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Debating policy decisions after the EU referendum: Experiences from the UK’s first online deliberative polling event

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Author- Katariina Rantanen

Together with colleagues at Stanford University and the University of Manchester, we are undertaking a project on public attitudes towards post-Brexit policy on immigration, food policy and consumer regulation, using deliberative polling. Much more information to follow, but here, as a first step, is a description of what happened during our first round of deliberation – undertaken online. JC


Earlier this month, we brought 27 people from Britain with different backgrounds and different views on Brexit together in a two-day video conference, to discuss some of the hot topics the UK will face if it exits the European Union. The event was a great success, with outstandingly positive feedback from participants. Katariina Rantanen gives a moderator’s perspective on how the event unfolded.

On Saturday morning there was a buzz in the ground floor conference room of the NatCen office. A team of eight researchers from the UK and the US were gathered in the front room of the empty office, setting up our computers, running through the day’s schedule and checking our emails for any last-minute queries. We were waiting for 9:30 am, when we had told a group of people from across Britain to log into the video conference software Zoom. The participants would then be split into small groups and start discussions on immigration, food safety and consumer regulation.

Our American colleagues – Jim Fishkin and Alice Siu from Stanford University – had done this before, but we had not. I had my reservations about how the whole thing would work: bringing together leavers and remainers from all corners of the UK to talk through contested topics like immigration? Expecting people with different degrees of familiarity with IT to participate in discussion through a video call on an equal footing?

At 9:30 we all logged on, hoping that participants would turn up and that the technology would work. When close to thirty faces and names had popped up on our Zoom screens, we knew we’d passed the first hurdle: we now had a group of people in the same virtual space, ready to talk to each other.

Once everyone had made their way into their (virtual) breakout groups of six to eight participants and once introductions had been done and ground rules set, the group moderators invited attendees to kick off the conversation on immigration, our first subject. The discussion centred around a handful of policy choices which had been pulled together beforehand by some academic experts: Who should be able to come to the UK to work? Should immigrants have access to public services and benefits? How easy should it be to become a British citizen? To my surprise, even though people shared different views on how things should be done, the conversation never got heated or angry. Instead, discussion was polite, even friendly, and participants respected each other’s opinions. Everyone who wanted to got a chance to say something.

Equally surprising was that the technology did work. While some participants needed a little guidance, most had no trouble logging into the video conference and navigating around it. A helpline was available throughout the event for people with technical issues to call.

“I didn’t expect this type of technology to work, not with [this many] people. It works very well!” – Participant

After an hour of discussion, the group came up with two questions to pose to a panel of immigration policy experts with different views and different agendas. The three experts then had an hour to answer the questions that had puzzled participants in immigration policy. Participants told us that they found these expert answers both interesting and useful.

The immigration debate was followed by food safety on Saturday afternoon and consumer regulation on Sunday morning. These topics were perhaps not as immediately controversial as immigration, but my group discussed each topic in a thorough and engaged way. To balance the matter-of-fact discussion there were light-hearted moments, when a participant’s dog made a webcam appearance or when another participant showed off their collection of LED light bulbs. Participants seemed to genuinely enjoy sharing their thoughts and listening to those of others.

 “Thank you for allowing me to be a part of a great event, I enjoyed the weekend! I had no idea what to expect and was pleasantly surprised at how nice everyone was.” – Participant

At the end of Saturday I was excited to see everyone again on Sunday morning and at the end of Sunday I was sad that the event was over. From the point of view of a social researcher, the event with its current topics and friendly group dynamic was the most rewarding qualitative research experience I’ve had so far.

“I did not think I would be saying that but I have really enjoyed it this weekend so really truly thank you.” – Participant

If you have been invited to participate in a deliberative polling event by NatCen, please see www.natcen.ac.uk/FutureofBritain or the Future of Britain project homepage for more information. For any other queries about the project, please contact Ceri.Davies@natcen.ac.uk.


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