Do online consultations make citizens more satisfied with local democracy?

We find that giving citizens an opportunity to have a say in political decisions influences their opinions about local politics—but not all of them are satisfied.

In political discussions, the legitimacy crisis of democracy is a common theme. Even though citizens value the concept of democracy, they are often unhappy with how it is implemented. This issue also extends to the local level, where political decisions directly affect citizens. It is worth noting that whenever a local conflict arises, citizens (and policymakers themselves) often call for more participation as a means to increase the legitimacy of such decisions. As a result, municipalities frequently conduct public consultations and increasingly use the Internet to enable online participation. But what role can these online consultations play in improving legitimacy? 

In a recent study published by Policy & Internet, Bastian Rottinghaus and I investigated how participation in local consultation processes affects attitudes toward local politics. To achieve this, we examined participation procedures in which three German municipalities consulted their citizens on local cycling infrastructure. In each case, citizens submitted, commented on, and evaluated proposals through an online platform. After the end of these consultations, we surveyed nearly 600 citizens who had participated in these procedures. Here are some of our key findings: • The participation processes influenced the attitudes of those who participated in these consultations. • For many participants, the positive effect that was hoped for did indeed occur: they were more positive about local institutions (mayor, administration) and local politics as a whole. The decisive factor for the assessment was whether one expected local politics to take the citizens’ proposals seriously and act upon them. In other words, the result of the process was more important to attitudes than the process itself. 

• It is worth noting that this also applies to those with negative views of local politics. However, previous experience with local politics also played a role: those who already had a higher level of satisfaction and trust in the municipality became more positive by participating. 

• At the same time, participation may reduce satisfaction, especially for those who were intensively involved in the participation process and made many proposals. On average, this group was less satisfied in the end, probably because their expectations of the impact their efforts made were disappointing. 

• Those who did not actively participate but only visited the online procedure without making suggestions themselves were also more dissatisfied. These people were mainly concerned that the process took place exclusively online. 

• Despite this, our results show that online participation processes not only enable constructive participation but also reach additional groups: Almost half of the respondents would not have participated if the process had only been conducted with on-site formats requiring physical presence. 

Overall, our results demonstrate that online participation has an independent and often positive effect on satisfaction with local political authorities and local regime performance. However, our results highlight that participation can also reduce satisfaction for some groups. 

Note: the above draws on the author’s work published in Policy & Internet.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of Policy & Internet, nor the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney.