Inspired by the recent publication of the 7thCNIL handbook for CivicTech actors, this series will focus on issues central to our work and the CivicTech world at large. We’ll start things off with a closer look at inclusivity.
From onsite participation to digital engagement
The rise of digital participation platforms in recent years has fundamentally changed the way citizens and political decisionmakers interact.
Today, citizen participation is widely considered necessary, if local government is to respond appropriately to the needs of the population. In this context, the fact that some groups participate more frequently than others while certain groups appear to be left out completely, is noted with growing concern. Digital technology can help take citizen participation a step further by offering all citizens a hassle-free, direct way of contributing to local decision-making.
At Civocracy, we’ve mobilised communities around using collective intelligence for the past five years – and we’ve gained some crucial insights into the issue of digital inclusion along the way.
3 key benefits for citizens
More accessibility: making an online-platform accessible to citizens 24 hours per day means that the time allocated for citizen participation is used more efficiently, that remote participation is made possible and that new groups (like young people) are reached.
More simplicity: offering a choice of online participation modules allows for different modes of engagement, letting the participants themselves decide how involved they’d like to be.
More transparency: all participants’ contributions are made visible on the platform (from decision-makers over experts to the citizens).
3 key benefits for the community
Better allocation of resources: In comparison, face-to-face meetings with citizens are both time- (spent on preparation, implementation and communication) and cost-intensive for the community.
More efficient use of new technology: Digital platforms enable participation at an unprecedented scale, providing new ways to unleash the potential collective intelligence holds.
Establishing a true citizen-focus: At Civocracy, past and current consultations remain accessible on the platform, which encourages citizens to re-visit and engage with it over an extended period of time. CivicTech solutions that provide citizens with a participatory platform can thus increase community-engagement in the long run.
Digital citizen participation is not only enriching for the parties involved but occupies a legitimate and crucial position at the interface between government and the public. An increased reliance on digital tools, however, brings its own set of challenges with it that need to be addressed in the fight for a stronger democracy. Amongst them: how to ensure inclusivity.
A lack of representation distorts participation
Not everyone is a digital-native. Disregarding the millions of citizens that struggle with tech solutions risks compromising the representativeness of citizen participation. And a lack of representation in citizen participation projects runs counter to their objective of empowering allcitizens. So how can CivicTech platforms ensure inclusivity?
There’s 4 factors in particular that should be taken into account.
1 – Combining digital with onsite participation
Successful digital participation engages and connects citizens across divides of age, residence, social-economic standing etc.. Not tapping into the potential traditional participation methods hold would therefore be self-defeating. After all, citizen participation is at its most effective when on- and offline methods are combined.
Connecting the digital with the offline sphere via certain features can be a powerful driver of community-engagement. ‘Updates’ and ‘events’ features, for instance, can be used to inform platform-visitors of relevant news and events in the community. This helps increase participation – and it works both ways: onsite-events can be promoted via the platform while events can bring more visitors to the platform.
When a consultation primarily targets groups impacted by the digital divide, local stakeholders can be involved to reach these groups more efficiently. Stakeholders’ expert understanding of their community helps address them more sensitively and find appropriate ways of engaging them.
When Strasbourg began its online-consultation on school hours, for instance, Civocracy included local stakeholders with in-depth knowledge of the community. This ensured maximum representativeness during the consultation.
2 – Simplifying the operation
To reduce barriers to participation, digital platforms should be simple and intuitive to navigate. Easy operation is a sure way of boosting inclusivity.
For this, the registration process should be straight-forward and quick. Integrated algorithms should guarantee equal visibility of all contributions on the platform. Clear time-frames should be set for consultations. Attractive and clear design should make the user-experience pleasant and barrier-free access should be guaranteed.
In addition to this, inclusivity can be enhanced by stressing the functionality and usability of features. Whenever filling out a survey doesn’t require a lot of work, for instance, the bar to participation is lowered to a minimum. Similarly, interactive mapping provides a useful, easy-to-engage-with visualisation of the community, which engages citizens in a more playful way. Participatory budgeting is particularly effective via digital tools and provides citizens with a simple but powerful way of shaping local decision-making.
At times, ensuring inclusivity will require addressing the issue of digital illiteracy. When parts of the population have difficulty using digital tools, alternatives must be made available. Incorporating multimedia content (images, videos) on the platform is an effective measure for this.
By having the focus on users and their needs, we maximise participation on the platform.
3 – Targeted communication
It’s one thing to ensure that the participants have the means to participate online. It’s a different challenge to get them to participate in the first place. Following a targeted communication strategy therefore is crucial for a successful citizen participation approach – and even more so for ensuring its inclusivity.
Many parts of a community are best reached via social media (the city’s homepage, paid advertisements etc.) or their official website.
A press release in the local press or posters in areas frequented by the target audience can also boost participation.
There’s another - often-overlooked – way of informing the community: naming citizen ambassadors. Citizens with close ties to the community are well-positioned to reach out to other citizens and encourage them to participate in community-projects. Relevant information and material for this can be uploaded directly on the platform, like posters or press material.
4 – Protection of privacy
It’s not always clear to users what happens to the data that platforms like Facebook, Instagram etc. collect and save from their accounts. This can fuel distrust and discourage participation. When it comes to citizen participation, a responsible handling of personal data is therefore key.
Digital platforms should offer participants different ways to protect their own data. Users should always have a choice over how much of their identity they want to disclose online, for example (anonymous, pseudonym or full name). The choices available to the users should be stated clearly to avoid confusion and to not discourage participation.
Interested in inclusivity? Let’s talk!
The issue of representation and inclusivity doesn’t only concern individual communities but constitutes one of the key pillars of every healthy democracy. Participation can only be effective in the long-tern if everyone is given a fair and equal chance of contributing their voice. At Civocracy, we work on developing more effective methods and tools for inclusion every day, striving to empower all citizens to participate.
If you have an idea for how we can improve our work or would like to discuss digital citizen participation with us, we’d love to hear from you! Just shoot us a message at: firstname.lastname@example.org