News and Comment

Does digital still have the potential to change local participation?

Thursday 18 December 2014



As soon as our scene setter Dr Andy Williamson challenged his fellow panelists to think about whether digital has lived up to the potential he saw, over a decade ago, for it to radically change local participation, it was clear that the promise still exists and remains unfulfilled.

Speaking at the Kai Rudat Memorial Breakfast Seminar, which this year focused on the the role of digital in local participation, Dr Williamson declared that the democratic system was, and still is, ostensibly broken. He argued that we have digitised these processes only to produce ‘broken digital processes’, and that as patterns of engagement haven’t changed, there is still an enormous disconnect between citizens, politicians and the civil service. Digital technology may have advanced, digital access may have increased, and digital literacy become more widespread, but digitising those existing models of engagement and participation has changed little and will continue to change little if they emanate from the centre. Instead, the role of any democratic institution, if it is truly democratic, is to allow the ‘outside’ to decide on their models of participation and engagement.



Digital can help break down barriers and silos by creating partnerships with groups and individuals previously disenfranchised, while rebuilding trust that has been lost in the system. But this won’t be possible without a fundamental cultural change to open up democracy from the outside in, the implementation of an ‘open data’ policy, or without addressing Dr Williamson’s figurative ‘elephants in the room’ – that of digital access (the 15-20% of the population who are not online, automatically excluded from any Government ‘Digital by Default’ strategy) – and digital literacy. Clearly, opening up participation through digital will be of no benefit if the population doesn’t have the means to access it.

This original diagnosis may have been somewhat depressing, but over the following hour our speakers rose to the challenge by showing the very appetite, on behalf of the local partnerships and intermediaries that Williamson spoke of, to allow digital to open up those channels of participation and engagement.

Each panellist recognised that digital engagement is a useful participation tool, as Cllr Peter Fleming pointed out, but not an end in itself. The ultimate outcome of digital engagement should be to inspire local participation offline, in the real world. The innovative case studies presented by the speakers of engaging very different constituencies were attempts to a greater or lesser extent to deploy particular digital channels, in Cllr Pete Lowe’s words, to ‘complement’ engagement, rather than replace it. All agreed that both online and offline engagement efforts must bring participation to where their community already is.

The staggering increase of participation in Dudley MBC’s council meetings, held either via Facebook (reaching more people in one hour than in 25 years of traditional community based forums), or through their 10 community run forums held where the community chooses (where more people attended in one year than had done so in the previous 10), were just a couple of examples of the value of facilitating participation – opening the doors to debate, rather than forcing it.

At present, patterns of local participation among the ‘digital native’ generation contrast sharply with those at the other end of the age spectrum. While according to Chris Martin from YouthNet, 98% of young people between the ages of 16-25 seek information on everything they do online, Sam Mauger from AgeUK London highlighted a discrepancy in digital access, as 78% of people in London aged over 75 are not online and more than 600,000 people over 55 have never used the internet.

Sam Mauger’s case studies were testament to the power of digital to empower those within Age UK London’s reach to participate in the community online, who would otherwise be considered ‘hard to reach’ offline. Both Chris Martin and Debbie Moss provided examples of where this digital native generation, despite common accusations of disengagement from ‘politics’ or their community, have been successfully engaged by YouthNet and vInspired through issues that are important to the young people themselves, not those dictated by organisations. Where digital is the likely start journey for everything that a young person does, that medium, as Chris Martin attested, almost becomes invisible.

The potential for digital to open up democracy and local participation still exists a decade on from Dr Williamson’s early observations, but this will only be possible once our democratic institutions, and its partnerships and intermediaries, commit to becoming community led and allowing digital to help with that engagement. As Cllr Lowe described, ‘democracy dies without community engagement’. Digital still does have the capacity to enable community engagement, but only if we let it.


Given the subject matter it seemed appropriate that there was a lot of Twitter activity during the event. Here are some of the highlights of the debate on the #digitalparticipation hashtag: