Identity and Democratic Deliberation

This post is partially a write up of the identity session I curated at #UKGovCamp and partially a framing piece to help take forwards our discussions about how we handle the question of identity within the We Live Here Project and Citizenscape development more generally.

Huge thanks to everyone who participated in the session. The UKGovCamp covered a lot of ground and was fascinating for me – not the least because it challenged one of my working assumptions which had been that the closer we get to actual decision making the more likely it is that we need to know – authoritatively – who is participating. The discussion focused on a discussion of identity in the context of deliberative processes rather than more transactional processes such as voting or ePetitions and really looked at the importance of quality as a measure over quantity. I must note however that I am not making an attempt to define what ‘quality’ means in this context – that is for another day!

Before we talk about democratic debate there are some practical considerations with respect to online debate or community of any kind that we need to surface. The first point is that identity nearly always improves the quality of the debate – you get more considered views when there is some kind of social capital or standing involved in how these views will be received and people undoubtedly behave differently when they are anonymous. At the same time this has to be balanced with the fact that registration / identity creation is a barrier to participation and so you may get fewer people involved. Put crudely it’s a quality vs quantity question.

These are not ‘democratic’ findings but represent the experience of online community designers and practitioners over time – imagine how much harder this stuff might be when the content focus is democratic.

Identity clearly matters however, given that most people who work around engagement and democracy are concerned about how little people do participate, we have to ask if we are we making things unnecessarily hard for ourselves by saying we need to know who people are.

The immediate anxiety about not wanting to create barriers aside, when we consider democratic values rather than the practical problem of how to make it most likely that people will participate there is a need to distinguish between bystanders, stakeholders and citizens at some point because some decisions are made at the ballot box where authenticated identity is an intrinsic element of the experience. The question under debate is what that point is. The UKGC12 discussion explored whether or not we should be interested in the validity of the individual or the quality of the debate – which is more significant? These are not mutually exclusive objectives but as we are designing the user experience there is a need to understand their relative merits and importance.

One of the points that emerged was the importance of making a distinction between a discussion and a deliberative discussion – the latter have greater requirement for understanding of identity that the former. I think it’s interesting to ponder as to how often people know which of these they are participating in.

Identity as social
We discussed whether or not you could examine social and informational signals from content in order to create a level of confidence around the fact that you have the ‘right’ people in the discussion. The general consensus was that this was possible – if you participate in these kinds of discussions in physical meeting then you do develop a sense as to whether or not people are genuinely stakeholders and citizens.

This becomes a very different set of skills online and this fact, combined with the fact that it easier to collect identity information online that in a physical meeting (who brings their gas bill to the village hall??) and the fact that the practical barriers to participation are lower (you don’t need a babysitter and can ‘attend’ from a great distance) means that we perhaps put higher priority and focus on digital identity management compared to the way in which we consider this in offline processes.

One question that designers of these online spaces need to consider is the level of online social sophistication that we assume of our users. Appropriate behaviour for one group may be outlandish to others.  Commercial platforms have the luxury of focusing on the early adopters which is not always open to civic platforms.

In some ways deliberation works better offline than online – the sense of coming together to focus on a debate is easier to achieve in a physical space. Offline debates – formal and informal – are happening all the time even if they are not accessible to a wider audience. However, many people find the meeting setting intimidating and it’s a format which favours experience and confidence. Offline debates break down more barriers that just those of time and place.

I think there is an additional consideration with respect to local democratic participation which is the fact that it is far more difficult to keep your online and offline personas separate when compared to participation at a national level – and this means that most people will be ‘known’ within the debate. The result of this might be that in the medium we term we do need to be more stringent about identity because not doing so would create a lot more distrust in the system with absence of identity being the exception and in no way a norm.

I the many
Identity is more complex online, particularly when it collides with your offline existence. We deliberatively manage multiple, sometimes contradictory, personas and the social norms are shifting with respect to separation between our public and private selves. However with respect to debate this is not a question isolated to the individual. Where we are asking people to participate we also need to understand what the individual needs to know about other participants in order to be comfortable and able to participate.

