Better Listening Through Civic Technology

Revolutionizing politics through civic tech requires more than connecting people — you have to help them understand each other.


If you follow what’s happening at the intersection of technology and government/politics (what I’ll call “civic tech” for shorthand in this essay), you know that Sean Parker, with the help of some big names in tech and politics, is ramping up to launch Brigade — a startup with $9MM in the bank and a deep bench of civic tech heavy hitters, all working to “restore you, the voter, to the center of our democracy.” In doing so, they enter a crowded space transformed by a decade of innovation that has empowered like-minded citizens to take action.

Count me as one of many people rooting for Brigade to succeed. But right now I wouldn’t bet on it. Not because they lack experience, resources, or anything so obvious. Rather, like so many of the talented civic-minded entrepreneurs before them, Brigade is too narrowly focused on a mature market and an audience that already has too many similar tools at their disposal.

In the decade since 2004 we’ve seen a wave of innovation in leveraging technology and its small ‘d’ democratic capabilities to instigate digitally enabled mass participation in the political and social good space. In that time, many organizations did in fact change the way that already highly engaged people form communities of action, raise money for causes or campaigns and advocate for policy change. At the same time, citizen dissatisfaction with government is running high, and for all the new tools at our disposal, it’s hard to see how all that digital empowerment has delivered on a more aspirational version of American democracy.

If you can stick with me for a few minutes of civic tech wonkery, I’ll explain why I believe that Brigade’s accomplishments are likely to be marginal, rather than transformational in the civic tech sector, and I’ll point the way towards what I see as a very specific untapped opportunity for any company looking to make a difference by investing or innovating in civic tech.


The Levers of Civic Engagement


Anthea Watson, who works on the Civic Engagement Team at Google, wrote a great article a few months back — The Three Levers of Civic Engagement. You should go read it, because she’s smarter than I am, and I’m about to draw heavily from her essay.

Awesome, right? If you skipped, no worries. I’ll summarize. Watson thinks we need to design better tools for “real world users,” a concept that would seem to be right in line with Brigade’s mission. To make that argument, she introduces an equation that describes the factors involved in driving civic participation.

Super nerdy equation for predicting civic engagement

So what does this mean? In the simplest terms, if the sum of all the stuff on the left of the “>” is greater than (C), then a person is likely to take a civic action.

In other words, you as a citizen need to feel like you will make a difference and see a tangible outcome (PB), or civic action needs to contribute in some way to your sense of identity (D), in order to over come the costs of taking that action (C). The cost can be financial, or it can be measured as personal time and effort, and can include anything from donating to a cause or candidate to the time it takes to write a letter to Congress, attend a town meeting or step into a voting booth.

Watson (rightly, I think) notes that a lot of innovation in the civic tech space in the last ten years — and certainly the innovations that received the lion’s share of notoriety — happened in neighborhood of (C). That is, they reduced the cost of civic action. Hence the rise of what is commonly (if controversially) called clicktivism/slacktivism.

This is the bread and butter of organizations like Change.org, Care2, Causes, Take Part and more. But it is also the impetus behind more politically minded efforts as well — including the rise of Act Blue in the fundraising space, Rock the Vote’s creation of online voter registration tools and other efforts to use technology to improve/simplify the voter registration and voting processes.

At the most basic level, most work in a certain sector of civic tech is premised on the idea that lowering the cost of civic engagement, or infusing it with social/cultural relevance, will revolutionize democratic participation.

Watson also notes some success in increasing (D). Viewed as a function of personal identity, increasing (D) is the basis behind Rock The Vote’s peer-driven voter registration efforts, and the Obama campaign arguably did this incredibly well in 2008 by actively encouraging the transformation of its campaign into a cultural phenomena. One could even argue that when social networks like Facebook connect like-minded folks together to encourage action through social pressure, a rise in (D) is also at play (See: Ice Bucket Challenge).

At the most basic level, most work in this sector of civic tech is premised on the idea that lowering the cost of civic engagement, or infusing it with social/cultural currency, will revolutionize democratic participation. For the past decade, a great deal of resources invested in this space have wagered that if we can lower (C), or increase (D), we can bring about transformational change.

