Democs borrows the look and feel of a card game to put learning, deliberation and decision-making in the hands of members of the public. Democs (originally an acronym for DEliberative Meeting Of CitizenS) is designed to be played by small groups anywhere, from a café to a community centre, from a class room to someone’s front room. And because it’s so simple it can be run by anyone: there’s no need to have experts, and even a facilitator is optional!
Democs was developed by nef in the early 2000s as a response to the emerging practice of deliberative engagement. Techniques like citizens’ juries and deliberative polling were offering new spaces for citizens to explore, evaluate and influence public policy. In the main these spaces, were, frustratingly, invitation-only, assembling publics on the basis of statistical representativity, not interest, with strictly limited numbers of participants. As such, they excluded many who would have liked to take part.
Democs was an attempt to share the experience of taking part in a deliberative event, with as many people as possible. To achieve this, we needed a format which met two requirements:
- It had to be able to be run anywhere, by anyone – with no specialist equipment, or professionals
- It had to present information in a way which was suitable for non-specialists and did not require the presence of experts to interpret it
After experimenting with a number of approaches, Democs settled into a card-game format. We found that by providing topic-based information in bite-size pieces on a set of cards, we could make it both more accessible and offer people the ability to combine the pieces to make new meanings or create new narratives. And, by packaging these cards into a game-like box, complete with clear, simple instructions, we could give people not only the information but also the confidence to run their own events.
Democs is built around a set of information cards that present a range of viewpoints about a topic. The Democs format is very flexible – it works for short discussions or long ones, can be facilitated or self-organised, can work for consultation or education, planning or public engagement. However, the most common Democs format is a small group discussion lasting 60-90 minutes which concludes with a decision making process.
In this format, players go through three processes:
- Firstly, learning: sorting through the cards to select the information they think is most important.
- Secondly, analysis: taking the chosen cards and trying to create meaning by categorising them into groups.
- And thirdly, decision making: applying their new knowledge to take a policy decision.
Throughout each process, players discuss their choices and are encouraged to exchange views and experiences.
Anyone is free to play Democs: kits on a variety of science topics are freely available to download and use. Pre-made kits can be downloaded from two places:
- Democs kits created by nef can be found at www.neweconomics.org/projects/democs.
- In addition, many more kits, in the Decide format, in a range of European languages are available from www.playdecide.eu, a site developed as part of a project funded by the EU’s FP7 programme.
We encourage experienced science communicators to innovate with the way they use these Democs kits, – and we’d welcome feedback from anyone who has moderated a game (contact nef if you have any feedback).
All that is required for a basic Democs event is a small group (6-8 people works best), someone to lead the others through the process, a kit, a table to play on, and 60-90 minutes. Democs can be used as a stand-alone event or built into a larger public engagement exercise.
Most Democs kits are built around three types of cards:
- Story cards: these longer (around 100 words) cards offer a perspective on one of the ethical or technical issues at stake through the perspective of an individual. By offering a personal perspective, they are intended to help players identify and appreciate the potential impact of an issue. Each kit contains a limited number of story cards (generally around 8).
- Information cards: these short cards (around 35 words) offer a single piece of information about the topic under discussion. They may be a statistic, a definition or a description of a technology or process. Participants are explicitly told that the information in these cards is ‘true’: or at the very least, represents the best available information. Each kit contains around 40 information cards.
- Issue cards: these short cards offer a single controversial viewpoint or perspective. They might be a quotation from a particular commentator or a member of the public, a statement highlighting an area of concern or an anecdote. Issue cards are designed to provoke discussion, not share information, and participants are encouraged to view them critically. Each kit contains a similar number of issue cards as information cards.
As described above, a typical Democs game is split into three phases. In the first phase, learning, players are dealt cards which they sort through to identify the ones that seem the most important. The learning phase generally takes up around half of the game time.
The learning phase begins with each player being given one story card. They take it in turns to read their story card and give an initial reaction to the other members of the group. The story card is intended to offer a way in to the thinking about the issue: although it’s not a role–play, players who have trouble connecting the issue with their own interests may, at first, choose to interpret the information they receive through the perspective of the character on the card.
Next, the information cards are dealt out. Each player is asked to choose which two of the cards they’ve been dealt are ‘the most important’. Players are free to interpret ‘importance’ in any way they choose. If asked, they are told that it can be: the most interesting; the one that they agree with the most: the one that they disagree with the most; and so on. Once each player has chosen, they explain to the group which cards they have chosen and why. This process is then repeated with the issue cards.
At the end of the learning phase, the group has, between them, sorted through the full range of information and viewpoints available and has identified what, for them, are the key issues. By asking individuals to evaluate the cards and champion their chosen ones to the group, we aim to encourage them to critically engage with the meaning of the information that they are given.
In the next phase, analysis, the players, working as a group, pool their chosen cards and look for linkages between them. They group cards together in clusters around topics of their choosing.
Once the clusters are formed, the group is asked to first name each cluster, and then to identify what each cluster tells them about the issues. As the whole group is expected to agree on meanings, this can be where many of the disagreements about the topic are brought to the surface and discussed.
