Articles Tagged About-POPVOX
For many outside the startup world, the term "disruptive" may have negative connotations. It was not something you wanted on your report card. Certainly for two women -- one an Indian-born American and another a Southern girl -- being called "disruptive" is not something our grandmothers would have praised... until now. POPVOX co-founder Rachna Choudhry and I are in New York today to be officially named "disruptors" -- and we couldn't be more pleased!
The Tribeca Film Festival Awards for Disruptive Innovation
The Tribeca Film Festival Awards for Disruptive Innovation, founded by Craig Hatkoff, capture the spirit of Harvard Professor Clay Christensen’s work, as he described in The Innovators Dilemma. This year's awards recognize innovators from Rick Rubin of Def Jam Records; Jack Dorsey of Twitter; Rachael Chong of Catchafire; Kevin Carroll and Dan Strzempka, who built the prosthetic tail as seen in Dolphin Tale; Dr. Patricia Bath who is literally working to help the blind to see; to Justin Bieber and many more.
What is a "Disruption"?
The gist of Christensen's theory is that successful organizations that have been around for a while are less likely to innovate because they benefit from the status quo. Their success locks them into their demise, when a stealthier less-refined approach enters the market and offers a "just enough" or better/cheaper/faster alternative that first serves an unserved market and then encroaches on the existing market. "An innovation that is disruptive allows a whole new population of consumers access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill." For a deeper explanation, check out why customers "hire a milkshake."
Congress and Traditional Lobbying: The Business of Status Quo
So how did Rachna and I, a former nonprofit lobbyist and former Congressional staffer, start caring about disruption? A few years ago, we noticed that in our world -- not the corporate world, but that of advocacy, Congress, and civic engagement -- NO ONE was doing the task that was expected of them, and technology wasn't helping. The evidence wasn't exactly hidden. Congressional approval numbers were dipping and the "Tragedy of Political Advocacy" (h/t Jake Brewer) was an accelerating phenomenon. We observed several pain points that technology was exacerbating rather than improving:
-- Congress wants to hear from constituents (but technology made it easier to send barrages of messages with no qualification that they were from actual constituents -- or even actual people.)
-- Organizations, advocates, associations, and yes, big lobbyists, want to demonstrate popular support for their positions (but because messages were increasingly hard to process by Congressional offices and there was no independent measure of sentiment, their solution was to send more messages, be more inflammatory, YELL LOUDER.)
-- The people want to be heard and participate, but all the noise ginned up by the pros left them cynical and frustrated, and the unresponsive Congress made them feel ignored and disempowered.
Disruption through Transparency
We thought: what if you could build a platform where input to Congress -- from individuals and pros alike -- was verified, counted, and available to everyone? That would mean that Congress gets what it needs: real input from its constituents in a format that can be processed. The pros get what they need: a real read of what people are saying about issues, and proof that their grassroots efforts are not "Astroturf." And most importantly, the people get what they need: a transparent way to register their input that doesn't go away or disappear into the depths of a broken Congressional correspondence system. This creates a public record of public sentiment on the bills that affect our lives -- and for the first time a benchmark to measure what Congress hears from constituents with what Congress does. After much thought and wrangling, we decided to name this platform "POPVOX," from "vox populi," Voice of the People.
Count the Money or Count the People
It is a well-worn cliché to say that Washington runs on money in the form of political donations. While that is not far off, the true currency of Washington is information and public sentiment. Money just serves to disburse an idea, amplify a message, provide the resources to influence (and this election year, there may even be fewer places to spend it.) The starting theory at POPVOX is that there are two ways to influence legislation: (1) move money, or (2) move people. Our goal is to provide a transparent, qualified metric for what the people have to say regarding pending legislation. This gives Congress the tool it needs to listen and people the tools to ensure that Congress in fact does. The most powerful potential "disruption" of our political and advocacy system, however, is not dependent on any company or tool. It only comes with an engaged, involved public that is paying attention. We'll bring the tools, you bring your voice, and together we can bring about positive, creative disruption.
A few photos from the event
We at POPVOX think a lot about Congress and the staffers that make Congress go. Recently, a Congressional office asked us to share best practices for using POPVOX in their work. The following slideshow demonstrates how staffers (and advocates) can use publicly-available POPVOX information to lead a legislative effort. (Staff also have access to some special district-specific tools and dashboards when they are logged in with a staff account.) How are YOU using POPVOX? Let us know!
Today POPVOX announces that co-founder Josh Tauberer, a pioneer in the world of open government, is moving onto a new phase in his work for government transparency. Since joining the team in July 2010, “Dr. T” has built a robust tool that closes the gap between citizens and Congress. While we will miss him, we are excited to watch him continue his work through GovTrack, consulting, public speaking, and the release of his new book, Open Government Data.
The entire team is extremely grateful for the talent and insight he has brought to POPVOX and wish him the very best!
POPVOX, the award-winning online advocacy platform, today announced that its Organization Directory -- a robust resource designed to help Congressional staff find advocacy organizations, trade associations and community groups -- has topped 1,500 profiles.
The POPVOX Organization Directory, which is free and open to the public, lists each organization's mission, legislative agenda, contact information, and Facebook and Twitter pages. Position statements supporting or opposing specific legislation are displayed where available. For Congressional staffers logged into POPVOX, additional information such as contact emails and phone numbers are listed.
"The POPVOX Organization Directory was created with Congressional staffers, advocacy professionals and members of the media in mind," said POPVOX co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer, Rachna Choudhry. "Congressional staff looking for experts use the POPVOX Directory to identify niche organizations or groups beyond the 'usual suspects'. Issue organizations are using the directory to build coalitions around advocacy campaigns and to ensure organizational diversity within their efforts."
Any U.S.-based nonprofit organization, trade association, political action committee or community group can create a profile at http://www.popvox.com/organization. Organizations are individually researched and approved by the POPVOX team to maintain the integrity of the directory.
POPVOX is a neutral, nonpartisan advocacy platform that meshes legislative data with individuals’ personal stories and sentiment. POPVOX delivers public input to Congress in a format tailored to actionable policy decisions and empowers users to leverage their expertise and numbers. For more information, visit: http://www.popvox.com
Whether you are a SOPA supporter or plan to join the Anti-SOPA blackout on January 18, you can turn your website or blog into an online action center by using free widgets from POPVOX.
The POPVOX Write Congress widget lets your visitors send a message to their member of Congress without leaving your site.
A POPVOX Comment stream widget streams comments directly on your site so you can see what others are saying.
POPVOX widgets are customizable for any bill, any position. So whether it is SOPA, PIPA, NDAA, or any other abbreviation... just pick up the code, and build your movement.
View the widgets in action on the POPVOX Tumblr page.