Discussion is a social experience not a transactional one and that means we need a degree of reciprocity and social sharing to support it. Online we perhaps need to think more actively about the architecture and experience we build in order to support ‘quality’ discussions. With respect to identity, we may not need to know who the person is but we probably do need to know that they really are a persona and also that they have a legitimate voice in the discussion.

To a great extent this debate is happening around government – Google and Facebook are facing off with respect to becoming your primary online identity and so at present we are drifting towards using the dominant model by default rather than actually thinking about the specific needs of democratic discussion and connection.

Who needs to know?
It’s the changing nature of participation and the potential for mass participation which means we need to be more robust about identity that we are in the offline world. In unpicking this subject it is clear that different actors have different needs with respect to identity. As an individual I need to have control over my identity, as a participant I need to feel confident that the other participants are authentic, as an officer I need to be confident that I am seeing an accurate evidence base, but as a politician actually all I need is to feel that my opinion is being usefully informed.

Tom Steinburg nicely described identity with respect to three tiers of authentication; totally invalidated, slightly validated with claims, completely validated. At present we manage no more that the second tier within government (though interestingly there are South American projects which got 3rd tier authentication active in a democratic context).

Officers have the concern about creating an evidence base and for some the debate about identity is actually about asking whether or not it is possible to create a robust set of observations that cannot be rejected by politicians. Officers who are more familiar with the social web might be more comfortable with the second tier of authentication however with respect to deliberation Government perhaps has a greater need for identity management than politicians do.

Conclusion and on-going questions
The final analysis focused on the priority actually being the creation of the opportunity for good quality debate – not just a numbers focus of getting ‘more participation’. In doing this it was actually felt that information makes a bigger impact than identity – both in terms of legitimising an individual’s contribution but also with respect to the overall quality.

My research centres around civic space online and I am still of the view that a digital civic space needs some particular qualities:

  • Publicity- you can’t do democracy in private
  • Identity – you need some certainty that you are dealing with actual citizens and acknowledges the fact that democracy is a social activity
  • Agility – there needs to be some kind of decision making process embedded and it needs to be fit for purpose in a networked world.
  • Curation – there is a need for some kind of management which will ensure that decisions are taken
  • Information – looking forward these civic spaces need to feed off the data of government as a decision support tool – and should also provide context for the outputs of previous decisions.
  • Co-production – this needs to be a shared space though different people can and will have different roles within it – some as representatives

The session at UKGC12 added some nuance to this in terms of the exact nature of identity and has made me reflect more seriously about the information we glean from social signalling online in these shared spaces.

With respect to Citizenscape and the We Live Here sites however we are left with some choices still to make. As we start to establish these civic spaces they are not intended to be destinations for the community conversation – instead they are intended to network the networks and provide a window onto the whole community conversation which means that participants better connected. The distinction between discussion and deliberation is important as we would expect some kind of deliberation to take place in the shared space where supporting discussion would perhaps take place in the supporting network spaces. This leaves us with some dilemmas:

  • We are not trying to create social networks in the sense of Facebook – but we do want to create a social experience.
  • We want to capture identity for deliberative debate but we don’t want this to be a barrier to participation
  • Do we want to facilitate people contributing anonymously at any stage or do we always want to design for tier two with some level of confidence that we know who people are?

We will take these questions forward and start to discuss them with participants over the next few weeks – no doubt I will have more to say about it then!

Thanks again to the #ukgc12 folks

  1. Tom Phillips

    February 27, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    I wondered what it was we were doing there! Now I know.

    Good solid piece, but for enjoyment of others, suggest a very thorough trawl through the typos in it.

    I look forward to seeing where this stuff heads next.

    • curiouscatherine

      February 27, 2012 at 5:54 pm

      Oops – more haste less speed – have now corrected the worst of them – will reread later and X2 check – thanks Tom

      We’re at a really interesting point with this stuff – and I am increasingly seeing Civic spaces as part of the curated web – the question is how we balance participation with that curation as we don’t want to create an entirely federated space. Identity will be a big part of that.

      Anyway – thanks Tom!

  2. Peter Cruickshank

    February 27, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    Wow Catherine – your posts aren’t getting any shorter! (Or less interesting)

    What I find fascinating about the discussion about identity is the different understandings that remain between the security and participation communities. Both have been talking about “identity” for years – and perceiving challenges, but from totally different perspectives.

