Along with the benefits that digitalisation promises to bring to the public sector, it raises the question of who might be excluded as a result. Particularly older citizens appear to be at risk. But, rather than rejecting digital participation projects for fear of alienating senior citizens, we believe that digital citizen participation helps build digital confidence and foster inclusion.
When setting up digital participation projects in communities, there’s one question that almost always comes up: What about our older citizens - won’t they be excluded?
Opening an online platform for citizen participation can feel like an active acknowledgment that, if we want to move with the times, certain groups’ needs will be sidelined.
We’ve all witnessed the frustration that newly digitalised services can cause for less tech-savvy people. When formerly straight-forward transactions like purchasing a train-ticket or filing a housing-application suddenly require you to navigate unfamiliar (digital) terrain, this can leave people feeling stressed, anxious and even unwelcome. This poses a particular problem for the public sector, which, after all, should strive to make its services easily accessible to all citizens. Public servants often conclude from this that digital citizen participation should be treated with extreme caution and prefer to stay away from it for fear of excluding senior citizens. But can this resistance be upheld in an increasingly digitalised world?
Mastering this balancing act between profiting from new technology and preventing an alienation of certain groups forms a core challenge for governments today.
Rapid advancements in technology have opened up new possibilities and governments, too, want to reap their share of benefits from this. At the same time, resistance to digitalisation has been particularly strong in the public sector. A telling example for this is Germany, where digital transformation progresses at a notoriously slow pace. From conversations with public servants, we’ve learnt that the bulk of their concerns springs from an inadequate internal set-up, bureaucratic hurdles - and a fear of excluding citizens, particularly old people, from public life.
Digitalisation’s potential for marginalising citizens has been conceptualised as ‘digital divide’. Analysis shows that the gap between younger and older citizens widens in terms of their access to and use of modern technology with each year. While the contrast between age groups is particularly poignant, factors like education and socio-economic or migratory background play a significant role, too. Unless addressed, this disparity will only intensify, accelerated by the pace of technological change, and create ever-larger barriers to participation for these groups.
Does an increased use of digital tools automatically marginalize senior citizens?
At Civocracy, we’ve devoted many afternoons to debating this question. As civic engagement enthusiasts, it’s our mission to make government more accessible to everyone. If digital tech by default disadvantaged certain demographics, this would put a serious dent in our mission.
Luckily, we quickly realised that the two are not in fact intrinsically linked. We’ve found that viewing digital citizen participation and the inclusion of older citizens as mutually exclusive applies a misguided perspective that detracts attention from the latter more than helping it.
If done correctly, a digital participation platform can be an effective way of bridging the digital divide and a meaningful step towards creating more inclusive societies. We’ve listed a few key considerations that should inform the planning of any digital engagement project.
Reshifting our focus to understand older citizens’ needs.
We’ve established that concerns over exclusion are warranted when discussing digitalisation. Only focusing on these concerns, however, disregards the fact that many senior citizens already struggle with existing digital applications - and it does little to alleviate this.
Simply refraining from further digitalisation fails to address the problem. Instead, our focus needs to be on facilitating this transformation for them. A long-term plan is needed to ensure that all citizens will have at least a minimal level of digital skills in the future.
Similarly, by limiting our discussion to the detrimental impact of digitalisation, we fail to appreciate the entirety of senior citizens’ needs. Even without the challenge of digitalisation, many senior citizens still find themselves in a comparably isolated position. While research suggests that all age groups are affected by loneliness, in Europe, it’s particularly old people that live in social isolation.
When advocating for maintaining the status quo by pulling the brakes on digitalisation, we not only ignore these challenges, but risk overlooking possible fixes, too. After all, digital technology holds the potential to better connect people and renders issues like mobility or bad hearing less of an obstacle to participation, which could enrich the lives of old people.
If we reshift our focus, two objectives become clear: giving senior citizens a basic understanding of digital applications and better including them in public life in general.
Don’t underestimate the elderly.
A prerequisite for assisting older people in using digital applications is, of course, that they are willing to take this step. But despite a widely-held belief that old age goes hand in hand with an aversion towards all things digital, the numbers show that change is underway.
Within the EU, the number of citizens who have never used a computer in the age group 65-74 dropped from 68% to 40% from 2008 to 2017. And for those above 70, the share of internet-users has tripled to over 50% from 2012 to 2018. In Germany, over 80% of 60 - 69-year-olds are now familiar with digital applications.
This proves a certain willingness among old people to acquire and expand their digital skills. At the same time, it underlines the need for this. In 2017, almost one third of EU-residents had above basic digital skills, but for older people the shares were much lower, at 16 % for those aged 55-64 years and 7 % for people aged 65-74 years. As digitalisation advances, we risk leaving those with only basic digital skills behind, excluding them from public life along with those without any digital knowledge.
Rooting digital applications in personal, onsite initiatives.
But how do we build older citizens’ digital confidence, you ask? Online civic engagement platforms might just be the place to start.
A successful citizen participation project combines the use of digital platforms with onsite-engagement. This makes them an ideal framework for tailored initiatives to reach and re-engage certain groups of citizens. Efforts to support older citizens to use new technologies can easily be tied into the project. And this doesn’t just help senior citizens, it also contributes to the overall success of the project.
There’s countless examples to pull inspiration from. Across countries, local initiatives have brought citizens together with the aim of building knowledge and confidence in the digital world, giving senior citizens a stronger sense of belonging in the process.
In 2015, the Hague’s city council launched its campaign ‘Everybody Digital’, informing the elderly of the advantages, usefulness and necessity of digitalisation and offering courses and meetings to those interested in learning.
In Frankfurt, an internet-cafe was set up by volunteers specifically for teaching seniors how to navigate the online-sphere. By creating a pressure-free room for learning, it has since assisted many in familiarising themselves with the digital world.
During Montpellier’s Civocracy-project, a resident took the initiative to set up a group for supporting older residents to use the platform. This way, a lack of digital understanding did not bar anyone from participating.
What type of onsite-initiatives should accompany a digital participation project depends on the specific need and context of the community. In any case, the latter offer an ideal framework for including senior citizens in the process of digitalisation.
Identify topics that affect senior citizens.
While a citizen participation platform is made for everyone, it can simultaneously be used to target specific demographics and engage them in a dialogue around issues that are of particular concern to them. This will in turn allow you to benefit from their unique perspective on and knowledge of what the community needs.
Do senior citizens want to get more involved with community-work - and, if so, how? What urban development projects have the most priority for them and why? ...
At the same time, online engagement platforms have the potential to connect individuals and groups of citizens that may not normally have many points of contact. This helps build a stronger community by fostering broader interaction and thus mutual understanding.
Ensuring a user-friendly interface.
While every impactful digital participation platform should be simple and intuitive to use, attracting senior citizens necessitates special provisions like the readability of fonts, increasing contrast for optimal visibility and ensuring that the core functions are easily ‘clickable’.
For the public sector, mastering the digital transformation in a way that doesn’t compromise inclusivity presents one of the defining challenges of the decade. Especially in many European countries, another dimension is added to this by the reality of demographic change. Rejecting the digitalisation of public services is an inadequate response to this issue. Instead, the digital understanding and confidence of all demographics must be increased while simultaneously taking measures geared to greater inclusivity in society. Digital engagement projects provide an ideal framework for this and should be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat for those struggling with digital applications.
If you’re passionate about the issue of digital inclusion and would like to share your thoughts on it, shoot us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.