of the Assembly but the move online means that this will have to be done a bit differently. So the opening and closing sessions of the meetings will be recorded and they'll be transmitted on our website there'll be a small time delay for technical reasons as with the face-to-face meetings the breakout room discussions will not be streamed but feedback from these discussions will be videoed and they'll be made available on the day of the meeting. All presentations and videos will be published on our website on the day of the meeting.

Catherine Day: Yes, we will be trying out all of these ideas on 17th of October when we will have our first online discussion and that first session is going to be on Equality in Leadership and Public Life. Then what comes next?

Mary Clare O'Sullivan: After that in November and December we will focus on ‘Work’ and then we'll move on to cover the topic of ‘Care’ in the New Year. So we are dealing with this topic either through two days online in January and February or one weekend in person in January. This all depends on the COVID19 situation.

Catherine Day: Well that's great, I think we can make online sessions work on the different topics that are set out in Oireachtas resolution but I think we are both still hoping that we'll be able to meet again in person for the end of the Assembly.

It will be very important for the members to meet as a full Assembly and not only in small discussion groups so that we can decide together, what recommendations we want to make at the end of the process.

I really hope we'll be able to do this in Malahide in the spring, but if not we will all have become used to the online assembly by then. We will find ways of making the Assembly as inclusive as possible and of course we will decide on the right format.

Our top priority will continue to be the health and welfare of our members and we will be consulting with them on an ongoing basis and we'll make any changes that are needed to the format and to the arrangements for the meetings on the basis of that feedback.

As always, all of our presentations and reports will be available on the website so I think we're both excited about and looking forward to having the first Irish Citizens’ Assembly online on 17th of October.