Some dominated the headlines, some never got a vote. The bills that moved people to contact Congress in 2011 span the gamut from jobs to taxes, internet policy and immigration.
POPVOX compiled the top 50 bills that were important to you in 2011, along with a "where are they now." And check out the slide show featuring the Top Ten.
A Congressional session is two years long. These bills are still pending. If you have not already told Congress what you think, click the link to register your opinion and POPVOX will deliver your message.
- Bill #1H.R. 3035: Mobile Informational Call Act of 2011 - "To amend the Communications Act of 1934 to permit informational calls to mobile telephone numbers..."
H.R. 3035 was pulled by its sponsor and is no longer being considered.
- Bill #2H.R. 25: Fair Tax Act of 2011 - "To promote freedom, fairness, and economic opportunity by repealing the income tax and other taxes, abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, and enacting a national sales tax to be administered primarily by the States."
H.R. 25 was the subject of a hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee. It did not receive a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #3H.R. 2306: Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011 - "To limit the application of Federal laws to the distribution and consumption of marihuana, and for other purposes."
H.R. 2306 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #4H.R. 3: No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act - "prohibits taxpayer funded abortions and provides for conscience protections.
H.R. 3 passed the House on May 4, 2011 and is pending in the Senate.
- Bill #5H.R. 2: Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act - "To repeal the job-killing health care law and health care-related provisions in the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010."
H.R. 2 passed the House on January 19, 2011 and is pending in the Senate.
- Bill #6H.R. 3261: Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) - "To promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes."
H.R. 3261 is being considered in the House Judiciary Committee, mark-up is ongoing.
- Bill #7S. 724: Ensuring Pay for Our Military Act of 2011 - "A bill to appropriate such funds as may be necessary to ensure that members of the Armed Forces... receive pay and allowances (in the event of a government shutdown)"
S. 724 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #8H.R. 822: National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2011 - "to provide a national standard in accordance with which nonresidents of a State may carry concealed firearms in the State"
H.R. 822 passed the House on Nov 16, 2011 and is pending in the Senate.
- Bill #9S. 13: Fair Tax Act of 2011 - "A bill to promote freedom, fairness, and economic opportunity by repealing the income tax and other taxes, abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, and enacting a national sales tax to be administered primarily by the States."
S. 13 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #10H.R. 589: Emergency Unemployment Compensation Expansion Act of 2011 - "To amend title IV of the Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2008 to provide for additional weeks of first-tier emergency unemployment compensation"
H.R. 589 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #11H.R. 96: Internet Freedom Act - "To prohibit the Federal Communications Commission from further regulating the Internet. "
H.R. 96 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #12H.R. 308: Large Capacity Ammunition Feeding Device Act - To prohibit the transfer or possession of large capacity ammunition feeding devices, and for other purposes"
H.R. 308 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #13S. 1176: American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act of 2011 - to prohibit the shipping, transporting, moving, delivering, receiving, possessing, purchasing, selling, or donation of horses and other equines to be slaughtered for human consumption
S. 1176 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #14S. 1549: American Jobs Act of 2011 - "A bill to provide tax relief for American workers and businesses, to put workers back on the job while rebuilding and modernizing America, and to provide pathways back to work for Americans looking for jobs."
S. 1549 was reported out of committee on Sep 14, 2011.
- Bill #15H.R. 1380: New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act of 2011 - to encourage alternative energy investments and job creation.
S. 1380 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #16S. 1108: 10 Million Solar Roofs Act of 2011 - A bill to provide local communities with tools to make solar permitting more efficient, and for other purposes.
S. 1108 was reported out of committee on Dec 15, 2011.
- Bill #17S. 968: Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011 (PIPA) - "A bill to prevent online threats to economic creativity and theft of intellectual property, and for other purposes."
S. 968 was reported out of committee on May 26, 2011.
- Bill #18H.J.Res. 17: Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States to repeal the twenty-second article of amendment, thereby removing the limitation on the number of terms an individual may serve as President.
H.J.Res 17 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #19H.R. 21: Reclaiming Individual Liberty Act - "To repeal the mandate that individuals purchase health insurance."
H.R. 21 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #20H.R. 1116: Respect for Marriage Act - "To repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and ensure respect for State regulation of marriage."
H.R.1116 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #21S. 1403: IDEA Full Funding Act (Saving Lives by Lowering Tobacco Use Act) - "Assist states and outlying areas in providing special education and related services to children with disabilities. Saving Lives by Lowering Tobacco Use Act - Amends the Internal Revenue Code to increase excise taxes on cigars, cigarettes, pipe tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco, snuff, and chewing tobacco."
S. 1403 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #22H.R. 2560: Cut, Cap, and Balance Act of 2011 - "To cut, cap, and balance the Federal budget."
H.R. 2560 passed the House on Jul 19, 2011 and is pending in the Senate.
- Bill #23H.R. 1297: Ensuring Pay for Our Military Act of 2011 - "A bill to appropriate such funds as may be necessary to ensure that members of the Armed Forces... receive pay and allowances (in the event of a government shutdown)"
H.R. 1297 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #24H.R. 1983: States’ Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act - "To provide for the rescheduling of marijuana and for the medical use of marijuana in accordance with the laws of the various States."
H.R. 1983 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #25H.R. 3630: Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act of 2011 - to extend the payroll tax holiday, unemployment compensation, Medicare physician payment, provide for the consideration of the Keystone XL pipeline, and for other purposes."
H.R. 3630 passed the House Dec 13, 2011 and passed the Senate on Dec 17, 2011.
It was signed into law by the President on Dec 23, 2011.
- Bill #26H.R. 223: Federal Prison Bureau Nonviolent Offender Relief Act of 2011 - to provide an alternate release date for certain nonviolent offenders
H.R. 223 has not received a vote in either chamber.
H.R 87 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #28H.R. 3012: Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2011 - "to eliminate the per-country numerical limitation for employment-based immigrants, to increase the per-country numerical limitation for family-sponsored immigrants."
H.R. 3012 passed the House on Nov 29, 2011 and is pending in the Senate.
- Bill #29H.Res. 135: Holding Congress Accountable Act of 2011 - "Requiring the posting of information on the disbursements made during each session of Congress from the Members’ Representational Allowance on official public Internet sites of the House of Representatives"
H.Res 135 has not received a vote in the House.
- Bill #30S.J.Res. 23: A joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States relative to balancing the budget
S.J.Res 23 was reported out of committee on Jun 30, 2011.
- Bill #31H.R. 153: Ensuring Affordable Energy Act - "To prohibit funding for the Environmental Protection Agency to be used to implement or enforce a cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases"
H.R. 153 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #32H.J.Res. 16: Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States to repeal the sixteenth article of amendment (authorizing taxation of income).