Don’t take my word for it. The Knight Foundation compiled an interactive report on the state of civic tech investment broadly, focusing in particular on the state of play between 2010 and 2012. The charts below, taken from that report, both show a tremendous amount of investment and development in “Community Organizing” entities, which The Knight Foundation defines as “organizations [that] manage social campaigns and initiatives.” It includes in this definition familiar names such as Change.org, Avaaz, Causes and Jumo — a list that will be very familiar to anyone following the work of Brigade—all of which aim to lower the costs of civic or social engagement as a core piece of their offering.

Growth Trends by Cluster

Source: The Knight Foundation http://www.knightfoundation.org/features/civictech/

(Sidebar FYI: “Peer-to-Peer Sharing Organizations,” which dominates even “Community Organizations” in Knight’s data, is comprised of services such as Airbnb, Lyft, Craigslist and Zipcar. The terminology can be confusing, but this is a different class/type of organization than what we’re discussing here.)

Market Maturity By Cluster

Source: The Knight Foundation http://www.knightfoundation.org/features/civictech/

As you can see, the market for companies working to drive down the cost of (C) is fairly saturated. But here’s the rub — there are two whole other components to this equation: (P), the probability that an action can impact the outcome and (B) the benefit to the individual if an outcome is changed.

To my mind, (B) is inherently subjective. It measures a combination of awareness/information, intensity of feeling (both for or against an issue) and personal circumstance. It might be zero if a person has no knowledge of an issue or is indifferent, but likely it is at least marginally greater than zero. The problem is that a null (P) value almost always cancels it out. Watson posits that, except at the very local level where a small number of votes can swing an election, (P) is almost always zero.

There is very little chance that your individual letter to Congress, or your vote, will be the difference. In the absence of that level of personal impact, it is completely rational that most of our efforts in the civic tech space are optimizing to make sure that our sense of duty/community outweighs the costs of action.

Yet I would argue that 10 or more years into this growth in civic tech, doing something transformational requires more than optimizing on the margins of (C). Real transformation requires that we find ways to push P > 0 on a consistent basis. I think that’s a space where civic tech can, but has not yet, played a role.

Which brings us back full circle to a key question about Brigade.


What Would You Say You Do Here?


By their own admission, Brigade hopes to take a step beyond the accomplishments of its peer set and predecessors. They want to do something that is transformational on both a technological, behavioral and cultural level, and potentially something that is more overtly political than the social cause networks that make up part of their DNA.

Brigade hasn’t announced their plans yet, but the acquisition of Causes and Votizen provide some clues, as do the ways Brigade leadership describe their work in the press.

A summation from the Washington Post:

To answer one immediate question, Brigade will be a stand-alone social network along the lines of the special-purpose site LinkedIn … a site that will tap people’s deep well of civic and political impulses, engaging them on matters both big and national and small and local, both tied to elections and connected to the simple matters of civic life like supporting the personal causes you believe in … Indeed, Brigade is meant to be a “civic network,” as the company puts it, less akin to civic tools like petition sites and write-your-rep apps than a social network like, say Facebook.

CEO Matt Mahan in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Brigade’s goal is to create a nonpartisan place that people would visit every day — not just during the two weeks before election day. It would be a place where they could discuss the issues of the day, share news stories and organize.

Here’s a few tidbits that could point towards a unique(ish) focus:

For one thing, said Mahan, there are about half a million elected officials in the United States; each citizen is represented by about 50, and yet, he said, “I’ve never met anyone who knows the names of more than 10 of them.” At the same time, the other 40 elected officials are making consequential decisions. That’s an “information inefficiency,” said Mahan, that Brigade can help solve.

Mahan, writing in Campaigns and Elections:

[V]oters don’t have the information they need to make informed decisions during elections, and even less information about what happens after. We think there’s a huge opportunity to leverage technology to tackle this problem and that’s what we hope to do at Brigade.

Finally, some hints about their business model:

Whether Brigade succeeds, Mahan said, will be “binary.” Either it reaches a critical mass of, say, tens of millions of users, and can thus make money, through such means as advertising and access to “tools.”

