08 November 2022

1. Opening up participation to long-excluded communities 

Digital tools can help you reach those who are traditionally excluded or underrepresented in local politics – overcoming language barriers for linguistic and ethnic minorities and immigrant groups who usually cannot access the political space. They help to create a multilingual environment and provide automatic translation so that everyone can participate in the language they are most comfortable with. Through the use of the D21 platform, New York City participatory budgeting managed to provide an opportunity for people to vote in one of over 15 languages. Other platforms are directly targeted at queer youth.

The digital space also opens the door to people with different levels of physical and mental ability, as well as those from low socio-economic backgrounds – factors which can make it impossible or difficult to participate in person. The use of tech tools allows people to be a part of the process from the comfort of their own home and at their own time. This benefits everyone from single working mothers to people with physical disabilities who might have mobility issues, as was the case with the Glasgow city Participatory Budgeting. 

Digital participation tools therefore have the potential to make the participatory process more inclusive.

2. Full or partial transfer of traditional face-to-face processes to the online space

The Covid-19 pandemic involved a number of security measures, and as a result, face-to-face meetings were kept to a minimum. Nevertheless, thanks to the participatory process in an online format, it was still possible to hold meetings and collaborate. So, for example, the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy (2021) in the UK was able to take place fully online, despite the complexity of the process flow.

Another advantage of keeping participation in an online space is the reduction of implementation costs and, in the case of a geographically large area, the possibility to avoid long travel distances for organisers, facilitators, experts, and participants. It is also possible to combine in-person and digital participation in several ways, allowing the participatory process to reach different demographics. 

3. Creating additional value for the in-person process

Digital tools can offer a type of engagement that is difficult to implement, or even impossible, using traditional methods. For example, digital tools can be used to quickly crowdsource proposals from a larger number of people and later discuss and refine these proposals during in-person workshops. They can also be used to invite a broader population to validate or prioritise the outcomes created during in-person engagement. 

So, during an in-person participatory method such as a public workshop, a digital tool can be used to speed up some activities such as crowdsourcing of ideas, voting, and prioritisation, making the activities more efficient and bypassing certain implementation costs, such as printing ballots and manually counting votes.

4. Learning about the issue at hand and raising awareness 

This hybrid format ensures that the learning phase of the participation process is accessible to all participants. That’s why we recommend using a combination of online and offline methods of information sharing. In-person sessions with experts can be streamed or recorded and uploaded to an online learning platform, making it more accessible to all those who could not join at a given time. If this information is shared, not only with selected participants, but also with the general public, it can help to increase the average level of knowledge and awareness around the issue.

In addition to that, participants can provide feedback on the information received or request additional information. The advantage is that online tools can make the learning process more interactive and responsive to the current needs of participants. Online tools can also enable the sharing of knowledge from different perspectives, as they can bring together multiple experts by removing barriers such as distance and language. 

5. Information dissemination and mass communication 

Participation requires constant communication with a large number of people, most of whom are digital natives or habitual users of the internet. Conducting information dissemination and communication online allows organisers of participatory processes to reach large numbers of people instantaneously. 

Digital communication makes processes more accessible to hard-to-reach communities at relatively low cost. Moreover, digital tools such as Munipolis, can spread information through a variety of channels, including in-app announcements, emails, and text messages. 

This article was produced in cooperation with Participation Factory. Participation Factory is a social enterprise that mainstreams participation and data-driven approaches into governance and process design. Our experts support local governments in designing participation driven processes and systems, building capacities of their team, and implementing digital participation tools and Civic Tech. To learn more, refer to our website or contact us at info@participationfactory.com.

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