H.J.Res 16 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #33H.R. 601: End Big Oil Tax Subsidies Act of 2011 - to repeal fossil fuel subsidies for large oil companies.
H.R. 601 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #34H.R. 2966: American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act of 2011 - "to prohibit the shipping, transporting, moving, delivering, receiving, possessing, purchasing, selling, or donation of horses and other equines to be slaughtered for human consumption"
H.R. 2966 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #35H.R. 1124: Fairness in Taxation Act of 2011 - "to impose increased rates of tax with respect to taxpayers with more than $1,000,000 taxable income."
H.R. 1124 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #36H.R. 29: To provide for the withdrawal of the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement.
H.R. 29 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #37H.R. 1174: Internet Gambling Regulation, Consumer Protection, and Enforcement Act - "to provide for the licensing of Internet gambling activities by the Secretary of the Treasury, to provide for consumer protections on the Internet, to enforce the tax code, and for other purposes."
H.R. 1174 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #38S. 1867: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (NDAA) - "To authorize appropriations for fiscal year 2012 for military activities of the Department of Defense...)
S. 1867 passed the House on Nov 15, 2011 and passed the Senate on Dec 1, 2011.
It was signed into law by the President on Dec 19, 2011.
- Bill #39H.R. 2615: Second Amendment Protection Act of 2011
H.R. 2615 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #40H.R. 140: Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011 - "To clarify those classes of individuals born in the United States who are nationals and citizens of the United States at birth."
H.R. 140 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #41H.Con.Res. 34: Establishing the budget for the United States Government for fiscal year 2012 and setting forth appropriate budgetary levels for fiscal years 2013 through 2021 (Ryan Budget)
H.Con.Res. 34 passed the House on Apr 15, 2011 and is pending in the Senate.
- Bill #42H.R. 12: American Jobs Act of 2011 - "To provide tax relief for American workers and businesses, to put workers back on the job while rebuilding and modernizing America, and to provide pathways back to work for Americans looking for jobs."
H.R. 12 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #43H.R. 358: Protect Life Act - "To modify special rules relating to coverage of abortion services under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act "
H.R. 358 passed the house on Oct 13, 2011.
- Bill #44H.R. 43: To amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to eliminate the diversity immigrant program and to re-allocate those visas to certain employment-based immigrants who obtain an advanced degree in the United States.
H.R. 43 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #45S. 679: Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011
S. 679 passed the Senate on Jun 29, 2011 and is pending in the House.
- Bill #46H.R. 1351: United States Postal Service Pension Obligation Recalculation and Restoration Act of 2011 - recalculating the amount of any Postal surplus or supplemental liability under the Civil Service Retirement System
H.R. 1351 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #47S. 1301: Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2011 - "appropriations for fiscal years 2012 through 2015 for the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, to enhance measures to combat trafficking in persons"
S. 1301 was reported out of committee on Oct 13, 2011.
- Bill #48H.Con.Res. 13: Reaffirming “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the United States
H.Con.Res. 13 passed the House on Nov 1, 2011 and is pending in the Senate.
- Bill #49H.R. 2028: Private Student Loan Bankruptcy Fairness Act of 2011
H.R. 2028 has not received a vote in either chamber.
- Bill #50H.R. 1: Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011
H.R 1 passed the House on Feb 19, 2011.
What I describe below came about because of the generous advice and critique we have received from users and privacy experts on the subject.
The Privacy Report
The Privacy Report shows each individual user the exact information that POPVOX has on file about them and why and what we do with that information. It lists your information in categories such as your email address, your street address, and your bookmarked bills and explains why it's important for us to keep this information on file. For instance, we maintain for a period of time a record of all delivered correspondence to your Members of Congress, even if you subsequently delete your comment, in order to protect the integrity of our relationship with you and Members of Congress. We don't want someone claiming we didn't send a letter when we did, or that we sent a letter when we didn't.
You have to be logged in to see what we know about you, of course.
Do Not Track
Do Not Track (DNT) is a new approach to allowing web users the ability to state their preference to opt-out of being tracked by services they may not be aware are collecting data about them. Although there is no one adopted standard for how web sites are supposed to behave in order to be Do Not Track-compliant, POPVOX has taken some initial steps.
DNT is essentially only relevant to advertisers (not us) and widgets. We provide a number of widgets that blogs and advocacy websites can embed to show information from POPVOX. Most of our widgets are already compliant with the prevailing DNT guidelines, and we're working on making all of our widgets DNT-compliant soon.
Although the Do Not Track guidelines are not actually relevant when you visit POPVOX.com directly, we take the unprecedented extra step of embedding only DNT-compliant third-party resources on POPVOX if you have turned on your browser’s DNT option. That means that when you visit POPVOX.com, your DNT preference will be respected by us and any other web content loaded on our site by your browser.
Right now what that means is that we won't embed Google Maps on POPVOX if you have the DNT option turned on in your browser because we know Google Maps will not respect your DNT choice. (Actually only about 3% of our users will ever be shown a Google Map anyway --- we use it in a small number of cases to help you pick out your location.) All of the other third-party resources we currently embed in POPVOX follow the DNT tracking guidelines (they haven't adopted DNT but they comply with the guidelines anyway).
I think we're unique in actually changing the content of our pages in response to your DNT choice to make sure that your POPVOX experience respects your choice, even if DNT itself doesn't say anything about doing that.
For more see our DNT page .
If your organization takes positions on bills, Congressional staffers are looking for you on POPVOX!
Staffers WANT to know your organization's position on bills. It helps them do their jobs. Increasingly, Congressional staff are turning to POPVOX to find out where organizations stand on pending bills. POPVOX provides a platform for any nonprofit organization, trade association or community group to create a profile, maintain a legislative agenda of priorities, and register positions on bills so that Congressional staff can easily find it -- whether they want to pull a quote, find a witness for a hearing, or contact you for more information. How do we know? Search results. Those searches that lead staffers to POPVOX are overwhelmingly bill titles or nicknames (87%) increasingly with words like "oppose" "supporters of" "organizations opposing" or "letters in support" (12%). The rest are looking for information about POPVOX (9%) or our " Hill 101 " blog series (4%). These search keywords show up in Google Analytics reports, not tied to any personally identifiable information. We know they come from staffers because the service provider is identified as either "U.S. House of Representatives" or "United States Senate". Are we surprised? Not at all. POPVOX was designed to give staffers the information they need. Staffers are looking for quotes, perspectives, explanations and rationales so that they can make a well-reasoned recommendation to their boss. I know, I was that staffer! Where else can they find this information? It's tougher than you might think. They may eventually Google their way to the legislative page of your website, BUT, if affecting policy is your priority, why would you make them work so hard to find out where you stand? POPVOX is designed to get your message to Congress the way Congress needs to receive it. Read more about posting your organization's position on POPVOX . And get started! Don't miss an opportunity to put your message in front of key players in the legislative process... especially when they are searching for it!
