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

Digital advancements have done wonders for democracy, but they’re not without their issues too.

In the case of public consultations, where encouraging active citizen participation is essential, how do you approach those without internet access?

This is known as the digital divide. It shouldn’t just be the loudest voices that are heard, but every voice. So, we need to bring public consultations to them in ways that allow different communities and demographics to have an input.

What is the Digital Divide?

The digital divide, also known as digital poverty, refers to the gap between individuals, households, communities, or geographical areas that have access to modern digital technology such as high-speed internet and computers, and those that do not.

Key Demographics Affected by the Digital Divide

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

One of the key obstacles to solving the digital divide in democratic representation is that it extends 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.

This includes those who are:

  • Low income
  • Ethnic minorities
  • Elderly people
  • People with disabilities
  • Non-native English speakers
  • Low literacy/education
  • In rural areas

The Digital Poverty Alliance works to address digital inequality by offering support, internet access and devices to those worse affected. But this alone won’t bridge the gap we see in online public consultations.  

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).

However, that doesn’t mean we can’t work to prevent digital exclusion in society.

The Digital Divide and Public Consultations

A huge part of statutory consultations is now online participation. This is usually through a third-party citizen engagement platform like Delib’s Citizen Space, and provides access and information in more easily accessible bite-size chunks.

But while this might help more people engage with public consultations, not everyone has access to online services or a digital device. And some of those who do may lack the basic skills required to use these tools.

Another thing to consider when looking at engagement statistics is that not every public consultation will represent a “fair” population divide.

A consultation on new therapies for prostate cancer isn’t going to attract a great deal of responses from young female patients, for example.

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.

Strategies for Narrowing The Digital Divide in Public Consultations

Highlighting offline components

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 citizen participation.

Organisations can provide paper copies, alternative formats (such as sign language) for those with low digital literacy or accessibility considerations, and host in-person/Zoom events for residents to attend.


Police Scotland's Body Worn Video consultation on Citizen Space

Police Scotland offer their engagements in BSL and easy-read formats. When they transferred their digital infrastructure for consultations to Citizen Space they continued to highlight the importance of accessible language.  But they also maintained their offline processes.

Working directly with grassroots organisations instead of relying solely on responses that came from those with digital access, provided new insights into how they could better build public trust.

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 give their opinion on it. 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 an internet connection, use phones/tablets).

Of course, all this information should also be available in other formats so ensure equal access to all.  


Community outreach & promotion

Image of a young woman leading a small boardroom style discussion.

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 consultor 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 consultor to allocate the resources required to ensure a balanced sample of voices are heard.

At the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of the consultor to close the digital divide by allocating the resources required in a way that ensures a balanced sample of 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.)


While the digital divide still creates an inherent bias when running public consultations, there are still further steps we could take to address it and target those without broadband.

The UK government needs to look further at how to provide digital tools and literacy for all, so that no demographic feels left behind. Democracy has many flaws but embracing internet use as an integral part of public consultations, has meant we’ve been able to reach more people than ever before. The next step now, is making sure that those people are a varied and accurate representation of the voting public.

By acknowledging and tackling digital divides and how they relate to public services, we are able to offer a fairer chance to contribute to public consultations.

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.