However, as online and offline boundaries blur, digital technologies may help overcome barriers to participation.
Barcelona and Jackson, Mississippi, are two cities that have customised digital participation. It’s part of their design and implementation of community engagement, whether on social media or on dedicated digital platforms.
The City of Brimbank, in outer Melbourne, designed a digital engagement project as a game. Council staff took to the streets with iPads. The game was also available in shops, train stations and community centres.
Real-time data analysis enabled the council to adjust locations and boost the diversity of participants. Co-ordinating online and offline approaches was the key to achieving broad participation.
It is important to understand if and how digital engagement perpetuates inequities. The methods and platforms used for participation might be a factor in this.
Digital engagement is often limited to surveys. This could be due to a lack of council time and resources to analyse any other qualitative data that might be generated. Providing those resources would signal the data generated through digital engagement, and the process itself, are being taken seriously.
What role can social media play?
The feedback from community social media accounts can be rich and candid. But analysing this sort of data involves greater effort on the part of councils. This makes closing the feedback loop difficult.
Councils prefer bespoke web-based digital platforms. They’re easier to manage, both in deciding which issues are open for consultation, and in organising data for analysis.
These platforms are increasingly popular with councils. Yet sole reliance on them may favour digitally savvy citizens who are already engaged and familiar with planning processes.
Resident activists have effectively used social media to mobilise a wider audience. A recent campaign to overturn the proposed lease of public land in inner-west Melbourne to a national sporting club is a good example.