There is no “one-size-fits-all” in democratic processes, and public consultations are no exception. Growing evidence suggests that consultation processes, through which policy-makers invite the public to share opinions on existing or proposed policies, generally strengthen the political influence of the already influential, while systematically excluding those who lack influence.

Online consultations, now necessary because of COVID-19, are far from immune to this issue. Due to unequal access to technologies and the digital literacy required to use the Internet – often referred to as the “digital divide” – groups who are less active online tend to be excluded from online consultation processes.

This systematic exclusion amplifies existing power imbalances by suppressing the voice of groups already recognized as some of the most marginalized in society and the most under-represented in policy-making institutions. Education and income have consistently been identified as the two main determinants of Internet access. Others include living in urban or rural regions, immigration status and age, all closely connected to existing socioeconomic inequalities.

People with lower income or education levels, people living in rural regions, Indigenous people, the elderly and immigrants compose an overwhelming portion of non-active Internet users. They might not own a computer or a smartphone, have access to adequate broadband or possess sufficient digital skills to find, fill out and submit an online questionnaire. All are a prerequisite to taking part in online consultations.

In contrast, middle- and upper-class individuals living in the city, and young people, generally have access to the technologies and the skills required to join a vast range of online activities, including consultation processes.

One of the main raisons d’être of consultation processes is to inform policy-makers on the nature of the priorities and needs of the population in order to implement more effective policies. However, the information gathered through consultation tend to reflect only a narrow view, rather than those of all Canadians. As they fail to engage with all segments of the population, online consultations are currently at risk of providing policymakers with a distorted representation of the public’s priorities and needs.

Online consultations have become the main channel open for the public to share their point of view with governments. The use of online surveys to consult the population, especially, had already been increasingly used at all levels of government in recent years. Before, they were generally used in combination with other consultation processes, such as in-person, mail or phone interviews.

It is likely that online consultations will continue to grow in popularity, even once the pandemic has ended. They are considered less expensive and are an easier-to-organize alternative to in-person consultations. They also allow governments to reach a broader and more diverse range of participants. Because in-person consultations are often held during working hours and in major cities, some people might not be able to be present due to issues of scheduling or distance. Moreover, the opinions gathered through online processes, especially online surveys, tend to be easier to analyse.

In numerous instances, they are now the only channel open for collecting the public’s input. Surprisingly, this has been the case even if the policies involved had significant impact on the interests of groups who are most likely to be non-active Internet users.

For example, consultations on prostitution-related offenses and on victims’ rights, despite predominantly affecting people with lower income, were principally conducted through online consultations. In early 2020, the consultations on medical assistance in dying were also only held online, even though the elderly and disabled were the most likely to be impacted by the resulting amendments to the Criminal Code.

If online consultations are to become a customary Canadian democratic practice, we must rethink how they are organized and conducted to mitigate the effects of the digital divide on those who lack the resources or skills to participate. Discussions on how to bridge this gap, which affects non-active Internet users on a vast array of online activities, have been going on at the national and international levels since the early 2000s. The Liberal government notably committed to ensuring access to the Internet to every Canadian before 2030 and, in its more recent throne speech, to invest in broadband infrastructure in rural and remote communities.

But until this is done, governments must address the sources of the systematic exclusion. To do so, they must implement targeted efforts to break down the barriers preventing them from taking part, whether these barriers are economic, social, physical, cultural or linguistic.

Public computers could be made available in public places during the consultation period. A computer, sufficient broadband, or tools to assist people with disabilities could also be loaned to individuals from marginalized groups in exchange for their participation, especially when they might be affected by the policy in question.

As well, a phone line providing assistance should be set up. Questions in online questionnaires and information that provides context to participants should be worded at an accessible reading level. They should also be transcribed in a number of languages, including Indigenous languages.

For these efforts to be successful, governments must reinforce their citizen involvement strategies to effectively reach under-represented groups. They should raise awareness among these groups on the importance of voicing their opinions in consultation processes, and actively publicize participation opportunities. This should not only include mainstream media, but also community media, community organizations, homeless shelters and religious meetings.

Despite governments’ best efforts to engage with all segments of the population, some groups might still be less receptive to online consultations. This includes the elderly and those most economically marginalized. When a policy subjected to online consultation might have an effect on their rights or interests, governments should consider other methods of ensuring the particular demographic is properly heard. This may include reaching out in-person, by phone, by mail or by fax.

Poorly designed online consultation processes, not tailored to the needs of the participants, may aggravate the systematic exclusion of groups already marginalized in political processes. As a direct consequence, it could lead to policies based on a non-representative portrait of Canadians’ opinions, priorities, and concerns.

This article is part of the Tackling inequality as part of Canada’s post-pandemic recovery special feature.

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Stéphanie Pepin
Stéphanie Pepin is a doctoral student at McGill University who specializes in constitutional law and governance. Her studies focus on the impacts of institutional arrangements on the protection of the rights of minorities and marginalized groups.

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