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The illusion of inclusion: challenging the digital ‘option’ in public consultations

Kim Sawchuk, Constance Lafontaine, Kendra Besanger, Shannon Hebblethwaite
Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

This paper focuses on the governmental discourse of digital inclusion and the increasing prevalence of digital technologies and online methods to engage the public, particularly older adults, with multiple levels of government. Drawing from digital literacy and digital divide literatures, including recent critical work on the imposition of e-governance in Denmark and impacts on seniors, we argue that while the stated goal of online methods is to improve inclusion and participation, they may systemically exclude those seniors who are already the most marginalized within society. We do so by drawing on our recent interventions in two public consultation processes: (1) Montreal’s recent age-friendly city consultations, which used a government website and survey, as a means of outreach to communities on this policy; and (2) the CRTC’s consultation on the future of broadcasting technologies. In both cases, online systems were employed as key components for gathering information and public opinion. As researchers, we intervened in both of these consultations, challenging the systematic privileging of online methods by developing and putting into place multiple on-the-ground research methods to reach seniors who are not online. We examine the effectivity of these two specific attempts to intervene into these processes of forced digitization.  As we argue, this engagement highlighted how these online processes foster the “illusion of inclusion” in public consultation processes, as they create a new form of digital ageism by systemically forcing seniors to opt into a digital world or to risk missing out on decision-making processes that can directly impact them.