Virtual Restorative Justice: Case Studies in four European countries

The authors of the research paper “Maintaining the Ideals of Co-production During Rapid Digitalisation: A Comparative Case Study of Digital Restorative Services in Estonia, Finland, Ireland and Portugal” are Laidi Surva, a PhD candidate at the Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance at Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia, and Wolfgang Meyer, a senior researcher at the Department of Administration and Organization Theory at the University of Bergen in Norway. Surva’s research focuses on public sector innovation, collaborative governance, and digital transformation.

Their study explores the sudden shift to digital service delivery due to COVID-19 through the lens of highly interactive restorative justice practices. Using normalisation process theory, their comparative case study of 4 European countries unpacks how online mediation was rapidly implemented and embedded. The findings reveal the changes to mediator and citizen roles, lack of relationship building, increased preparation needs, and monitoring required to uphold co-production values. While digital tools were normalised out of necessity, in-person meetings were still ideal, especially for complex cases. The research concludes that further studies are needed on whether digital platforms can ever replicate the nuanced experiences of human-centered co-production. Overall, the abrupt digitalization shed light on the integral role of contact and relationships in co-produced services.

The key findings reveal several changes to the co-production process:

  • Mediator’s role became more directive in guiding online discussions to ensure participation. Citizens took on more responsibility for setting up a focused environment from their location.
  • Lack of informal relationship building online meant conversations were more transactional and business-like. This negatively impacted core aspects of restorative justice like trust building and feeling connected.
  • Reading emotions and body language was extremely difficult online, which are essential for sensitive discussions. Technical glitches also interrupted conversations.
  • Extensive preparation guidelines were needed for mediators and citizens on using digital tools. Mentoring citizens on the technical aspects also increased.
  • The rapid shift online depended more on an organization’s willingness to adopt new technologies rather than previous experience with restorative practices.
  • For complex cases like domestic violence, in-person meetings were still preferred whenever possible due to higher risks online.

Several steps were taken to normalize digital practices:

  • Creating coherence through common understanding and goals for what digital mediation can realistically achieve.
  • Swift initiation by stakeholders to try online mediation through pilots, training programs and mentoring.
  • Collective action via new guidelines, skill building for online tools, and integrating digital options with existing processes.
  • Constant monitoring and improvements to uphold core co-production values and restorative justice principles.

The research also highlights the importance of upholding the core principles and values of co-produced services even in digital forms. The use of normalisation process theory provides a useful framework for implementing online tools while integrating them within existing organizational processes. Constant monitoring and improvements ensured digitization did not undermine the fundamental values of restorative justice. This has broader applicability for maintaining integrity in other co-produced services transitioning to digital environments.

In the end, the rapid digitalisation was seen as better than discontinuing this crucial participatory service altogether during COVID-19 restrictions. But the impacts make clear that in-person interaction and relationships should return as the primary avenue wherever possible. At minimum they underscore the need for thoughtful online tools designed specifically for the nuances of human co-production rather than as an ad-hoc replacement.

This comparative case study of abruptly digitizing restorative justice practices sheds important light on the effects of removing human contact from co-production. While digital channels expanded access, more research is critical to understand if and how they can replicate the multidimensional value created through in-person collaboration. Moving forward, maintaining integrity should be balanced with increasing flexibility for those who stand to benefit from well-designed digital services.

Read the full study here.