I’m excited to share with you POPVOX’s newest advocacy tool (drum roll, please): POPVOX's Write Congress widget . (And did I mention it's free to use?)
The “Write Congress” widget embeds POPVOX’s powerful advocacy tool onto your own website. By using our widget, your site visitors send a message to their own Members of Congress in the comfort of your website.
And since it's powered by POPVOX:
-- Constituent information is verified for Congressional offices.
-- Support (or opposition) messages from activists are aggregated to show quantified grassroots power.
-- Users are assured that their messages are delivered to Congress—and receive a confirmation when their messages are sent.
How it Works
The POPVOX widgets are easy to load onto any site that allows you to paste html code and embed iframes, including WordPress. Simply complete the customization form and copy and paste the HTML code onto your own website!
Get started at www.popvox.com/services/widgets .
Interested in Customizing the Widget?
Organizations interested in fully customized widgets with your own colors and style or inserting your own talking points as suggestions for comments to Congress should consider upgrading to the PRO version. (And your organization can be the first to try out our upcoming analytics dashboard and CRM integration.)
Please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org for details. We look forward to working with you to harness the power of POPVOX on your site!
One key ingredient in the "secret sauce" of the POPVOX is that users' comments to Congress are public, sortable by Congressional district and findable via search engine. When your comments on a bill you care about are public, you are not just letting your Rep or Senator know what you think; you are helping to educate others, giving the media context and shaping the debate.
Today, we are happy to introduce a trial run of one more way to amplify these messages across the Internet: the POPVOX Comment Stream widget . Now you can stream comments from POPVOX on your own site, with varying levels of customization by bill number, bill position, issue area OR geographic location. So for example, you could choose ALL comments on a bill, just supporting or just opposing comments on a bill, comments on a particular issue, or comments from a specific state... and the customization possibilities wil evolve.
Below is an example of a comment stream for HR 1174, which was the top trending bill on POPVOX last week.
The widget is easy to load into a WordPress page or any other site that allows you to paste html code. Follow this link , customize the widget to your interests, adjust the size to fit your site and copy the html code that appears in the lower right-hand corner.
Combine the POPVOX Comment Stream widget with the "Take Action" widget that you can find on any POPVOX bill page to give your readers rich content and a way to weigh in on bills that are discussed on your site.
What do you think?
This week, POPVOX unveiled our "+appreciate" feature. This enables POPVOX users to appreciate other user's comments on the site.
Ever read a personal story or comment on a bill on POPVOX and see a truly personal face of an otherwise wonky policy? Or read a comment that completely changes your point of view on a bill?
I'm going to be honest with you, I have many, many times. You've heard me talk about S. 277, the Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act . The comments users left on that bill were so personal and heart-felt. I literally found myself wanting to say to some of them, hand on my heart, "thank you for your service -- and I *appreciate* you taking the time to share your story."
While the POPVOX team stays neutral on bills and never posts editorial commentary, we're proud of the quality of comments written by POPVOX users like you. These comments will truly make our nation's policy discourse more robust. As Marci would say, this is the meat on the bones of policy. Without these comments, a bill is just a skeleton. To that end, we wanted to find a way for users to highlight the most compelling of comments. That's why we created the "+appreciate" feature.
Some bills have hundreds of comments.While I may personally recommend users weighing in on a bill read each and every bill comment, this isn't always possible. With the "+appreciate" feature, users can "appreciate" others' comments, allowing a user the option of reading the "most appreciated" comments first.
From a strategic advocacy perspective, "appreciating" comments on POPVOX would also help Congressional staffers discern the critical comments, which they may want to include in their briefings with their Representative or Senator boss, or add to their official statements. This means that by "appreciating" comments, you're helping to make sure that Congressional staffers, other organizations or POPVOX users are reading the comments you think they should read in order to take more informed policy positions.
How to "appreciate"
1. From your home page find a bill you've already weighed in on (listed under "your recent comments"). Users must take a position on a bill first, before they can appreciate others' comments regarding that bill. And they can only appreciate others' comments that bolster their position. In other words, a user that support HR X may only appreciate comments in support of HR X.
This will take you to a "bill report" with a long list of comments below the country map. (You may change the geographic scope of the comments by clicking "Show All Comments" or using the drop-down menu to filter by state or Congressional district.)
3. Read through the list of comments and find one you "appreciate." Hit the "+appreciate" text just below the comment.
You'll notice that it will now say, "appreciated" with a number next to it, indicating how many times that comment was "appreciated."
Coming soon, users will have the option to view comments in order by date or by appreciation (the appreciated comments will rise to the top of the comment list).
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this new feature! Do you appreciate it? Please email me directly with feedback at rachna@POPVOX.com
No online store lets you finish your purchase before giving you a few more suggestions you might be interested in. Prompts to buy more seem pesky, just until those prompts actually get good. When I'm in a shopping state of mind, I first go to the recommendations Amazon has for me. I've been a loyal Amazon shopper for more than a decade now and they have a good idea of what I like. Netflix is famous for doing the same.
We have a similar situation when it comes to federal legislation. Americans know they want to leave comments for their Members of Congress, but they don't know which of the thousands of bills they have something to say about. That's why we're taking a lead from Amazon and Netflix in making recommendations for what you might like to comment on, based on bills you've commented on in the past.
Our system works just like Amazon's. We look at your comment history to see which bills have interested you in the past. Then we recommend similar bills. Of course the hard part is computing which bills are similar. We could compare the text of every pair of bills looking for similar words, but we don't. We could look at who is sponsoring the bills, or what subject categories the Library of Congress has assigned to the bills, but we don't do that either. Instead, we look at which bills other users have commented on. If another user leaves a comment on bills A and B, and you've left a comment on bill A, we're probably going to recommend bill B to you. So rather than doing a deep analysis of bill content, we're letting the behavior of our users guide our recommendations.
Here are five of the most "similar" bills, meaning those who commented on one tended to comment on the other. As you read through the list, if you find one bill interesting, ask yourself if you find the other bill in the same row interesting.
Some of the bills keep coming up because many individuals are weighing in on them. They're hot bills all around, regardless of what bills you've commented on in the past.
As more comments are left on POPVOX, we'll be able to provide even richer recommendations for you!
