Digital participation succeeds in approaching certain groups that are difficult or impossible to reach with traditional forms of participation. But does digital participation also exclude certain groups?

Inclusiveness means that you do not exclude any group in society. Digital participation is inclusive when you reach every group in society, and when they can fully participate. In such a context, inclusivity is not only about the accessibility of the software used, but also about having an internet connection at your disposal, a device on which the software can function and about being digitally literate.

No smartphone, no voice?

The example of the Mexican presidential elections of 2018 shows that inclusiveness in digital participation is a relevant subject. For the first time, an indigenous woman, María de Jesús “Marichuy” Patricio Martinez, emerged as a presidential candidate. In Mexico, independent candidates must collect 866,000 votes to compete for the office. These votes must be collected via a mobile application, which only works on relatively recent smartphones.

In other words, a Mexican needed three things to give his/her independent presidential candidate a digital boost: electricity, mobile data and a smartphone, which easily costs three times a monthly wage. But a large part of Mexico’s indigenous population is too poor for these things. The result? María could not even participate in the elections.

Every step counts

Making your participation process inclusive is therefore not a matter of a one-off measure. It is an important aspect that you take with you throughout the whole process. Here we guide you through the different steps:

  1. Setup & communication
  2. Bring the digital to your citizens
  3. Customize the software
  4. Measure your results

1. Setup & communication

Inclusiveness starts with the setup of your digital participation trajectory. The way in which you shape this programme determines who can and wants to participate in the end. In addition to general principles, such as using ‘inclusive language‘ and visual material that shows as many groups of the population as possible, a number of points of attention are of specific importance in digital participation programmes.

We list the most important ones for you:

  • Where possible, make your participation trajectory available in different languages. This is why CitizenLab gives you the space to offer your platform in all spoken languages in your municipality.
  • Do not deter groups by unnecessarily obliging them to pass on personal data. Where possible, give them the option to choose a username if they fear, rightly or wrongly, that their real name could lead to digital discrimination. Always state clearly why you are asking for certain personal data about people.
  • Occasionally it makes sense to only open up a participation programme to a part of the population. However, handle this very carefully. Opening up a neighbourhood project only to residents of that neighbourhood is justifiable, but limiting a general project on mobility to all men older than 45 years much less.

2. Bring the digital to your citizens

Even if everyone feels attracted to your communication, there are always people who can’t participate because they don’t have a suitable device or internet connection.

Place your own computers

In order to provide a suitable solution for this group as well, local authorities can set up a number of physical places where people can participate. For example, Londerzeel and Marche-en-Famenne placed computers in the library and in the town hall. This way, every citizen can get access to the CitizenLab platform. And because there is always someone present from the municipality, people with less digital skills can be supported.

A mix of online and offline

Paris was even more creative. For their participatory budget, they placed around a hundred ballot boxes in the streets where citizens can vote on paper. And in Sint-Niklaas and Schiedam, among others, the municipalities collect all the ideas and votes from offline sessions and place them, together with the online entries, on their participation platform.  

3. Customize the software

You have done everything you can to reach everyone and also to facilitate participation for people without access to your digital participation projects. This is not the end of the story. The software you use and the code of that software must also follow a number of principles in order to be sufficiently inclusive. The inclusion of software takes place on two levels.

Clarity over creativity

First and foremost there is the general experience. Even people who are not a local Fortnite champion or who never participate in a hackathon, should find their way on your platform. Buzzers and bells seem nice, but if they distract attention from the central participatory actions, they cause more harm than good. You can throw all conventions overboard and be remarkably creative with videos, slideshows, GIFs and colours, but if no one finds your ‘Vote’ button, you will never reach your objectives.

There is also a difference between the experience on a mobile device and on a desktop computer. Both create different expectations among your users. At CitizenLab we see that 47% of users reach their platform with a mobile device. Therefore, the platforms on mobile still remain recognizable, but the experience is completely different.

Attention for visual impairments

In addition, specific attention is needed to enable people with a visual impairment, such as the elderly, to participate digitally. Here is an overview of the main solutions:

  • Give images in your software a so-called ‘alt attribute’, a self-chosen verbatim description of the image that can be read by computers for the blind and partially sighted.
  • For the same reason, in addition to a clear icon, you can also place a piece of text on each button and label your input fields.
  • In addition, work as much as possible with pronounced colour contrasts to make the text easy to read for everyone. On our platforms, we offer municipalities the possibility to choose the main colour that matches their own branding. However, if this compromises the readability of the platform, they receive a warning.
  • Finally, we made our participation platforms fully navigable with the keyboard. This is not only important for people with a visual impairment, but also for people with a motor disability for whom navigating with a mouse is difficult or impossible.

Standards you can follow

If you want to know more about this specific topic, this Wikipedia article is a good starting point. And of course you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are several international standards that you can implement to make your software accessible. We use the WCAG 2.0 framework, and we built in automatic tests to continuously check whether we are still complying with this standard when building new functionalities.

4. Measure your results

Ultimately: measure how inclusive your participation process actually is. That’s why the statistics page for each CitizenLab platform focuses on the aggregated demographic data of your target audience. This way, you can easily compare one group with another or with your own full population figures. In this way, you can estimate the representativeness of your digital participation platform. But it can also be a starting point to focus on underrepresented population groups.

We hope that this article will help you a long way in making your participation process truly inclusive. Any questions? Or would you like to assess your plans with one of our experts? Contact us at We will be happy to help you!

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