Trends driving demand for online public engagement

This is a draft Chapter 3 for the upcoming book, Online Public Engagement, due out in 2016 from Routledge Press. I’m looking for your observations, challenges, corrections, and other commentary. Please have at it!

Although in the introductory chapter, I made a relatively flip assertion that the debate over whether or not online platforms for public engagement are necessary, some readers of this book are likely to face query or opposition from bureaucratic or elected officials for whom online technologies generate some level of unease (as may the spectre of public engagement itself). Officials who have witnessed or been the object of angry social media responses, as well as those who have been regularly subjected to raucous or unconstructive in-person public engagement, may view the prospect of doing public engagement via an online platform through some combination of unease with technology and fear of trolling, mob mentality and other widely-documented and unpleasant online behavior. Because most officials who do not have positive online public engagement experience are not aware of the differences between those platforms and social media, it is not unusual for a council member or city manager to point to the latest nasty Facebook comment war as a reason to stick to the tried and true, if ineffective, in-person public engagement methods that they can, at least, predict.

Popular reliance upon online technology, coupled with changing work and school patterns and increasing awareness — and demand for — fully inclusive public decision-making means that citizens across the full range of age, demographic, income, ethnicity, ability and other factors increasingly expect convenient and constantly-accessible online methods for everything from reporting potholes to expressing opinions about future land uses. Although not everyone will choose to participate (a factor that long-range planners know well), people increasingly expect that when they do wish to do so, they will be able to at a time and place that is convenient for them, just as they watch television shows and communicate with friends when it’s convenient to watch a streaming video or send a text.

Growth of access

Although it is not uncommon to still hear public engagement specialists raise concerns about the “digital divide” — the perception that certain population groups do not use and do not have access to internet-based communication — studies increasingly indicate that this divide is in most cases closer to myth than reality, especially when access through mobile devices is included. According to the Pew Research Report, “Americans’ Internet Access: 2000–2015,” 84% of all American adults had internet access in 2013, 2014 and 2015, with rates as high as 96%, which statistically represents full saturation, among some segments of the population. Historically non-internet using populations had by 2015 become majority internet-using populations, with 78% of rural residents, 81% of Hispanic residents and 58% of senior citizens using the internet in 2015. Among persons who had not attained a high school diploma, 66% of survey respondents used the interent, and 74% of households earning less than $30,000 yearly were using the internet. Interestingly, these two populations represented the fastest-growing internet usage across Pew’s longitudinal data, a factor that may be influenced by the increasing availability of mobile devices.[1]

Although most mobile devices still struggle to provide the same range of options as computers, reliance on mobile devices has grown at an incredible clip in the past 5 years. In 2015, the estimated number of primarily mobile device users globally reached nearly 2 billion, and the number of mobile users surpassed the number of desktop users for the first time. A study commissioned by the venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers found that average amount of time using mobile devices reached 51% of the total time in 2015, while the amount of time using desktop devices remained unchanged.[2]

In particularly disadvantaged communities and developing nations, a significant proportion of the population may rely on SMS-based, non “smartphone” devices that have limited capacity to display conventional web sites, but residents use these devices to get news, pay bills, and even provide public feedback through surveys, as we will discuss in Part 2 of this book.

More diverse participant populations

Conventional public involvement and deliberation techniques, as practiced in most of the Western democracies, were designed for use by a much narrower range of the population than we profess to want to include today. At the time when town hall meetings and most of our forms of public feedback were developed in the 1700s and 1800s, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States, the proportion of the population that had the right to participate in community discussions or policy debates was limited to only white males of a certain level of prosperity and status — which also meant that they could spend extensive time at public meetings because they had family members, employees, slaves or other workers who would keep the operations of their farm or business going during their absence.

