3 Myths about Accessibility and Online Citizen Engagement
Recently, President Barack Obama said that filing taxes should be “at least as easy as ordering a pizza or an airline ticket.” Citizens are increasingly demanding accessible, convenient methods of accessing services and engaging with decision-makers. Online citizen engagement is at the forefront of this trend: people can participate online 24/7, at their own leisure – be it during their lunch break or five minutes before bed. With the growing prevalence of online citizen engagement, there are several myths about accessibility and inclusion that need to be debunked.
1. Seniors don’t use the Internet.
According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, people over the age of 65 are the fastest-growing group online. They are hardly laggards when it comes to using online technology – over 50% of seniors use the Internet. Among senior Internet users, 71% are online daily. Social media use amongst this demographic, such as Facebook, has also tripled since 2009, and seems poised to continue increasing.
While people 65+ use the Internet at lower rates than other age groups, the assumption that they are unwilling or unable to learn new technology is also condescending and fails to reflect the popularity of courses and programs on computer basics and social media. For seniors with mobility issues or who are homebound, online techniques can provide them with the opportunity to stay engaged and have a say in their communities.
2. Rural/remote communities have poor Internet access.
While the persistence of the digital divide continues to be of concern, studies are showing that the primary barrier to access is cost, not location. In a presentation by Pew Research Center’s Lee Rainie on the forms of digital divide that exist in 2016, cost is cited as the most prohibitive factor (43%), as opposed to unavailable or insufficient service (5%). Overall, there is only a 9% difference between internet use amongst urban and rural users (89% vs. 80%).
In our experience, Northern and remote communities have been pioneering new forms of location-based citizen engagement on PlaceSpeak to engage with residents within their jurisdictional boundaries. For example, in regions with large, spread-out geographies, bringing the engagement process online is one way to make public participation more accessible. Asking for residents to drive 3-4 hours just to attend a public meeting or town hall is simply unreasonable.
Some areas in Canada’s remote North, for example, are only accessible by ice roads during the winter months. The matter of access is a physical one. Usually, these roads are accessible for 70-80 days a year, but climate change has meant that these ice roads are now accessible for less than 30 days a year. Engaging with people in these communities may require more extensive efforts such as flying, which can be costly for both proponents and participants. A legitimate, authenticated online engagement process conducted in good faith can be significantly more beneficial and empower more people to have their say.
3. Online engagement means that we’re getting rid of in-person engagement.
For people who prefer to attend town halls or public meetings, there is a fear that online engagement will replace in-person forms of engagement. Some people simply prefer being able to speak to decision-makers and/or their elected officials face-to-face, and are concerned about the potential loss of such opportunities.
However, online engagement is never meant to entirely replace in-person engagement. Instead, online engagement supports and enhances in-person techniques that are already being used to reach out to residents. By expanding the number and types of opportunities that are available for people to participate, your organization will naturally see an increase in engagement from more diverse demographics.
I disagree with the comment about rural people having accesss to good internet. You’ve obiously not been out in rural NSW or QLD, where downloading fancy engagement pages, with lots of pictures can take 10 minutes. And heaven forbid if you try to access the internet in Deniliquin after school is out – the bandwidth drops by about 80%. A study is one thing, but talking/engaging with the people who are affected by the internet is another