In January, Congress changed its rules to allow iPads on the House Floor . We realized that POPVOX had all of the information that Congress needs to see on those iPads to stay on top of bills and know what people have to say about the issues. We wanted to get to work on the app by raising just enough money to design, develop, launch and get it it into the hands of Congress and those paying attention to Congress. Appbackr made that possible by allowing us to “crowd-fund” the app. It’s been almost a week and we are almost halfway to our goal !
The rest of the story:
One of our first moves as a startup (even before we had incorporated or decided on a name) was to enter a startup contest held by the Silicon Valley Association of Software Entrepreneurs (SVASE). First prize was a little bit of seed money and some wonderful mentoring. We entered; we were picked as finalists; until it came to the part where I was supposed to give a slide presentation and SVASE realized that we were a little more “early stage” than they had in mind. (They still provided some tremendous advice and introductions.) The winners of that competition, however, were two incredible entrepreneurs: Trevor Cornwell and co-founder Sam Zappas of Appbackr .
Trevor and Sam believed that we were in the early stages of a long-term trend focused primarily on applications rather than large software bundles or even websites. They understood that development of many of these apps is a relatively low-cost endeavor for entrepreneurs -- requiring much less than would make sense for venture capital or angel funding -- yet not something that many could go take a bank loan to make happen. Why not, they thought, allow people who think the app concepts have merit to buy units at wholesale and provide the funding needed for development? Appbackr is the marketplace that facilitates that wholesale purchase.
I was intrigued by the concept but busy with other things until two things happened:
(1) The House passed a rules package in early January allowing iPads on the House Floor (and I got very excited.) The POPVOX team quickly realized that we had the information that Congress would need to access to make use of those iPads on the House Floor, and we needed to build an app.
(2) A dear friend and mentor from my hometown sent around the nicest email ever to about 400 of his closest friends to tell them about what we were working on with POPVOX, and many wrote back saying they would love to pitch in and help us make it work. Unfortunately, as an early stage company, there was just no good way to accept those very kind offers from the wonderful people of Jackson, Tennessee. (Our thanks for the recent shout-out by the local paper!)
Then I remembered Appbackr. It seemed like the perfect way to get the app funded and under development with the help of the wonderful people who believe in what we are trying to do. That is why we have decided to crowd-fund the iPad app with Appbackr’s “Social Publishing Platform,” and we are so grateful to those who have purchased wholesale apps and helped us get to almost half of our goal in less than a week.
Trying to find the funds to launch a startup is hard! The POPVOX team has heard many times from potential funders that we don't "look like" traditional teams and we don't have a very conventional model. (It's all true.) The nontraditional Appbackr solution is providing an amazing opportunity for us to get this small but important piece of the POPVOX puzzle off the ground while continuing to pursue more conventional methods.
We are so grateful for to the friends and strangers who have pitched in to help us make this happen!!
I just returned home to Washington, DC after an awesome few days in Austin. And by "awesome," I mean inspiring, game-changing, overwhelming and, well, FUN! Inspiring. Being at South by Southwest Accelerator, in the same room as dozens of innovative companies and accomplished entrepreneurs, was absolutely inspiring. Every presenter I met there had so much passion about what they were doing, whether to solve a real-world problem, to build community or simply to bring some happiness into people's lives.
We met Srini Kumar of Tinyvox.com , which converts your iPhone into an audio recorder, which can be converted to text or uploaded to Facebook. Micki Krimmel and NeighborGoods.net allows people to save money and resources by sharing stuff with friends and neighbors. (Who knew that people only use a power drill for 12 minutes in their lifetime, but most own one!) And Andy Pickett of QONQR.com , who had so much enthusiasm about their just-barely launched online game, and was so excited to hear POPVOX's story!
Game-changing. For POPVOX, our win in the social media category meant that the judges recognized the real-world problem we are trying to fix (the communications breakdown in and out of Congress) and our proposed solution. Moreover, our "nontraditional" founding team received a huge personal boost through the acceptance and encouragement from other competitors and participants at Accelerator. This added credibility is a game-changer for POPVOX, as we head back to DC and continue working on improving our site. Overwhelming. With thousands of participants flooding in and out of the conference center at the Austin Hilton and the Austin Convention Center, the setting for the Accelerator competition was rather overwhelming. Yet, Marci represented POPVOX on the stage with so much passion, grace and focus. The team is so proud of her! And then, we got invited to compete in the final round, which meant creating a second presentation in 24 hours! We hunkered down on couches in a quiet hotel lobby and worked straight through up till our presentation time! Josh, Marci and I worked on content, while William along with Shane (who was working remotely via Skype) worked on design and made certain that the slides conveyed what we intended. (See the slides at http://portal.sliderocket.com/AOHYB/POPVOX-5min .) Fun! This was the first time that Marci, Josh, William and I were in the same place at the same time! And I mean that literally. Despite our remote workplaces, it turned out that our team had a wonderful chemistry about us, even "off-line"! Inside jokes galore: "What is this, a school for ants?"; "Why don't you just tell me the bill you're looking for?" (in the moviefone voice); and the over-use of "hashtag." Ever carried a giant check around? And by "giant," I mean nearly five feet wide? Well, that's what we got to do for the first time in our lives! (You can assess the level of our excitement in this photo.)
At the end of the night, the POPVOX team (still giggling) tried to hail a taxicab with our giant check in tow. But the situation turned from silly to surreal when we ended up in a "karaoke" cab with black lights inside! (Was this all a dream?)
"Karaoke" cab aside, our trip to Austin was an amazing, unforgettable experience. We were honored just to be a part of it, and to win was just incredible.
All of us -- Marci, Josh, William, Shane and myself -- love what we have the privilege of doing every day. And together with our POPVOX users, we are building something that promotes a national dialogue with Congress around complex policy issues and celebrates democracy! How awesome is that!
We are super excited to showcase POPVOX as one of eight finalists in the Social Media category in the SxSW BizSpark Accelerator Competition. We would like to thank the Academy... er, Advisory Board ... (can you tell we are a little nervous?) Our category will present at 12:30 central time on Monday, March 14 and each company will have 2 minutes (TWO MINUTES!!) to tell their story in front of some pretty incredible judges .
We even made a Twitter list of judges and companies if you would like to follow their travels and adventures over the next few days: @POPVOX/sxsw-accelerator . You can learn a lot about these amazing people via Twitter, for example:
1. Everyone is excited about #4sq3
2. Adam Ostrow ( @adamostrow ) is a rock star. When I started following him, (no joke) I got: "Since you followed Adam Ostrow, you might also want to follow @aplusk & @RyanSeacrest ." (Maybe the SxSW Accelerator is more American Idol than I thought.)
4. Robert Scoble (@ Scobleizer ) is... There is nothing I could tell you that you do not already know about Robert Scoble, and his whereabouts.
