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Overcoming the barriers that prevent inclusive online participation

The social distancing policy has bought a wide-ranging set of challenges for organisations that are preparing to conduct their consultation and engagement online. One challenge is ensuring inclusive participation throughout the consultation process. This is particularly the case for complex and controversial issues, such as changes to emergency services and climate change.

Institute Director, Rhion Jones, outlined some of the challenges of reaching the seldom online in consultation and the ‘seldom online’. We take this one step further and provide insight into the different dimensions of digital inclusion.

Inclusive digital participation goes beyond providing the public with equal opportunities to participate in online consultation and engagement exercises. It is crucial to understand that online engagement methods immediately leave out the digitally excluded. Therefore, organisations must actively ensure that disadvantaged groups have access to, and the skills to use the internet. In the absence of broadband facilities, internet or adequate internet skills, organisations must put measures in place to ensure that people who are seldom online and never online are able to participate. One thing is clear – there is no single approach to solving it.

Access to the internet

While more people are accessing the internet during the lockdown period, a portion of the population currently has no access to the internet. A common assumption is that everyone has access to the internet, digital technology, and IT skills. In fact, based on a sample survey of the UK population, the Office for National Statistics reported that 7% of households did not have access to the internet in 2019.

Good Things Foundation found 7.8 million people are never online, while 7.4 million people are seldom online. This brings the total to 15.2 million individuals that never or rarely use the internet. 90% of those people are categorised as disadvantaged, with a concentration of certain demographics (age, social class, health, and disability). These statistics are a clear indication that some groups are particularly affected by the digital divide. The equality duties require you to consider how you can provide information to people without internet access. Therefore, it’s important to ensure that seldom heard groups have access and opportunity to participate in engagement activities.

The Institute urges organisations to use online tools that are accessible for all those that have been invited to participate. For example, if you are using video communication tools, ensure that the tool allows people to dial-in, free of cost for people that do not have access to the internet or digital technology.

Avoid using a single method of engagement or consultation. Provide a variety of online and offline methods for people to participate – this means reverting to traditional methods of using the telephone, and conferencing facilities in addition to digital methods. Your equality impact assessment and involvement of people at the early stage may help you identify efficient and effective ways to do this.

Digital literacy

Digital literacy refers to the ability to effectively use electronic tools to find, evaluate, distribute, and synthesise electronic information. Online consultation and engagement methods automatically impede the opportunity for people that are never or seldom online to engage in digital dialogue and work collaboratively with other people and the organisation. Lack of digital literacy means that people will struggle to use web browsers or search engines; access and evaluate online consultation documents information; complete surveys, use communication and collaboration tools and so on.

To facilitate effective online participation, the immediate, short-term solutions would be to ensure digital collaboration tools are accessible by phone and provide offline channels for digitally excluded participants to communicate with you. However, the long-term solution would be to bridge the digital divide by working with disadvantaged communities to promote digital literacy.

Safeguarding and trust

The digital environment raises safety concerns for many people, specifically vulnerable groups and individuals. The seldom online worry about the risks of participating, such as data privacy and cybersecurity. Organisations must also provide robust safeguarding of data and user identity for participants to limit personal risk and concern. It’s helpful to explain to participants why their personal information is important and how you intend on using it. In addition, ensure that the individual in charge of running online events has been trained on best practices for cyber-privacy when using collaborative apps and online tools.


Time remains an issue for both online and offline public consultation and engagement. We must consider the timing of the event and the length of online engagement exercises.  Running online engagement events has a risk of excluding the working age population as most events take place during the day. It’s useful to offer online forums or spaces designed for people to engage in discussions at a time that suits them.

That said, those that work during the day can schedule some time out to participate; however, events should not run longer than one or two hours. Scheduling short breaks is useful. Although evidence varies hugely, people concentrate on tasks for around 10-20 minutes. Also, consider using creative and interactive dialogue methods during your engagement sessions.


This practical guidance will help you overcome some of the barriers that prevent inclusive online participation.

For more advice and guidance on digital engagement, join our webinars* on 1st and 15th July where tCI Associate, Fraser Henderson will provide a practical guide to digital engagement and explore the different technologies for digital engagement.

*From July 1st our Wednesday Wisdom session will continue to be free for members of the Institute. If you are not a member but would like to participate. Please get in touch.

About the Author

Sheena joined the Institute at the end of 2019 as our Public Policy and Research Officer. In her evolving research-based role, Sheena will be writing articles and commentaries for our newsletter and building case studies of past and future Institute projects highlighting different sectors, pitfalls and law.

Read more about Shaheena

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