This is vague stuff. But a few themes seem common and can perhaps be illustrative of their direction:

  • Brigade will be more like a social network than action toolkit, and it will be crafted to drive repeat — even daily — traffic on a massive scale.
  • Brigade wants to increase political participation (presumably, though not necessarily primarily, at the voting booth), and there could be a local focus to their work/solutions.
  • Brigade is non partisan.
  • Brigade is a business, not a non profit, and will succeed or fail based on its ability to monetize itself.

To be frank, a stand-alone social network where like minded people can connect and “engage” (however that will be defined) seems doomed for a number of reasons, not least of which is Brigade’s bipartisan nature. Non-partisans tend to be less passionate, while partisans already have digital organizing tools at their disposal. A strategy that relies on motivating regular people to use a civic-organizing platform who aren’t already participating in partisan version of the same will need to overcome a massive enthusiasm gap in order to succeed.

There are some promising optimizations Brigade could pursue on the local level and in the realm of voter engagement—for example, improvements in online voter registration, or investment in apps that combat low-information in the voting booth. These are viable routes for Brigade, and if they did them well it would be a good thing for civic engagement. But thinking back to Watson’s model, most of this is deeply in the realm of (C), reducing the cost of civic action, with a dose of (D) involved when coupled with communities of interest enabled through a social network.

At best, these may bring to the political realm some semblance of the effortless digital experiences that define our consumer interactions, but they are also Rube Goldberg constructions, using technology to route around fundamental inefficiencies in our democratic processes rather than fix those inefficiencies directly. For every voter who registers through an app, there are many more who would be better served by making Election Day a national holiday, by consolidating all elections into a single day each year, or by enabling a system of automatic or same-day voter registration. Each of these would be a more efficient, and probably effective, means for increasing voter participation.

We’re at a point where structural changes to the system at the legislative and regulatory level, rather than new tools, are required to make a big impact on these problems. Those types of changes are unlikely to be instigated by a technology company like Brigade. So where should a company like Brigade (or anyone looking to innovate in the civic tech space) direct their efforts?

Brigade is right when they assert that fixing our broken civics requires connecting people together. But that’s the same insight that each of their peers came to when writing their own strategies and business plans, and it’s only half of the answer. What they’re all missing is that citizens aren’t the only people who need connecting, and you need to do more than just connect people — you need to help them understand each other.

There has been almost zero investment in giving our representatives the tools they need to understand feedback from citizens.

Millions of dollars and many careers have been spent maximizing the power and impact of citizens in the past decade. Citizens have an unprecedented number of tools at their disposal to find information, self-organize, and reach out to their elected officials. In that same time frame, there has been almost zero investment in giving our representatives the tools they need to understand feedback from citizens.

When designing a product, or even a political campaign, no competent business would go to market without thinking holistically about the end to end experience and the ecosystem in which their product will operate. Imagine if making a purchase with your credit card was a perfectly smooth experience for you, the user, yet on the back end, data from millions of transactions were dumped into an undifferentiated Excel sheet for a few temp workers to sort through. That wouldn’t be a very good system for the credit card company, and it’s a terrible way to run a government.

In our rush to achieve (the very worthy) goal of empowering people to take action and make their voice heard, we’ve ignored the far less sexy work of helping our government make sense of that cacophony of communication on the back end.


Better Listening Through Civic Technology


In 2008, the Congressional Management Foundation released a report: Communicating with Congress: Recommendations for Improving the Democratic Dialogue. The report is about as exciting as its title, so I’ll save you the trouble of reading it. Compiled over a decade during which we saw the rise of the internet and the first wave of civic tech innovation, the report revealed a few key findings:

  • Congress was overwhelmed by the flood of constituent communications, particularly emails driven by grassroots advocacy campaigns.
  • A lot of folks in Congress didn’t believe that the form emails, petition signatures, etc. generated by said campaigns were real.

As we move into an increasingly digital age, and as more citizens choose digital tools as a means of communicating with government and expressing their political opinions, these problems will grow worse, not better. If we want to make P > 0 on a consistent basis, we need to find a way to give more weight and impact to these digital forms of civic participation.