In the United Kingdom, property ownership standards for being able to vote were not fully lifted until 1918,[3] and while most states effectively eliminated property ownership standards by the 1860s, property requirements in some United States communities were not eliminated untilHarper v. Virginia Board of Elections in 1966. And of course women, persons of color, immigrants, and persons with disabilities were consistently denied the right to vote across the Western democracies well into the 20th century. While some persons who did not have the right to vote certainly did participate in public meetings, one can certainly see that lack of voting rights would curtail both the potential speaker’s sense of opportunity and the willingness of decision-makers to listen to them.

Today, the conventional in-person public meeting, typically held in the evening and requiring attendance for one to three hours, creates almost insurmountable challenges for a large number of persons from all types of economic, personal and cultural walks of life. Consider:

People whose employment does not fall into traditional office hours.

Although definitive documentation is lacking,[4] employed adults in the U.S. work in professions and jobs that require them to work at least some of the time during evenings, nights and weekends. These range from emergency room doctors to manufacturing technicians to fast food workers, and include virtually the full spectrum of professions, income levels and ethnicities.

For these workers, attending a typical evening public meeting may require extensive logistical arrangements, from finding a colleague willing to cover the time when the person expected to be working, to managing transportation, child care, client information and a host of other factors necessary to make the person available for the meeting. In the face of these challenges, it is likely that only a significant crisis will merit the personal work, anxiety, and spending of a person’s social capital necessary for these residents to attend a traditional public meeting.

Senior Citizens

While many traditional public meetings in the United States and UK often appear to be dominated by seniors, this perception often masks the very large population of seniors who cannot attend an evening public meeting due to difficulties travelling. Whether the challenge is walking, driving at night, navigating the steps to the building or accessing public transit, senior residents may face significant challenges to in-person participation.

While, as discussed previously, internet and social media usage among seniors tends to lag other segments of the population, an increasing majority are not only using internet resources, but are relying on them to keep abreast of family, community and the world. By 2014, more than half of all persons aged 65 and older regularly used the internet, and of those nearly half used Facebook.[5]

People with small children.

Several factors have made attendance at traditional public meetings more difficult for residents with small children in recent years. First, the changes in work patterns, including both the issue of non-traditional hours and the increase in both single head of family households and households where both parents work means that people who want to attend a public meeting are less likely to have a spouse who can take care of the children at home during a meeting. Second, both the increase in working parents and changing standards of parenting mean than parents may be reluctant to leave their children in someone else’s care while they attend a meeting.

Although a few communities do demonstrate the foresight to provide child care for attendees of a meeting, some parents may worry about the quality and safety of the ad-hoc child care arrangement. Since sitting through a long and serious public meeting with an active small child may appear to be the only feasible option for many parents, the barriers to attending a traditional public meeting may prove insurmountable for members of a population that many communities are highly anxious to keep in their city.

Persons who have physical disabilities.

Physical access to and attendance at a traditional public meeting can present a massive barrier, not just for some elderly residents as noted previously, but for persons who may live with a range of physical conditions. Although most public buildings in the U.S. have provided building and transportation access improvements in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, these accommodations may be limited or require advance requests, as may be the case if a sign language interpreter is needed. This may limit the ability for some disabled residents to participate in traditional public meetings, for example if the person finds out about the meeting too late to make arrangements for transportation or other accommodations.

Persons for whom spoken English is difficult to understand or speak. Traditional public meeting methods rely extensively on the spoken word — and their structure assumes unquestioningly that everyone who wishes to participate will be able to understand and clearly speak in front of an audience in the dominant language. While this would have been a relatively valid assumption in most 19th century civic settings,[6] it is not today. Barriers range from physical to learning to psychological — persons may not be physically able to speak, they may not be fluent speakers of the dominant language, or their may experience debilitating fear of public speaking.[7]Persons on the autistic spectrum, for example, can often express themselves quite articulately in writing, but may not be able to speak in a public setting. With approximately one in 68 U.S. children currently identified as falling on the autistic spectrum,[8] relying on traditional public meetings has the effect of largely silencing these and other participants for whom public speaking is not possible.