On a serious note, the chance to present at this competition is an enormous honor for the POPVOX team. We are a nontraditional company that came to startup world not as serial entrepreneurs, but with a deep, personal understanding of some big problems that affect us all, and some very specific ideas about how to fix them. The SxSW stage gives us a chance to tell that story, and see if we can find the support that will help us build what so many of you have already told us makes you feel more empowered in contacting your legislators and making your voice heard.
Check back for updates! And please, if you are in Austin, let's get together! Email us (email@example.com), tweet us ( @POPVOX ), and come see our presentation on Monday at 12:30.
If you've been taking part in calls to action by the advocacy organizations you are a member of, you would be wise to ask what happens to your letter to Congress after you click submit. Â It's an unfortunate truth that advocacy organizations are often thinking as much or more about building their membership lists than delivering your message to Congress in an effective way, and as a result organizations don't offer any accountability for your messages to Congress that you put in their trust. We're designing POPVOX to be both reliable and accountable so you know whether the effort you've put in to writing a message has been effective.
The trouble with electronic submission is that it is unreliable, and some of us in our industry are suspicious that many messages constituents are writing are not making it into Congress at all. We use the web forms that Members of Congress have set up to send in messages electronically. Some web forms, like Senator Klobuchar's , do accept the automated submission of constituent mail from POPVOX and other services that advocacy organizations pay to get constituent mail in. Other web forms, like Congressman Walter Jones's , prevent automated submission of constituent mail (often using a CAPTCHA ). In part, they do this to stop getting spam. But they also stifle advocacy.
There is no Congress Inbox. There are 541 Members of Congress and each does something peculiar with their electronic inbox.
On POPVOX we provide the first affirmative notice that your message has either been delivered or if we're still working on it. The notice appears on your Home page after you've submitted a comment. Here's an example from one user's account:
We are honest when we haven't gotten a message in yet. In the two cases here, the problem is that while Congressman Coffman has a web form that accepts messages delivered by us, it is rejecting this constituent's messages because it doesn't recognize his or her zip code as being within Colorado's 6th district. (If the constituent went to Coffman's website to submit the message, he or she would face the same problem.) Since we will not lie about the constituent's address in an attempt to bypass the Congressman's zip code check, we will be reaching out to Coffman's office personally in order to get these messages in.
The next time you participate in a call to action, ask yourself if you really believe your messages are being delivered to Congress. If not, come to POPVOX, or ask the advocacy organization to use POPVOX for their message delivery.
I'm excited to share with you our newest feature on POPVOX! Organizations can now upload documents to their POPVOX profile page.
As we demo'ed and tested POPVOX with Congressional staffers, one of their most common comments was that they wished they had a centralized location for organizations to upload their issue-related documents. That way, when a staffer is looking for organizations that are supporting a specific bill, she would be able to access an organization's position statements, press releases and reports in a single mouse-click.
As one senior House committee staffer explained:
Given the fast pace on the Hill and the volumes of email staffers receive every day, it can be very hard to find quickly a given organizationʼs position on a matter. Searching websites can take time, emails get buried or deleted. I would love to see a central repository of letters written by outside groups on a given bill or issue; that is, one location where I knew I could easily see who has weighed in—both for and against. Not only would such a feature save me substantial time in finding a groupʼs position, but I could see the views of others that I might not have thought to look for, but whose input would be valuable to me.
How Organizations Can Upload Their Position Documents
Organizations can easily upload their documents on POPVOX directly from their profile page. From there, scroll down to your organization's "legislative agenda" and click on the option that says "Upload Document" (next to the icon with the document and up-arrow).
Next, you will be given the option to upload a press release, report, letter of support, coalition letter or any other document. Click on what you'd like to upload and then complete the boxes, beginning with the "document title."
Then, cut and paste the document text into the next box. Providing the document's text directly, rather than relying only on a PDF attachment is strategic: it means one less click for Congressional staffers to access your information. (And we all know that sometimes PDFs can take a while to download!) In addition, if your document is already up on your organization's website, you can also provide a link to it in the third box.
And lastly, hit "upload" -- and you're all set. You may upload one document of each type (press release, report, letter, etc) for each bill for which your organization has a position.
And after you upload, don't forget to repeat the other bills on your legislative agenda.
As always, we'd love your feedback on this new feature. Please let me know if you found this process simple or challenging, and how we can make POPVOX even more useful for your organization.
At many points, the team discussed that POPVOX has a strong business imperative to get privacy right. Civic engagement is different than many other online activities. It requires a neutral, trusted platform. At several points in our discussions, we found ourselves asking, “if we don’t do this, who will?”
The policy is not boilerplate. We asked experts and debated clauses and pared down where we could while staying within the confines of what our lawyers advised. With the legalese structure in place, we will continue to seek input, refine the policy and make improvements when we find a better approach.
A few days ago, I posted the question “ what are privacy best practices for start-ups? ” on Quora , a question-and-answer site that has become a place for discussion for the tech/startup world. I also joined a weekly Tuesday " Privacy Chat " on Twitter, hosted by @CenDemTech (The Center for Democracy & Technology ) and @PrivacyCamp , in which interested participants discuss several privacy-related questions by following the #privchat hashtag. I am grateful to the participants in that chat and Quora contributors, and wanted to respond to some points that came up directly. Points made via twitter are in italics below:
POPVOX is a platform for civic engagement that must address two potentially contradictory data needs: (1) The need to provide users with a safe, trusted environment for providing input on legislation - input that can sometimes be quite personal or private, and (2) The need to provide very specific, personally identifiable data to Congress, to ensure that constituents’ input is weighed appropriately.
POPVOX only works if we balance these two requirements appropriately. Here is how we address them:
1. You can use the site without creating an account. You can access bill information, comments, position papers from organizations.
2. In order to take a position on a bill or leave a comment, you must create an account. You may create a new, name/password login; we also allow the option of using Google, Twitter or LinkedIn OAuth. The information is shared in the following ways:
- Your real name, email, & physical address are shared in an email to your legislator . (This is an “only as much data as we need” issue: your legislator requires it in order to process your message.)
- Your screen name, Congressional district, and comment are publicly available on POPVOX. The public nature of your comment is the key to the effectiveness of POPVOX - to show real-life, curated examples of what people really think about legislation. If you do not want your comment to be public, just choose to support or oppose without leaving a comment, and email your legislator outside of the POPVOX platform.
- If you come to POPVOX via a link from an advocacy organization and you opt to share your information with that organization (via a check box identifying the option and the Organization’s name under the “take action” button) your name, email, and zip code will be shared with that organization.
@alexanderhanff #privchat also you have to be approachable. if a potential or existing customers wants to talk about privacy don't just send them to PPSee above or find me on Twitter @marcidale .
