When running any public consultation, it’s important to gather a wide range of opinions from relevant citizens and stakeholders. Yet, it almost goes without saying that certain social groups are harder to engage with than others.
Although, if you consider why certain social groups are hard-to-reach, consulting online can only improve levels of engagement:
- A lot of people are online. Specifically in the UK, the Office for National Statistics reported that over 85% of UK citizens had used the Internet, with access made easier by the expansion of broadband infrastructure, WiFi hotspots and mobile 3G networks. In other words, in the majority of cases, a significant proportion of your target consultees are likely to be online.
- People are busy. Many individuals work long hours, have a fairly long commute and a significant proportion may also have kids to look after. These features of modern life then often becomes barriers to political participation.  Yet, hosting an engagement activity online helps these “time poor” individuals by giving them the freedom to participate over a significant period, and at a time which suits them, rather them requiring them to be free at a specific time or date.
- People can’t always travel to participate. This is an issue for not only for the “time poor” but also those with little disposable income or mobility issues, such as disabled communities. Additionally, when Delib visited Western Australia, the benefits of digital democracy across such a geographically disparate area became clear. Hosting consultations online gives interested parties the freedom to participate anywhere they can find an Internet connection.
- There’s a better chance of engaging with young people. The current generation of young people are often characterised as politically disengaged and therefore difficult to consult with. Yet, this group also happen to be extremely sophisticated at using the Internet. Whether young people are more likely to engage in political issues online is an area that needs more research but given that 42% of 15-24 year olds in the EU are using the Internet to express views on public issues (the highest percentage of any age group), the signs are encouraging. 
In addition, there are a number of ways that organisations running consultations can encourage participation from traditionally hard-to-reach groups:
- Plan your Promotion. Social groups that are difficult to engage with may not actively seek out relevant consultations, so it’s important to try and identify where these people are (online and offline) in order to promote any engagement activity effectively.
- Consider Usability Issues. Some audiences have very specific usability issues and the Government Digital Strategy has highlighted the importance of ‘assisted digital’. For example, using British sign language and subtitles and/or text make online consultations useful for engaging with those that are hard of hearing. Additionally, when thinking about how people are increasingly using the Internet on the go, it’s worth making sure online engagement activities are compatible with a variety of devices, particularly tablets and smartphones. We previously highlighted the compatibility of Citizen Space and Dialogue App with mobile devices.
- Continuing improvements in Internet literacy and infrastructure. It’s been argued that the ability to access the Internet enhances personal well-being, life opportunities and social inclusion, so it’s important to continue to support initiatives which improve levels of Internet literacy and access. Specifically, investment into Internet infrastructure is also seen as a public good, evidenced by over £36,000 being raised through crowdfunding by Mansfield Town Council to fund the installation of free public WiFi in the town centre. The more that councils can support and promote such initiatives, the more people they will potentially be able to reach through online engagement activities.
 Tonn, B.E. et al. (2011) ‘Community Networks or Networked Communities?‘, Social Science Computer Review, 19(2), p.202.
 European Commission (2013) ‘Flash Eurobarometer 373 – Europeans’ Engagement in Participatory Democracy‘, p.30.