At the end of the analysis phase, the group should have explored the information that they’ve gathered and started to think about its implications.
The final stage is the decision-making phase. This is where the learning and analysis that the group have been through is translated into an action. The decision-making phase can vary widely according to the purpose of the event. For a consultation event, it will generally revolve around answering specific preference or policy questions. For a planning event it might be an introductory action-planning exercise.
The most commonly used version of this stage is the ‘policy maker’ approach. Here, the group is presented with four policy positions on the topic in question and asked to give each one a rating from ideal to totally unacceptable. After each person has voted individually, the group discusses their views and tries to formulate an alternative position which they all find at least acceptable. In effect, the group should try to formulate a consensus position that they can find some level of agreement with.
Democs games are designed to be possible for groups to self-organise. Although having a professional facilitator can improve the quality of the debate, and enable richer qualitative data to be gathered, many projects have been run whichare wholly or partly made up of self-organised groups.
In addition to the standard way of using Democs, described above, we have explored a range other ways of using the kits. For example, for Climate Talk, a kit on responses to climate change, we developed a simple card choosing exercise for five-minute drop-in sessions and a thirty minute discussion format which can be incorporated into a longer event.
Some kits also take different forms, such as replacing personal stories with scenarios, combining issue and information cards into a single deck or significantly increasing the number of stories and offering a choice. Another variant, known as Decide, offers participants placemats to organise their cards, and replaces the clustering exercise with a more free-flowing discussion.
Making and adapting Democs
As well as using existing Democs kits, science communicators are also encouraged to make their own. The PlayDecide site provides an easy-to-use online tool which converts unformatted text into easy-to-print kits, and has a helpful community which can assist with translation and other functions.
The usual process of creating a kit contains four stages: generating cards, selecting cards, user testing, and expert review.
In (nef’s work, cards are usually generated using a combination of desk-based research and stakeholder interviews. However, other approaches are also possible, including expert workshops, or crowd-sourcing viewpoints. It is, however, important that any factual technical or scientific information is appropriately verified.
We tend to generate 2-3 times the number of cards required for the kit and then use a process of collaborative rating to filter them. We generally ask 3-6 people, both in the project team and independent experts to review the long-list of cards and rate each one from 1 (do not include) to 3 (definitely include). We then add up the votes to create a prototype kit. We then analyse the range of cards in the prototype to see whether certain aspects of the issue are under or over represented and adjusting accordingly.
Playtesting is vital to ensure that the kit is working as expected. Each kit should be playtested with as wide a range of participants as possible, and ideally no fewer than four times. Things to look out for when playtesting are:
- Cards which have the potential to be misunderstood
- Cards which lead the group off the topic in question
- Cards which are regularly not chosen – there may be ways to make them more interesting and relevant
- Key issues which do not come up in conversation
- Less central issues which occupy larger parts of the conversation
Finally, it’s worth having a number of expert reviewers check over the kit, for both accuracy and balance. In particular, where tackling a controversial issue it’s necessary to recruit reviewers from a range of perspectives to ensure that all are reflected, though none goes unchallenged.
Who Sees What: A Democs Case Study
One example of how Democs can be used as the core of a mass public engagement project is the nef-run Who Sees What project (www.whoseeswhat.org.uk). This two year project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, aimed to engage 3000 people in a discussion about the way that the NHS uses personal medical information for treatment and research.
Select Who Sees What for a web video description of the project.
For the project, a specific Democs kit was developed on personal medical information. The kit was based both on desk-based research on the technical, legal and regulatory aspects of patient information, which contributed to the information cards and on interviews with a range of stakeholders, from privacy campaigners, to doctors, to medical researchers, to NHS managers.
The resulting information was turned into cards by the project team and then revised based on user testing and via the comments of a review panel of technical experts. The kit was published in a boxed format which included the cards themselves, a detailed set of instructions and forms for recording outcomes. It was designed to resemble, as far as possible, a regular card game. The kit followed the classic Democs model described above, with one exception: in order to generate more detailed policy viewpoints, the decision phase was split into four separate questions, and the element of creating the group’s own policy position was removed.
The kit was primarily aimed at groups of stakeholders in the NHS communications field. Therefore, in order to recruit participants, (nef worked with civil society organisations representing patients, carers, older people and the general public. We asked each of these groups to publicise the kit to their local meeting groups as an activity that they could undertake and an opportunity to learn more and influence policy. Around 500 games took place. Almost all of these involved no direct contact from the project organisers: the downside was that it was not possible to retrieve the results from a significant proportion of these games.
Results received from the games were analysed in terms of which cards were chosen, which clusters were formed, what meanings were assigned to them and which policy options were chosen in the decision phase. They were supplemented by richer qualitative data taken from direct observation of a limited number of events.
Reports from the Who Sees What project are due to be published in autumn 2010, and will be presented directly to policy makers. (Details of the report will be added to the Isotope site when it has been published.) However, by developing a mass deliberative engagement project the project has already succeeded in raising awareness of the issues around personal data and medical research with a significant number of people, using a similar level of resources to those that might be dedicated to a single event.