Citizens’ Digital Participation
People do not necessarily identify their actions as citizen participation, but when we asked them about specific activities, it became apparent that most of them are, in fact, participating as citizens. The most significant variables that influence levels of participation among the general population sample are socio-economic group, qualifications and age, although internet access and confidence are also important. Citizen participation, both online and offline, was highest among our online user sample. This is partly due to this groups characteristics (e.g. a higher socio-economic group) but also because, as confident online users, they can carry out more citizen participation activities via the internet.
The internet is an important channel for citizen participation, and even more so for related citizen activities. Those with the internet at home displayed higher levels of citizen participation in all groups surveyed, including those living in areas of multiple deprivation.
The internet makes citizen participation easier. This is partly because it saves time, which is one of the main reported barriers to participation, and it seems that the internet is both supplementing and replacing traditional channels for citizen participation. But this may mean that a proportion of the population may become disenfranchised as digital citizen participation and other online related citizen activity grows.
Those living in areas of multiple deprivation generally engage less in citizen participation activities compared to the general population. The main reported barrier to this groups participation is lack of interest, but internet access, lack of awareness, trust and confidence are also barriers to online participation. Those with internet access at home in areas of multiple deprivation exhibit greater levels of citizen participation than those without access. However, people living in areas of multiple deprivation are less likely to know what can be done online, and more likely to question the effectiveness of digital participation.
With the rapid growth of digital communications in recent years, the government has made it a priority to increase the number of central and local government services that are delivered online; this is likely to continue to increase. Alongside this, digital communications have provided new channels for people to interact with democratic institutions and to become engaged in a range of activities associated with citizen participation such as getting involved in the local community or having a say on issues of social concern. While these new channels may raise levels of engagement, they also pose a challenge: a significant section of the population, lacking access to these technologies or the confidence to use them, may become increasingly disengaged.
The overall aim of this research was to provide evidence on the level of engagement in citizen participation and types of activities undertaken among the general population and to understand if participation levels were different among those with internet access. We wanted to investigate the role of the internet as an enabler of digital participation.
We defined citizen participation as taking part in:
- activities to do with interacting with democratic institutions (including registering to vote in elections and voting; joining or donating money to a political party; contacting an elected representative or government department or local authority; taking part in a government survey or consultation);
- activities to do with campaigning more generally (including signing a petition, joining or donating to a campaigning organisation; boycotting a product or service; taking part in a protest or demonstration); and
- activities to do with community involvement (including volunteering or doing unpaid work; giving views on issues to people outside ones immediate circle).
We also asked about related citizen activity (e.g. finding out information about local government or council services, or completing a tax return/registering for child tax credits).
The research agency Opinion Leader was commissioned to conduct a quantitative study among three different population groups:
- the UK general population, to identify those engaging in citizen participation;
- online users, to explore online citizen participation; and
- residents of areas of multi-deprivation[(-1-)] to ensure that their attitudes and behaviours regarding citizen participation were sufficiently represented in this research.
In addition, a small number of vox pop interviews were conducted to provide pen portraits and quotes to illustrate the views expressed.
Summary of core findings
The majority of people are engaging in citizen participation
The great majority of the general population have taken part in some type of citizen participation (90% ever, 75% in the last year), with a substantial proportion taking part in multiple activities.
People are participating in a wide range of citizen participation activities
Registering to vote in elections[(-2-)], voting in elections and signing petitions are the activities that register the highest levels of participation. However, people are also participating in a wide range of other citizen participation activities. Throughout the research we found that peoples actual levels of participation (when prompted) exceeded their unprompted initial awareness of engaging in citizen participation.
There are demographic differences in participation
Within the general population, the middle aged, those in higher socio-economic groups and with higher levels of education report higher levels of participation, as do those with internet access at home. Conversely, younger people, those in lower socio-economic groups and with lower education levels, and those without access to the internet at home, are less likely to take part in any type of citizen participation.
Those with internet access participate more
In addition to demographic and socio-economic variations, having access to the internet emerges as a key differentiating factor for engaging in citizen participation. The findings also indicate that internet access aids participation. This was also evident in the areas of multiple deprivation - those with the internet at home are more likely to participate in citizen activities than those without.
The internet is an important channel for citizen participation and related activities
The internet is used for citizen participation by 13% of the general population. Forty-two per cent have used the internet for a related citizen activity (e.g. completing a government form or process). Seventeen per cent of the general population sample with the internet at home have used it for citizen participation activities and 55% have used the internet for a related citizen activity. In areas of multiple deprivation, 10% of people have used the internet for citizen participation a slightly lower level than in the general population but not statistically significant. However only 15% have used the internet for a related citizen activity.
Use of the internet for citizen participation was particularly extensive among the online user sample (50% had used it for citizen participation and 84% had completed a related citizen activity online), reflecting their heavy internet use and greater confidence with the internet.
The internet as a channel for citizen participation is most popular for giving views, getting in touch with elected representatives, joining organisations and taking part in surveys and consultations.
However, there is a lack of awareness of possible uses, and issues concerning trust and confidence. There remains a need for complementary offline channels of communication
There is a general consensus among respondents that the internet has made it easier to engage in citizen participation activities. However, even among the online user sample, a significant minority (31%) are unaware of online citizen participation opportunities. In areas of multiple deprivation this rises to 72%, suggesting that increased awareness would lead to more people engaging in digital participation. Building awareness of what it is possible to do quickly and easily online could encourage greater participation.
Those in the online user sample were the most favourably disposed to digital participation. Those in areas of multiple deprivation expressed more polarised views, and there was evidence of access, trust and confidence issues. A third of the online user sample (33%) felt that engaging in these activities online was less effective than via other channels. Half of those in areas of multiple deprivation expressed this opinion (51%). A minority of those in the online user sample (9%) said that they did not sufficiently trust using the internet for citizen participation purposes. This rose to almost half (46%) of those from areas of multiple deprivation. Around one in ten (9%) of the online user sample said that they lacked the confidence to engage in citizen-focused digital participation online. This rose to four in ten (40%) among those living in areas of multiple deprivation.
A recurring theme throughout this research was a desire for traditional channels to be preserved, particularly for those without access to, or confidence to use, the internet. Even those who are most favourable about using the internet for citizen participation see a continuing role for traditional channels.
Although lack of access, time, interest, trust and confidence are barriers to participation overall, invitations to participate can trigger action
Lack of time and interest are the main reported barriers to participation (both offline and online), but as mentioned earlier, there is also evidence of lack of trust in the internet for citizen participation activities. For those living in areas of multiple deprivation, barriers to participation include a lack of confidence in speaking up or knowledge about an issue or how to get involved, and for online participation specifically barriers included a lack of internet access/confidence, as well as a feeling amongst some that citizen participation activity on the internet wont have much effect.
The main motivations for participating are feeling strongly about the issue or feeling duty-bound to participate. However, being invited to participate can also trigger action.
1.- Based on the latest Index of Multiple Deprivation. The Index of Multiple Deprivation combines a number of indicators, chosen to cover a range of economic, social and housing issues, into a single deprivation score. Specific locations included Townhill in Wales, the BT17 area of Belfast in Northern Ireland, Paisley in Scotland, the OL11 postcode in Rochdale in England and Hackney in London
2.- The electoral register is based on registration forms which are sent by local councils to homes every year. There is a legal requirement to return this form. In some local authorities, if household details haven't changed, it is possible to renew your registration online or by telephone. The registration form is also available online.
The full document is available below