@NovakKevin #privchat: do your homework upfront before running off in developmentHomework never done... we will continue to refine.
@jdp23 Fair Information Practices. get feedback from experts and consumers! treat it as a business priority.#privchatYes! It is a key business priority for POPVOX. It is in our business plan and a part of our "pitch." We will continue to solicit feedback and this is an open invitation.
@GetAbine Collect only the data that's absolutely necessary, & be clear & open about that with customers.#privchatWe think we have struck the right balance on this with the policy described above. Let us know if you agree.
@PogoWasRight If you're gutsy, run your PP by privacy advocates to see what questions or concerns we have while reading your policy. #privchat(We asked a lot of others too.)
@GetAbine Dedicate your startup to privacy protection & never sway in your vision. Don't sell out. Don't be evil.#privchatYes! You help make this possible when you support businesses that respect privacy. Help us show our investors -- and investors in other startups -- that this is a viable business model.
@alexanderhanff Haha, well what about lawyers who ARE privacy advocates? We exist; I'm one of them.#privchatThis lawyer salutes you and we would love your input on our existing policies and how they could be improved.
@alexanderhanff #privchat once established, don't stop, have regular #privacy audits and reviews the same as you do for other areas of your businessThis is a great suggestion that we intend to implement on a regular basis.
@WarrenEHart don't be a weasel. Tell me up front if you're going to use my name / comments in ads to my friendsYour screen name and comments can be shared by anyone who finds them interesting to help bring attention to the issue you weighed in on. POPVOX works because comments on bills are public, and searchable, and shared... and taken into account by media and decision-makers. And please always call us out if we ever cross into "weasel" territory.
#privchat Net of discussion: HTTPS = "just do it"We did!The input continues to come in and with your help, we will continue to learn, refine, and work to make POPVOX a leader in online privacy.
We at POPVOX think this is a great idea .
Given this new world of Congressional connectivity, we thought you might like to see for yourself the kind of information that legislators and staff can access on POPVOX. From bill status information, to real-time constituent input, we are providing the tools to help Congress do its job better. So, here's a quick overview of what Congress sees on POPVOX:
A Customized Bill Tracking Docket helps staffers and Members manage the myriad issues and bills they need to follow on a daily basis, based on their unique profile, including issue areas, committees, and district; and shows real-time constituent sentiment from POPVOX.
What's in the legislative docket?
- Bill lists by hot issues in the state or district, and by issue areas
- Bookmarked key bills for quick access
- Bill status, sponsor information and co-sponsor tallies
- Pie charts illustrating constituent sentiment
- Comments from constituents
- Lists of endorsing/opposing organizations
Constituent comments are displayed in two ways: A running “feed” of recent comments, sortable by state and Congressional district; and on bill reports, tied to specific bills. The only information displayed with these comment is a user’s screen name and Congressional district EXCEPT when the staffer or Member views Comments from the home district. In that case, the full name and city of the commenter is displayed, in order to help those in Congress better respond directly to constituents’ concerns. (The comments are also forwarded to the Congressional office.)
Bill reports were designed to provide all of the information a legislative staffer needs to make a vote recommendation - in one place. That includes bill status and co-sponsors, constituent sentiment pie chart and cumulative support graph, endorsing and opposing organizations, constituent comments (searchable for all of POPVOX, or by state or Congressional district), and a map of support. One staffer told us, "this will do my job fo me!" And that is exactly the point. (These reports are also available to the public, for free, on POPVOX.)
Organization Profiles & Contact Info
Staffers have the same access to the POPVOX Organization Directory as other users, with the ability to search organizations by issue area or name. In addition, staffers and Members see emails and phone numbers of organization contacts. This is to facilitate the ability for Congress to easily contact an expert on any issue.
Today we delivered the first POPVOX user comment by "email" to a Member of Congress. As you might have noticed, this aspect of the site has been in development during our beta period: we're taking it slow to make sure we deliver messages electronically reliably and with accountability. And when I read the message we sent, I was reminded about why POPVOX is important. (Just a note that Congressional staff and others can already see your comments on POPVOX. This is just about getting comments into their constituent mail inboxes.)
As our chief technologist my job is to build the site, and I am often stuck in the weeds of making sure every last detail of what you see works correctly. Or when I am running sister-website GovTrack.us, my concerns are about data, data, and more data --- tracking bill status, votes, and on. To me, data is fascinating. But it is also impersonal.
It is a humbling experience each time I pick my head up out of the weeds and let it sink inÂ that so many people are visiting GovTrack, and now POPVOX, because they, or you, have personal stories about ways the law has or could impact the important parts of your life. In the first message we delivered to Congress, the author relates that his own job had been outsourced to Mexico. Who am I to be asking members of the public to share their stories? It is a privilege, I truly feel, that anyone should place trust in us to share their stories with and, also, that we may be the ones to pass on those stories to the appropriate Members of Congress. (Sorry if that sounds sappy.)
It will be a while longer before we are able to deliver all messages to Congress. There is no centralized inbox for Congress, and each congressional office handles incoming messages in a different way. Some do not allow third parties such as POPVOX to relay messages, but we'll be reaching out to those offices to change that. Even since before POPVOX got started I have been working with nonprofits and other technology vendors on establishing a better system. Until then we'll be working within the confines of today's reality. On this front, please hang tight.
Nevertheless, POPVOX has never been about being just the deliveryman. Our focus is on creating an open platform for everyone to see what those who participate are saying, and building the tools to make the sheer volume of constituent comments understandable. That is the part that we feel is most powerful. You might have noticed that we are now showing maps of constituent opinion on our bill report pages. That's just one of many ideas we have for how your stories are more powerful when they are public together. I'll write more about the maps when we put the finishing touches on them.
In start-up language, it’s called a “pivot.” You have a theory of how something should work. You build it. You launch it. You listen. And the you “iterate,” meaning making changes, if necessary, based on what you learn. That’s a pivot. (Thanks, LUXr !)
Today, we implemented a pivot based on what we learned from six weeks of beta and lots of user surveys (thanks to all who participated!)
Originally, POPVOX required a written comment in order to count a person’s vote of “support” or “oppose” for a specific bill. We know that a personal story helps Congress understand the sentiment of constituents and increases the effectiveness of advocacy, which is why it was required at first. We found that many people wanted to take a position on bills they find interesting, but did not always feel like composing a comment to send in to their legislator. As of today, that comment is optional.
