06 June 2023

Most digital participation instruments that local governments implement often still fail to reach specific societal groups, which diminishes the validity of their endeavours. The needs of youth in particular seem often overlooked in these contexts. Based on insights from our research, I argue for a strategy of targeted diversity and implementing a set of key principles for engaging youth in local policymaking. 

Dominance of ‘one-size-fits-all’ initiatives

Based on an intention to reach every citizen with digital participation efforts, there seems to exist a disproportionate focus among local governments on generalised, ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches. In terms of communication efforts, this tends to translate into rather general and one-off participation calls. In addition, our research pointed to a strong reliance on generic, digital participation instruments. They operate like a Swiss army knife, combining different participation forms (idea generation, collaboration, discussion) and functionalities (3D modelling, collaborative budgeting, voting etc.) into one platform. 

Such approaches seem problematic since they strongly differ from the changing participation needs of citizens. These needs are increasingly related to flexible, ad-hoc, personalised and issue-specific forms of political action (e.g., related to climate-issues or road safety in the city). This adds to a long-standing argument in the field of digital participation that prominent platforms often seem to enhance existing participation gaps and call to the ‘usual suspects’ in terms of participation. 

Youth as a target public in digital participation 

To counter this, a strategy of ‘targeted diversity’ seems more appropriate when implementing digital participation tools. This implies prioritising certain societal groups based on the context and goals of a participation trajectory, rather than aiming to reach as many citizens as possible. In this sense, our research indicates that youth should be given particular attention when developing digital participation initiatives. This is mainly because of three reasons.

First, most dominant participation platforms do not align with the lifeworld of youth, and consequently, thresholds for participation are too high. Oftentimes, they have a rather rigid and formal character that does not allow for the flexibility and personal choice that young people often seek when expressing their voice on societal issues. For instance, many digital participation tools implemented by local governments ask citizens to commit to an entire participation trajectory. They often start with submitting written project proposals with elaborate ideas for the city. For youth, such initiatives are not very appealing, as their political engagement is mainly defined by interest in particular issues (such as climate and gender equality) and specific forms of action often outside traditional political contexts (such as protesting or signing petitions).

Second, there seems to exist a sort of ‘motivation-participation’ paradox among adolescents. In contrast to persistent stereotypes about youth being politically uninterested and apathetic, they are often very much willing to participate and have their voices be heard. Simultaneously however, it seems that existing digital participation platforms are not reaching youth, because they do not appeal to them (“This is not for me”) or they are simply not aware of participation opportunities (“I didn’t know this existed”).

Lastly, and related to the previous point, many digital participation initiatives are currently not embedded in the media habits (or ‘media repertoires’) of youth. Their repertoires are characterised by a strong reliance on mobile technology, smartphones and social media sites. Recruiting, engaging and retaining young people in (digital) participation initiatives requires a proper understanding and alignment with these media uses. 

Another app?

In order to tackle these challenges, we developed a mobile application for youth. The app provides a way to consult young people through short questions about issues related to specific locations in their cities. While the idea of a consultation tool is hardly new, we built our app on several key research insights about the participation needs of youth. These requirements could serve as guidelines when designing new digital participatory platforms or critically evaluating existing ones. 

In terms of the types of participation, digital participation platforms targeting youth should prioritise information and consultation. While youth are generally willing to let their voices be heard and even show an interest in doing so in an offline context, they often do not find their way to the available participation opportunities (i.e., the motivation-participation paradox). 

Digital tools, such as mobile apps, should therefore be implemented as a low-threshold entry moment for and as a guide towards participation. That is, digital environments (such as mobile apps) should be considered a way to engage youth for the first time in a participation trajectory by offering them opportunities to be consulted on a variety of local issues. Additionally, for those interested, these tools should allow young citizens to follow up this initial participation with more effortful and/or offline participation. 

In this sense, it is essential to actively guide youth in their participation. Within a digital environment, this means striking a balance between limiting the functionalities (e.g., a clear UI, short questions with fixed answering formats) and providing enough information for youth to assess the value of their participation (e.g., feedback about collected responses, videos to contextualize the question posed in the app). Beyond the digital environment, this means actively and regularly presenting opportunities to participate in other ways (e.g., inviting users to take part in a co-creation workshop).

This relates to the importance of personal choice, flexibility and agency when designing digital participation tools for youth. Integrating these principles could mean, for instance, that users are able to choose whether and when to engage with a particular question on the digital platform, depending on their availability or interest in the topic of the question. Their choice should, however, not affect their opportunities to use the tool or participate in the future. 

Mobile applications serve these purposes well, given they are already omnipresent in the media repertoires of youth. Still, our research indicated that youth prefer not to participate though existing apps (such as Instagram or TikTok), but that they want a dedicated space for their political engagement. However, a mobile app should not exist in itself; complementarity is essential in reaching youth. Digital participation tools should be supported by a proper social media strategy that provides feedback about broader participation initiatives and guides citizens towards the digital tool. Moreover, our research indicated the relevance of physical installations in the public space, not as a means for participation but as a way of creating awareness and motivating youth to install and use the digital tool. 

In her research, Cato Waeterloos explores the political uses and democratic implications of digital and social media, studying social movements, political and civic participation, socialisation and citizenship. After obtaining her PhD, she worked at Ghent University on the project ‘Towards digital solutions for citizen participation’ as lead researcher, on which this article is based. In May 2023, she started working at KU Leuven on the interuniversity POLKNOW project, where she investigates the role of social media interventions in young people’s political knowledge.

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