Staffers in the offices of our elected officials and government agencies need help making sense of, and need to have confidence in, the feedback created when Brigade (or MoveOn or the Tea Party or any other partisan or non partisan entity) leverage digital technologies to enable mass participation in government and civics.

Helpfully, the Congressional Management Foundation report offered some clues as to what that might look like:

  • Aggregating communications on similar topics
  • Verifying the identity of constituents
  • Identifying organizations behind grassroots advocacy and referencing specific bills
  • Creating open standards for communicating with Congress

All good advice, but 6 years on (light years, in tech), how much closer are we to achieving that vision? Not very.

We need to arm Congress — and all legislative and regulatory offices — with the tools and workflows to discover signal in the noise of citizen communications.

Subsequent reports from CMF reveal that perceptions about social media and grassroots advocacy within Congress are mixed — both along generational lines and on an office-by-office basis, with some digitally savvy offices far ahead of others. But no one has cracked the nut on creating signal from the noise of constituent communications, nor have we found ways to give our representatives and their staff confidence that digital campaigns are more than easily-ignored astroturf from the professional left or right.

The State of Resident Feedback

The Knight Foundation report has a name for this relatively untended subdivision of civic tech—Resident Feedback. While there has been some investment in this sector, you can see in the charts above that it lags behind others. Taking a closer look within the category reveals that most of those investments focus on empowering citizens (think See, Click, Fix), rather government representatives/agencies — a replication of the core problem, rather than a solution.

That said, Resident Feedback is not a totally barren field, and it’s worth looking at what is out there from a tools perspective to address the issue under discussion. To my knowledge there are only two real contenders (if I’m wrong, please leave links in the comments!):

PopVox is a third-party system that tracks bills, allows for constituents to provide feedback/input, and then displays that feedback publicly for both elected officials and the general public to track public sentiment. PopVox works by functioning as an independent arbiter between constituents and legislators, but it relies on legislators taking its platform seriously and incorporating its information into their workflow in order to function.

Correlate, by contrast, looks to tackle the problem by going directly to Congressional offices, and I think is closer to the system we need to create before digitally enabled, light-weight citizen communications will be given their due in the democratic process. Created by a private company, IB5K, Correlate uses listening tools that will be familiar to those who have used Radian 6, Sysomos or Crimson Hexagon (in fact, their product integrates with APIs from those systems, among others), to help individual congressional offices aggregate, filter and analyze incoming messages from constituents — including everything from emails to voice messages to physical mail (for more info, here’s a write up on Correlate in Fast Company).

I don’t know the degree to which either of these tools are in regular use by legislative offices, but powerful tools to aggregate and analyze data, combined with methods to verify feedback from constituents vs. non-constituents, and integrated into the daily workflow of political staff seems a prerequisite to advancing a digitally-enabled democracy.

Despite relatively few high-profile examples, and almost zero standardized use, this approach is already showing its utility. Take, for example, the recent debate over FCC proposals on Net Neutrality. Over 1.1 million comments on the topic were submitted to the FCC by citizens and activist groups. The FCC made that data open to the public and The Knight Foundation commissioned an analysis of the comments. Here’s what they found:

Visualizing Net Neutrality Public Commenting

The analysis accounted for both individual letters and those derived from templates. It showed not just how the debate broke down, but also unearthed new sentiments about the debate that were hidden in the media coverage of Net Neutrality. It’s a great example of one way that technology, design and data can be combined to help government officials find signal and deeper understanding within an overwhelming volume of communications.

To achieve P > 0, we need a whole lot more tools and analysis like those offered by the Knight Foundation’s Net Neutrality report. What’s more, we need those solutions to be scalable, simple, and delivered in a way that can be taught to relatively junior staff in government positions and integrated into their daily workflow. Here’s what that might look like, and the advantages we might acrue if implemented.

The Better Listening Model

Sitting at the intersection of three different areas of inquiry from the Knight Foundation study — Resident Feedback, Data Utility and Transparency and Mapping and Visualization—this model offers a real chance to overcome the problems of volume and verification identified by the Congressional Management Foundation.

