Calling Congress : A tale of many products

In response to the impending doom of post-election life there have been many calls to call Congress. For younger post-election activists, it’s a foreign concept partially because they’ve never contacted Congress and partially because what’s a telephone? Tweet storms instructing how to be effective quickly got picked up and written about, and images of call sheets started taking over timelines.

In speaking with some newly inspired activists it became very clear that there are majorly annoying hurdles in calling Congress, which I took interest in while talking to a friend about the trouble she was having. She described the various steps she took and where finding certain information was tedious. I started mapping out her workflow and we discussed what would be necessary in a solution for helping her make calls start to finish and back again. I began researching existing tools, data sources and technologies, and speaking with people that were already working in the space.

Meanwhile, a whole new set of tools was being created to solve one very specific hurdle: Finding your representatives and having their contact information in one place.

Product reactions

There is something beautiful about seeing a community react and create en mass, and there are benefits to this in drawing attention to clear and present problems. But from a logistic and strategic standpoint there are issues:

  • Reliability and maintenance, particularly of the underlying congressional data, are not guaranteed
  • Duplication of effort means effort isn’t being utilized effectively, and can create a saturated market
  • Lack of context of the subject matter makes for a less informed solution
  • Without considering the larger workflow and use cases, partial solutions won’t bring about the behavior change we need in energizing a new cohort of activist

Once I realized how many others were trying to tackle the same problem, I began reaching out to the makers to gauge motivation, long-term intent and interest in collaboration. Some of these tools are utilizing varying sets of data, so plans for maintenance and open sourcing were particularly important.

I began keeping track in this spreadsheet that lists each of these tools, what they do, who is working on them and any other relevant notes I have. At least 7 tools have been made since the election: 1 was made open source, 2 rely on manually scraped data, and the type of results provided varies across the board.

The key takeaways from this research:

  • We’re a disorganized lot. I love talking to people, so this has been fun for me, but the recurring theme is that organization is an issue. If we are to be the most useful we can, no matter the industry, it’s important to look at who and what is around us. Share knowledge, build off the intelligence of our communities. Once I saw these products getting made I assumed my job was done – I have no intention of duplicating efforts if there’s someone better fit for the task. But I saw holes on both the organization and product level, so I’m working as best I can to be of help where it’s needed.
  • There’s a market for activism. The surge of product building is a great indication that there’s an audience of newly engaged activists, ready to fight. Some of this audience is looking to one or more orgs for ways to get involved, some are relying on social and word of mouth. Either way, calling is a part of activism that they’re willing to engage in when they feel confident in doing so.
  • We have to consider the bigger picture. Solving a small portion of a user’s workflow won’t get us the sustained engagement we need to survive the next 8 years. We have to take a step back and consider what will help people make calls when it matters, and not become fatigued in the process.

Civic solutions

Now that we know there’s room for improvement, how do we go about coming up with a sustainable solution? In the model described by Anthea Strong in The Three Levers of Civic Engagement, creating civic solutions looks something like this:

  • Lowering Cost: The tools we’ve talked about are doing just this, but without considering the full user journey they’re not cutting as much cost as they could.
  • Increase Duty: This has been produced by sheer result of the election — the height of duty is what we need to capitalize on.
  • Increase Probability: This is where organization is necessary and missing, and I do believe it can be produced by better tracking and feedback. Knowing the result of having called about an issue is critical to understanding the probability of effectiveness the next time you call.
If a user can get other users to take impactful action in coordination with others, they scale their efforts and increase the likelihood that they have impact.

Which all leads to this hypothesis: 
We can help people stay regularly engaged by producing understanding of where activism can have impact, lowering friction in taking action, and providing results of an individual’s contribution.

I’ve bounced a few solutions around with all the folks I’ve been talking to for the past month or so, and assembled a team to build a thing to test this hypothesis, based on a typical user’s workflow:

⇢ I care about something that needs my action
⇢ I know who I need to talk to to take action
⇢ I know what I need to say to them
⇢ I know when and how often I need to call
⇢ I know the outcome of my action

By harnessing the activism expressed in social media communities, tracking whether calls are being made or not, and following up on the outcomes of issues, we can organize groups of people to take action and help individuals understand their impact. Sustained activism is critical for us to keep democracy afloat, for the next 8 years and beyond.

Visit us at or follow us on Twitter to get details on what we’re building, or shoot me a note if you’d like to learn more, get involved, or just chat. I love to chat and I’m insanely excited about what’s happening 🎉

Massive amounts of thanks and hugs and high fives to all the people that have taken time to talk with me over the past few weeks: Lori White, Derek Willis, Derek Eder, Max Fowler, Erica Gorochow, John Emerson, Adrian M Ryan, James Ayres, Rik Lomas & Erica Heinz.

A lot of fantastic work has been done by a lot of people, and I applaud everyone who’s taken part in contributing to this ecosystem in any way. The talent and drive is incredible. I’m hoping we can put it together to take us a little further, at a time when we desperately need to show strength in numbers.