Shift in expectations around communication between individuals and businesses, organizations and institutions.

This is the most difficult trend to objectively document, but it’s also the one that has the potential to have the most pervasive impact on the relationship and expectations between governments and citizens. Within the past 10 years, the practice of consumer marketing has been extensively disrupted by the changing communication expectations fostered by the advent of the internet. First through blogging, then through social media sharing, then through sharing economy platforms such as Yelp, members of the general public discovered that they now possessed the ability to share their opinions on products with hundreds or thousands of other consumers, directly influencing both the success of a product and often the company’s choice of actions. Marketers have responded to this shift by efforts to build relationships with users — participating in the same social media channels, engaging users directly, seeking crowdsourced feedback on products and events.

This shift in power in the business-consumer relationship has had far-reaching impacts. People of all ages expect that tagging a business in a social media post will generate a direct response from the business, or at least from the marketing person controlling the social media account, and that some acknowledgement or redress of a wrong will be made, in a direct, immediate and one-to-one manner. And as we discussed in a previous section, consumers increasingly expect that this connection can occur at any time of day or night, and from any location. At the same time, as routine transactions ranging from bank deposits to refilling prescriptions to purchasing household staples have moved online, the prospect of not having the choice or freedom to select an online option has the impact of making in-person public engagement meetings seem all the more foreign and archaic to the majority of the population.


[1] ANDREW PERRIN AND MAEVE DUGGAN, “Americans’ Internet Access:2000–2015.” http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/06/26/americans-internet-access-2000-2015/. Accessed July 2, 2015.

[2] http://www.smartinsights.com/internet-marketing-statistics/insights-from-kpcb-us-and-global-internet-trends-2015-report/attachment/mobile-internet-trends-mary-meeker-2015-1/. Accessed July 2, 2015.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Kingdom_general_election,_1918. Accessed July 2, 2015.

[4] Indeed, the lack of a catchall term for “people whose work does not solely occur during conventional office hours” probably tells us something about the very wide range of employment situations this point covers.

[5] “Demographics of Key Social Networking Platforms.”http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/09/demographics-of-key-social-networking-platforms-2/. Accessed July 2, 2015.

[6] To be sure, local communities in large parts of the US have at some point in their past conducted public meetings in other languages, when the majority of the local population were recent immigrants with a shared linguistic background, in which case the English-speakers would have been at the disadvantage

[7] Public officials tend to forget that, among the general population, public speaking consistently ranks as one of people’s strongest and most common fears, often ranking ahead of airplane crash and other deadly situations. The 2014 Chapman University Survey on American Fears, in fact, listed public speaking as the most common fear, with more than one-quarter of respondents naming it. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/10/30/clowns-are-twice-as-scary-to-democrats-as-they-are-to-republicans/, accessed July 2, 2015)

[8] https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism Accessed July 2, 2015.

2 thoughts on “Trends driving demand for online public engagement”

  1. This is potentially an interesting chapter. I thought the opening though was rather negative and wonder if it would be better if you started by making the case for online public engagement, perhaps starting with a story? Officials who fear trolls could be another specific interest group further down.

    Whilst I appreciate I haven’t seen the first 2 chapters, this chapter does seem to lack something at the beginning to hold the rest of it together. There’s a lot of valuable information further down but I need reminding why I should care about it!

    You may be interested in John Popham’s blog. He’s based in the UK and is doing a lot of practical stuff around digital inclusion, particularly with the elderly. https://johnpopham.wordpress.com/ You’ll find loads about hospitals for example if you scroll down including a powerful session he had with continence nurses! I’ve long been convinced that toilets, or the lack of them or the lack of information about them, prevents many people from attending meetings (not just elderly, parents with toddlers too). So, this is not as much a side issue as may first appear. Anyway I’m in danger of getting sidetracked so I’ll stop.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *