What is Policy Engine?

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2016 has not been a great year for democracy.

Across the Western world, various populist movements have risen up to challenge unresponsive governments. In the United States, trust in almost all aspects of public life — from politicians to schools and hospitals — is at an historic low.

We’ve all been here before.

We increasingly feel locked out from the decisions that impact our lives, and despite the rise of social media, our voices don’t seem to carry through legislative assemblies in quite the same way. Small business owners must compete with gigantic multi-corporation trade associations to help set the policy agenda, while many nonprofits are squeezed by tighter public funding. Government itself is ringed in a layer of lobbyists and public relations firms that are both confusing and unaffordable to the vast majority of Americans ($50,000 per month — ouch!). Unfortunately, unless you are already an expert on how advocacy works in our complex modern system, there’s a slim chance you’ll be able to influence the right kinds of people to create the change you desire.

But what if you had an up-to-date roadmap of all the influential people currently impacting policy? What if that roadmap was tailored to your specific campaign, and helped you visualize the influencers who are most likely to support your cause?

In other words, what if you had a picture of the entire advocacy process — from legislative staffers to lobbying firms to think tanks — that pinpointed your path to success without the need to hire consultants or PR professionals?

Policy Engine is a network science platform that literally connects the dots between the people responsible for driving policy outcomes.

Traditionally, advocacy is a costly, laborious, time-intensive process. A Harvard Business Review report notes that, for just the nonprofit sector alone, increasing the effectiveness of services and advocacy campaigns by a mere 1% could result in $20 billion in new or saved resources. On a granular level, government relations is often its own department in large organizations; simply getting and interpreting information from databases such as KnowWho can be a full-time job.

A “first draft” preview of the Policy Engine platform.

Policy Engine cuts to the chase with an inexpensive monthly subscription service that intuitively arranges large amounts of data within seconds. Forget about guestimations using old-school legislative tracking — we’re set up for the passionate advocate who wants to see the whole picture rather than just one step in a larger process.

The Policy Engine platform takes a three-step approach to help you devise a successful campaign:

  1. A simple search generates a visual network that helps you select leads based on advocacy needs and platform-suggested policy influencers.
  2. In-platform communications tools, such as policy brief templates and video/audio testimonial recordings, assist you in creating custom messages that can be sent directly to target policymakers.
  3. Individual and group profiles with ongoing advocacy campaigns help you link up with like-minded campaigners, creating powerful online coalitions to coordinate messages and influence legislative outcomes.
So how does this all fit together for you?

Let’s take a look at a real-world example.

Using Congress.gov’s THOMAS database, we put together an assessment of all the influencers in the U.S. Senate working on student loans projects — a hot-button but complicated issue typically dominated by a few insider groups. We measured influence based on bill cosponsorships during the first half of 2015, since Senators usually sponsor legislation to get involved with an issue or signal their interests to constituents. The more bill sponsorships, the greater the “pull” for a particular senator.

What we found surprised us. While the student loan debate we all know seems to fall along party lines, the Senate itself is actually divided into roughly five “parties” on the loans issue:

  1. The “moderates,” centered on John McCain, who make up the largest chunk of the Senate;
  2. The “refinancers,” united by Dick Durbin, who support tax hikes on the wealthy to pay for a loan rate decrease;
  3. The “consolidators,” linked together by Angus King, who want to combine debts into a stable repayment plan;
  4. The “simplifiers,” represented by Lamar Alexander, who hope to streamline loan applications;
  5. And the “communicators,” highlighted by Jeanne Shaheen, who support refinancing but want to pair it with innovative communications methods to help students get out of debt.
The Senate of the 114th U.S. Congress, showing all student loan cosponsorships between January 6th and April 30th, 2015. The “refinancers” group centered on Dick Durbin is highlighted within the red circle.

Furthermore, some Senate luminaries are not where you’d expect: Marco Rubio barely registers at all, Democratic powerhouse Chuck Schumer orbits John McCain in the moderates group, and Elizabeth Warren defers to Dick Durbin for influence in the refinancers group.

Finally, there are some members who straddle multiple groups: Kelly Ayotte bridges the gap between McCain, Shaheen, and King, joining together the moderates, the consolidators, and the communicators.

All of these insights are generated without the need for insider knowledge or hours of data-gathering.

Now, imagine you’re a student loans reformer. Interested in informing students about lower-interest loan opportunities? Contacting Shaheen’s office is the best option for you. Want to make FAFSA a more tolerable application? Linking up with Alexander’s team means you’ll find allies in government willing to seriously consider your proposals. In need of someone who can communicate your message to multiple, but seemingly disparate, factions? Ayotte fits the bill.

And don’t worry if you’re not familiar with every influencer — Policy Engine allows you to click on each individual to explore their background, public statements, and recent policy activity.

Once you’ve discovered which influencers are most likely to be your allies, Policy Engine has a built-in messaging feature that lets you contact them directly. We track open rates, click rates, “conversions,” and responses to your messaging all in one place. That way, your insights lead directly to outreach and campaign management without the need for a middleman.

So what’s next?

Unlike most other startups, we’re playing the long game when it comes to designing our product and establishing our brand.

That means we need your help throughout the development process — from market analysis to user testing, we want to involve you in every step we take. That’s why we’ve created this blog during our “exploratory” phase: we may be policy wonks, but we know you are the true expert.

If you’re interested in signing up for development updates, to participate in a series of quick, five-minute surveys, or to register for future product testing, please click on the link below:


Don’t forget to follow this blog for updates and Policy Engine team member musings as well.

We’re looking forward to working with you, and, most importantly, we’re incredibly excited to help you drive the change you’ve always been looking for!


Aidan McConnell

Policy Engine Project Lead | aidan@policyengine.co