Equitable Spaces

The dangers of digital democracy

New technologies have a part to play in the democratic process, but without thoughtful implementation, they can serve to make existing inequalities worse.

Person using smartphone, distorted by corrugated glass divider

Even before the pandemic, most people had begun to switch to a digital-by-default mode for their professional and personal lives. As people’s use of technology has advanced, governments and businesses have – if anything – been playing catch-up. Smart phones haven’t been around that long; the first iPhone was only introduced in 2007. And yet, we have witnessed a seismic growth of mobile technology ownership over that time. It has all been rather rapid.

By 2020, an astonishing 3.5 billion people around the world owned a smartphone, representing almost 45% of the global population. That 3.5 billion figure is expected to double by just 2023. According to the ONS, 96% of all households in the UK have access to at least one smart device. In relation to ethnicity, there is some consistency in smartphone usage, with all groups recording over 90% ownership levels (98.6% for Chinese, 95.6% for Asian, 92.8% for Black, and 90.5% for White). Regionally, usage figures range from 93% in both London and the South East, to 87.7% in the North East and 86.7% in Northern Ireland.

These aggregate figures are likely to mask significant variations within individual regions; hiding extremely concentrated areas where access to digital services is difficult and not solely for technical reasons but also because of problems that certain groups have with using and understanding the technology. There will be sections of UK society, particularly older cohorts and those in older industrial regions, who will not have easy or continuous access to digital technology. Amongst 16-24-year-olds, 98% have smartphones, whereas for the over 65s, that figure drops to 53%.

There will also be those who do not want to use technology for banking or democratic interaction with local government on planning and environmental issues, preferring more traditional means, even if they own or can access digital devices. And there will be cases where people lack the skills, confidence and motivation to use technology. For all these reasons, we should be careful not to embark on a digital-by-default approach to key services so readily but consider how a suite of tools – some digital, some non-digital – could be made available at any given time, combined with mechanisms to assist those who may need additional support.

A recent study by the UK communications regulator, Ofcom, revealed that an estimated 559,000 children do not have any internet access whatsoever. Around 1.8 million children do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet, and 880,000 children live in homes with only a mobile internet connection. The poorest families are those most likely to be digitally excluded. The Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns have revealed most starkly the vulnerability of children unable to be schooled effectively from home when that technology is not available or cannot be paid for. Another report by Ofcom, released in December 2020, revealed that 4.7 million households in the UK struggled to afford their telecom bills during the year. At a time when households are going to see rises in National Insurance payments and energy bills, such financial barriers could well have a dramatic impact on the ability of our children to learn.

Closeup of multiple hands using smartphones

So, there is clearly a paradox in rolling out the digital revolution to more citizens to enable them to participate in the processes of government, banking and education. Those who can afford the technology, and the costs of the infrastructure to enable technological communication, are the same people who are often the usual suspects in public consultation exercises: the middle class, white, professional, and well-off sections of society, well versed in policy matters.

The increase in the numbers of people having access to digital communication could well be the consequence of the same households being able to afford to purchase multiple digital tools and platforms, enabling all members of the family to become well versed in digital forms. On the flip side, those households that are already struggling to pay household bills remain the least likely to be able to afford the new technology or digital broadband connectivity and consequently become democratically disenfranchised as more public services adopt online platforms in place of traditional or face-to-face services.

That’s the accessibility and reach issue. A second relevant issue is how governments and business roll-out digital services that are truly two-way communication devices. The onset of new innovative and interactive digital tools – smartphones, apps, social media, gaming and so on – are already being used extensively by the public, to vent their opinions. These alternative platforms, everything from Facebook and Twitter to Mumsnet, are often outside the traditional consultation processes, which are becoming increasingly archaic. In this respect, those fortunate to have the technology are already one step ahead of some organisations.

Citizens can possess vital knowledge about places through their lived experiences and are well placed to share ideas about how the complex problems of places might be overcome, providing that citizens are given appropriate ways to express their ideas and emotions. So rather than just create a website or an app, the challenge of the digital is to enable true interactive experiences for people and communities. This means citizens having the ability to be listened to, rather than sold a digital version of existing services that are told to citizens.

Of course, creating participatory platforms is one issue; capturing and acting upon these presents other challenges. The premise of participation is often based on a very technical and procedural system that bears little resemblance to how places are organised, how people experience places, or how they prefer to discuss them. These difficulties often lead to forms of consultations and technologies that are designed around these processes, rather than taking a people-first approach to engagement.

This, above all, is the reason why digital connectivity should never be seen to be a replacement of more traditional forms of democratic engagement, but rather as a supplement to them. But there is a caveat here: effective digital connectivity and communication for democratic reach must be formed and adapted to engage the maximum number of people, irrespective of their personal incomes and their educational profile. That remains a critical challenge.


Prof Mark Tewdwr-Jones

Professor of Cities and Regions, The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis

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