According to the Knight Foundation study, these are areas that are underinvested compared to the Community Organizing space where Brigade is trying to make its name, and as far as I can tell based on my reading of the report, no organizations outside of Correlate are taking this approach of merging the three disciplines to improve communications between citizens and the government. While Correlate’s platform comes close, its uptake by legislative offices is uncertain, and what I’m envisioning would go a step further.

An expanded platform would allow independent (partisan and non-partisan) sites like Change.org, Convio, or SignOn.org to hook into its system. It would attempt to verify constituent identity through a combination of user-inputted data, geolocation and consumer/voter file data. It would differentiate between verified and non-verified feedback.

Above all, it would provide open access to the data and publicly display the aggregated, analyzed data in an easy-to-use interface that could be explored by the public at large. Legislative offices and regulatory agencies shouldn’t be able to hide the aggregated feedback they receive from constituents.

To be sure, there are structural issues with this proposal, just as there are with the current efforts by Brigade and its peers — not least of which are the problem of money in politics, and the shift in workflow/culture within government offices required to realize full implementation. But perhaps there are opportunities as well.

Public data means public accountability. A closely-watching public could apply sufficient external pressure to initiate the workflow and behavior changes on the part of constituent relations management required to make this model work. Over time, outside efforts like Larry Lessig’s MayDay PAC could leverage the system to hold elected officials accountable, or the Sunlight Foundation might merge it with their Open Congress toolset in a bid to disrupt the lobbying industry.

This won’t be easy. These are hard challenges, and I understand why few for-profit companies would want to invest in tackling them head on. Working on your own to release a product to the general market — beholden to no one but your users — is a very different beast from selling or licensing a product to governments (federal, state, local). Altering the work culture of government such that these tools will be properly utilized is even harder, but it would be worth the trouble.

Implementation of the system described above would not only solve the signal/noise problems that plague government officials, it would make tools like Change.org, Convio (and yes, Brigade) more effective by creating a holistic system that empowers both citizen and government actors through a transparent, positive feedback loop. That would be a dramatic leap forward in fulfilling the still unrealized promise of civic tech as a force to reimagine and revitalize American democracy.


In Search of a Road Map for Civic Tech


If you take anything away from reading this (and thanks, if you’ve hung with me this far), I hope it is three things:

  1. The civic/tech space has invested a ton of time and money in empowering people by connecting them together and making it easier to take collective actions. In fact, this may be an area where we’ve over-invested.
  2. Further gains on that side of the equation (C) are possible, but may be marginal and could be better served through structural changes to our system that are outside the purview of a civic tech company.
  3. It’s time to invest as much effort into equipping our leaders and the people who run our government day-to-day with the tools to listen and respond to the feedback of citizens as we have building up our own capacity to shout at our leaders.

In this essay, I’ve picked on Brigade (unfairly, perhaps) because they’re the newest player on the block, and they’re backed by big names with a big bankroll. But also because without any clear directives or product, they’re in the best position to pivot radically and explore new models. The early work of Correlate suggests there’s a potential business here (licensing a toolset to municipal, state and federal agencies, charging competitors for API access, etc.) should Brigade choose to leverage its connections and find another way to profitability.

A for-profit model, while possible, is not the only model. Former US CTO Todd Park is experimenting with bringing engineers into government to solve tough challenges just like this, while Code For America has pursued a similar model for years. But Park’s work is mostly relegated to the Executive Branch, and Code for America’s work is predominantly at the state and local level. The Legislative Branch remains underserved by civic tech, and the opportunity to innovate is up for grabs to the first team (private or public) that has the ideas to innovate and the connections to scale a project beyond a few tech-savvy offices.

Whatever vehicle the solution takes, the civic tech sector needs to start thinking holistically about empowering people on both sides of the constituent relations equation.

There’s a popular saying in the startup community used to describe a healthy market that drives innovation — “let a thousand flowers bloom.” The solution I proposed here is ambitious and hard. It could be unworkable for a variety of reasons both technical and political. But it’s long past time for investors and innovators start planting those seeds if we’re ever going to find out.

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