Woman's hands typing on a laptop displaying a Citizen Space consultation

One of the puzzles in digital engagement, the Big Question if you will, that I’ve come up against again and again is the question of demographics: that is, how do you include people who aren’t online? And on a similar note: how do you ensure that the loudest voices aren’t just those who are already most frequently heard?

It’s a significant concern – one that’s been mused about more than once in my interviews with customers. It’s also something that critics of digital democracy and deliberation exercises like to espouse as a reason we should all be doing citizens’ assemblies instead. (More of my Thoughts on this.)

To be honest, the short answer is, there isn’t an easy answer.

This is mostly because issues with democratic representation extend far beyond the online engagement sphere into the structural inequalities in society itself. Groups that are typically underrepresented in consultation reports are typically underrepresented across the board: people on low incomes, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and so on.

Portrait of Asian young blind woman using smart phone with voice accessibility

Short of making sweeping structural changes to the way society operates, the issue of representation will always be present within pretty much any democratic function (voting and other in-person processes aren’t exempt from these issues).

Another thing to consider is that not all engagements apply to all voices equally: a consultation on new therapies for prostate cancer isn’t going to attract a great deal of responses from young female patients.

That is not to say, however, that there aren’t things that organisations can do – and are doing – to address the digital and demographic divide.

Over Delib’s 20-year history, we’ve observed many different approaches. Here are some of the ways our customers are tackling the issue.

Alternative formats

One thing that critics often forget (or ignore) is that digital engagement doesn’t exist in a vacuum: filling in an online survey usually isn’t the only method of participation. Organisations can provide paper copies, alternative formats (such as sign language) for those with accessibility considerations, and host in-person/Zoom events for residents to attend.

Example:

Police Scotland's Body Worn Video consultation on Citizen Space

Accessibility & language

A huge barrier to participation for many, especially people who have a different first language and people with learning disabilities, is the language used in engagement. If someone can’t understand what they’re reading, they can’t take part. Using plain language and offering translations means these people can have their say too.

Language is one of many accessibility considerations that can and should be made, alongside factors such as ensuring online platforms are compatible with accessibility software (like screen readers) and that they’re operable on mobile devices (most older people and those without broadband use phones/tablets). This is where the platform itself becomes a crucial consideration: if it’s not been designed properly it excludes people from participating.

Examples:

Community outreach & promotion

There are a lot of people who want to get involved but don’t know how to. We can’t expect them to beat a path to our door; we need to reach them.

Jason Kitcat, Executive Director for Corporate Development, Essex County Council

If people can’t find a consultation, they can’t respond. It’s down to the consulting organisation to ensure activities are adequately promoted. In order to get marginalised groups to take part, this involves more than posting on social media: consulting organisations need to get creative.

Whether that’s asking community groups to promote it around the neighbourhood, posting letters, or getting staff to go out into nursing homes with iPads, organisations need to take their activity out to the community rather than expecting citizens from all demographics to come to them. At the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of the consulting organisation to allocate the resources required to ensure marginalised voices are heard.

That said, there are plenty of ways to boost engagement via social media. (We did a whole webinar on it via Delib Learn.)

Examples:


It’s a given that there will be, and have been, digital exercises that attract a mostly-white, mostly-male, mostly-middle-aged section of society. Proponents for more representative forms of democracy have argued that this means they’re not as valid. But the fact of the matter is that no form of democracy is truly representative.

Voters in elections tend to over-represent old people. Choosing 150 people to represent the voices of 60 million in a citizens’ assembly can’t accurately reflect the opinions of an entire nation, even if the sample is demographically representative. People who are content with the status quo tend not to speak up, resulting in many democratic exercises skewing negatively. That doesn’t mean any of these methods are invalid.

By acknowledging their flaws, we can all put the work into making them better for everyone.


If you’d like to learn more about what Citizen Space can do for your organisation, book a free demo and we’ll walk you through it.