    Anyway – I wonder if it there are any insights to be had from adapting the concepts of entity (the real person), the identities that they have and the roles that they are playing. The key point is that there is no one-to-one mapping between entity and identity. And the mapping between identity and role turns out to be many-to-many. There’s a nice explanation of this in section 3.1 of Alpar, G., Hoepman, J.-H., & Siljee, J. (2011). “The Identity Crisis. Security, Privacy and Usability Issues in Identity Management” – and in tons of other places too I’m sure.

    I have a feeling that these distinctions will help when it comes to understand citizens’ expectations of what the government will do with their data – eg their inputs into the consultation process? (It seems to be me that this sort of “identity” and privacy expectations are pretty much the same thing).

    This also helps explain the unease that people feel when Facebook and Google try to conflate identities with the underlying entity – there’s a category error involved.

    I may even blog on this myself… if only to work out way of explaining this that makes more sense!

    • curiouscatherine

      February 27, 2012 at 8:19 pm

      Oops – I know – I really must practice the 500 word rule at some point….

      I know what you mean abut seeing the collision of different contexts around a single issue – we are seeing it as we start to talk about the detail of the UX on citizenscape.

      Will read the paper – that academic fee needs to contribute something!!!

      Spk soon I hope


  3. Exmosis

    February 29, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    I’m always intrigued when people think that tying debate to “real-world” identity must lead to better quality. I’ve seen plenty of (mostly online) pseudonymous debate of very high quality. I’ve also seen plenty of debate (online and offline) where identity hasn’t reinforced quality at all. Either people don’t particularly care about their identity, or their identity translates into ego and adopting a “strong” viewpoint, or identity actually reinforces “party lines” from others and “personal background” takes over from the debate itself. Personally, I hate watching any debate in the House of Commons.

    Successful debate needs some notion of identity, but more in order to tie the debate together, IMHO. Threads establish themselves, and there are almost tangible timelines of perspectives throughout each thread – one person may shift position as it goes on, and knowing that this happens is key to “quality” debate, I suspect. If you get the feeling that people won’t change their opinion, there’s often little point in talking to them.

    Any debate is a combination of commenter and comment. But success isn’t just getting “valid” people into one place. Identity and reputation can help filter out which parts of the debate you listen to (e.g. you may listen to or indeed ignore well-respected identities), but ultimately it’s whether the discussion is “progressive” that dictates success. That’s to say, does the commentary a) raise useful perspectives on the topic at hand, and b) raise useful perspectives for those involved.

    There are also social-feedback mechanisms other than just tying reputation to real-world identity. Slashdot moderation allows for “crowdsourced” rating of individual comments, tied to a “karma” system of reputation being built up over time – there are no bans on submitting comments, but everyone can filter debate by their own preferred level of rating. The Cypherpunk mailing list encouraged readers to filter out anyone they found annoying, again turning “reputation” and hence “listenability” into a subjective property rather than an objective one.

    This idea of social reputation + individual filtering is also being implemented on the pseudonymous Freenet system through a “Web of Trust”. Any “identity” can trust/rate any other “identity”, can aggregate the rating of the “crowd” as a default, and can filter accordingly (e.g. trust ratings go from -100 to 100, and you can trust anyone with 25/50/80 or more). This works across a lot of different content – but whether we can equate general reputability with quality of specific debate around a democratic topic is another issue…

    I’m not really sure where this is going, but wanted to use it to breakdown this idea of what makes “successful” debate. There seems to be a lot of talk of identity and involvement of individuals, but not much (as far as I read) on, say, setting the context, environment and expectations of the debate. For instance.

    Fascinating subject though. Thanks for making me think 🙂

  4. Rachel Tripp

    March 19, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    Thanks for writing this up – all very interesting. I was one of the participants in the discussion at UKgovcamp, and was waiting to see what you’d write up as a result of what we said! It struck me right at the end of our discussion that if we consider a spectrum of different types of online engagement, then really rigorous validation of identity only really becomes important in quite a narrow field: some kind of binding ‘voting’ on outcomes. In other types that I can think of, perhaps deliberative discussions which you mentioned, but even more in discussions which are there specifically to generate ideas or to come up with potential solutions, knowing who people are is not important at all. What matters is what is said, no matter who by.


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