Phase 2 — Methods
Phase 2 of the project, the eight-month at-home online deliberations, was intended to include just over 400 of the original 568 participants who were selected to receive a computer. Substantial participant drop-off occurred by Phase 2 of the project, with response rates to questionnaires in the early part of Phase 2 dropping to about 230. Among those persons who formally contacted us and proffered reasons for their voluntary withdrawal from the experiment, 40 per cent had explanations relating to the technical demands of the experimental environment, i.e., hardware or software problems, inadequate technical support, the complexity of the Internet, or the unavailability of a landline to support an Internet connection. The remaining reasons were related to personal circumstances unconnected to the experiment, e.g., family responsibilities or other competing time demands, loss of interest, moving out of the area, illness or, in one case, death.
Phase 2 began on September 11, 2004 with asynchronous forum discussions beginning on Saturday, September 18th. The first online, real-time Congress occurred on Wednesday, October 6, 2004. Participants who were randomly assigned to the control group periodically received paper surveys to complete, and served as comparisons to the online group.
During Phase 2, three separate web congresses were scheduled. Web Congress 1 was identified as the “Issues Congress.” Web Congress 2 was called the “Policy Congress.” Web Congress 3, the final set of conferences, was named the “Action Congress.”
In Web Congress 1, participants in the experimental group identified those issues they believed the most critical ones facing the City of Pittsburgh. Once they determined the issues, participants voted on the one they felt most important. This issue would then serve as the topic for deliberations in Web Congress 2. As it happened, the group selected two issues, in a tie, for discussion: city taxation and the merger of county and city services. In Web Congress 2, participants discussed taxation and the merger of county and city services, and worked on a determination of policies to address these issues. The resulting policies were then used to develop civic action plans during Web Congress 3.
In an effort to promote the exchange of ideas and the building of an online community, we randomly re-assigned participants to new groups at the beginning of each new Congress. In addition during Web Congress 1, we made two such random re-assignments: one to a brainstorming group and one to a regular discussion group. These group meetings online occurred independently of each other.
Web Congress 1
Prior to Web Congress 1, 404 experimental participants were randomly assigned by Dr. Muhlberger into brainstorming groups. During the first week of Congress 1, from September 9, 2004 to September 17, 2004, participants were encouraged to read library materials, post personal profiles in text and audio, and to become acquainted by posting to their own group's forum. These activities also provided opportunities for participants to navigate the features of the Delibera software they continued to use throughout the study.
Beginning on Saturday, September 18, 2004, the goal of the brainstorming groups was to spend two weeks developing ideas asynchronously in each participant's group to identify the current
critical issues facing Pittsburgh. An initial synchronous brainstorming conference was held on the evening of October 6, 2004. Online surveys were programmed so that participants completed the surveys before gaining entry to the group conferences. Discussions continued asynchronously over the next two weeks. A final synchronous discussion of the brainstorming groups was held on October 19, 2004.
On October 21, 2004, online participants were randomly re-assigned to their discussion groups for Web Congress 1. These groups deliberated over the issues raised in the brainstorming groups. These discussion groups engaged in their first synchronous discussions on October 26, 2004, followed by two additional synchronous deliberations. Within this period, we determined that participants were not taking part in the asynchronous discussions as actively as we had anticipated, but were attending the online synchronous conferences. We adapted our original schedule to accommodate them by increasing the number of synchronous conferences. By the end of Web Congress 1, each of the groups deliberated to consensus on the City of Pittsburgh issues raised in the brainstorming sessions.
Web Congress 2
Web Congress 2 started officially on January 3, 2005. Experimental participants were randomly assigned to discussion groups. During the first week of this congress, we asked participants to get acquainted using asynchronous discussions, read new materials located in the online library, search the internet for relevant materials and post articles to the website to share with others.
Synchronous conferences resumed on January 10, 2005, and were held weekly for four weeks. At the end of the fourth synchronous conference on February 3, 2005, each group chose two members to serve as representatives in a 'second level' group discussion. Voting for these candidates was online, using the Delibera software polling feature.
The elected participants group comprised two representatives from each of the smaller groups. Their role in this congress was to report a summary of the content of what each 'first level' discussion group discussed, then deliberate the issue to coordinate policy development. Finally, they reported to their first level group members at the next all groups synchronous conference. First level group members then considered the ideas from the second level group, refined them, and sent their representatives with these refined ideas to subsequent second level meetings. Three second level synchronous discussions took place in February 2005, and two additional synchronous discussions were held on different dates during the same period for all participants.
Web Congress 3
During March 2005, two synchronous discussions were designated. Because participants'
consent forms designated March 13, 2005 as an end date to the study, we conducted a final survey on that date. Participants were given the option to voluntarily continue deliberations until March 31, 2005.
For those participants who provided electronic consent to continue, we offered four synchronous discussions in the last two weeks of March. A poll conducted on March 17, 2005 identified second level participants for Web Congress 3. Two second level synchronous discussions followed. Participants were sent notification that the project had ended on April 1, 2005, and that those who had participated then owned the computers provided for the study.
Internet service for participants continued until May 1, 2005. Some participants requested additional discussions during April, so we offered 14 additional synchronous discussions. We also established a discussion board for ongoing dialogue on a web site formerly administered by InSITeS, called Community Connections.