Learning about your needs and preferences is one more step to building more effective communication with Congress. With this adjustment, we are better able to quantify overall sentiment and better ensure that the comments that are collected are prompted by genuine sentiment rather than a technical hurdle. After all, those are just the letters that have the most impact in Congress./p>
Now on POPVOX, when you choose to support or oppose a bill, you are asked if you would like to share a personal story (which starting with the new Congressional session in January, will be sent to your Members). If you do not write a personal comment, your opinion still registers into the POPVOX pie chart and tally. As before, the registration process allows us to verify your address and associate your opinion with the correct Congressional district.
Let us know what you think in the comments here.
Josh and I are excited to name Rachna Choudhry as the third member of our founding team and the Chief Marketing Officer for POPVOX. Rachna is passionate about making the advocacy process more efficient. She draws upon 12 years of coalition-building and staff outreach experience to ensure that POPVOX “solves her problem -- that is, the problem of the 10,000+ organizations that work to present their members’ concerns to Congress. We will let her explain, below. -- Marci
I first met Marci at a dinner party two years ago. When the host mentioned that she was a congressional staffer, I immediately perked up. I was, after all, working for an advocacy organization whose purpose was to inform Members of Congress and influence the policy-making process. Simply put, I was a lobbyist.
Instead of having a typical Washington dinner party conversation, however, (e.g. Who do you work for? What issues do you cover? What’s on your “docket” right now?), we discussed the extent of the breakdown in the system. Even with the overwhelming amount of emails, letters, phone calls, faxes, literature drops, Tweets and Facebook posts from individuals across the country, it was still a challenge for Congress to ascertain the positions of organizations and understand the concerns of their constituents. The signal-to-noise ratio was skewed. Congress was getting too much noise, so much so that it was interfering with the signal—the underlying message.
As a lobbyist, I felt the problem from the other side. Organizations ask grassroots members to “click here to send a message to your elected officials,” and thousands of letters are sent on an issue or about a specific bill. Yet, I often found that days or weeks later, when I visited a Congressional office and referred to the hundreds of emails that were sent to that Member, the staffer would look at me as though I had sprouted an extra head. More often than not, he or she would reply, “I haven’t seen any letters on this issue from our constituents.” I would then return to my office to get PDFs of the letters that were indeed sent, and forward them.
While my efforts were effective in some instances, there was no way I could efficiently duplicate it for all 541 Congressional offices. There had to be a better way.
As Marci and I continued to talk, I asked something I had been wanting to know for quite some time: Why is it that staffers call me to find other organizations to endorse their boss’s legislation? These calls usually began with, “I know this isn’t an issue you work on, but do you know any organizations that would be interested in endorsing this bill?” Since I always wanted to be helpful to staffers, I would tell them what was often the truth: I have no idea, but give me some time; I’ll see what I can find out. That meant an extensive Google search and hunting through organizations’ websites to find contact information for the appropriate person for the staffer to approach.
Marci laughed and said, “They probably call you because you’re efficient!” I appreciated the compliment, but thought there had to be a better way. How was it that no one had created a tool for staffers to get the information they need in an efficient format that is real-time, verified and aggregated across organizational silos?
I don’t have to tell you the rest of the story.
I’m excited about being a part of POPVOX because it will help advocacy organizations, citizens groups and trade associations—large and small, inside the Beltway and out—increase their visibility and clarify their message on Capitol Hill. POPVOX will improve the signal-to-noise ratio so that Members of Congress hear what members of the public and organizations have to say in a platform that is public, transparent and allows for accountability on both sides. This is the tool I wanted as an advocate to make sure that I was effective in the eyes of my organization’s members and our funders. And the added bonus: it would have made my own work life a heck of a lot easier!
It may be 2010, but when it comes to how constituents contact their members of congress it's like we're still using the Pony Express. As Marci explained in our first POPVOX post , the (electronic) letter is still the medium that works best for constituents and for members of congress, as bad as the cacophonous situation is today.
There is a lot of room for innovation. But us technologists had to make a number of mistakes first. Last summer I ran an experiment over at GovTrack to see if citizens could come together to write a “group letter” to Congress . The letter, which happened to be opposing H.R. 45 , a gun control bill, was collaboratively drafted by 451 participants using MixedInk.com . It was a little like 451 people working on a wiki to write a single letter. (And it worked well, considering.)
I delivered the letter personally to the offices of eight congressmen and learned a few things. We told the offices we were acting on behalf of some of their constituents. They were receptive and happy to respond to the names and addresses of the signatories to the letter in their district. (We had some 3,000 people sign the letter after it was drafted.)
Second, we wanted to see what the staff in each of the offices thought of a group-written letter as an innovative form of communication. Was this useful to them as a way to aggregate voices that was more thoughtful than a petition? Staff reactions were pretty much the same: Most thought the idea of group writing was interesting, but because we delivered it as esentially a petition with 3,000 signers that is how they saw it. There was no added value of going through the hoops of drafting a letter collaboratively.
My experiment failed because I wasn't attuned to the needs of congressional staff. Communication is a two-way street, after all. Constituents have certain needs when communicating with their representatives, and staff for members of congress have different needs. What works for one may not work for the other. Letter-writing is good for constituents but it's too good. Constituents write so many letters that congressional staff can only barely claim to process them. It's just a bad situation.
The POPVOX team thinks it's hit a sweet spot with the development of our new tool. We're by no means intending to replace the letter, electronic or otherwise. Our tool is solely electronic and we recognize that not all communities are equally active online, and what's best for one community may not be best for all. But we think there are times when a communication with Congress could be most effective with something other than a direct letter, and that's where we're hard at work.
If I end here, I'm sorry for being a bit of a tease about what we're actually building. But I'll tell you the most important part: the what is less important than the how . On the surface our idea is not new. It's our team, our experience inside Congress, with Gov2.0, and advocacy and our connections that allows us to develop a deeply thought-through product that will surely be significant.
We're going to be blogging throughout our process of development and of course after launch, and I hope to write about our approach to handling constituent communication "data", plans for analysis, our commitment to open access, and other technological sides of the project.
Constituent communications are flooding and overwhelming Congressional offices. The resulting logjam is not good for the public trying to express an opinion and causes diminished returns on the investment advocacy organizations make to get their message through. The POPVOX team is hard at work on a tool that will help deliver the public’s message to Congress in a way that Congress can best receive it and act upon it.
The idea for POPVOX began when, as a Congressional staffer, I was frustrated with the unmanageable amount of input coming into legislative offices. In my experience, the increasing emails, tweets, Facebook comments, petitions, form letters, faxes, etc. did not help the public’s message get through. On the contrary, the ever-louder noise decreases the effectiveness of traditional advocacy tools. I’m not saying that online petitions are a sham , just that if their purpose is to get a message to Congress, they are increasingly ineffective.
I’m also not saying that Congress ignores messages from constituents. In fact, exactly the opposite. As I noted in a piece for GovTrackInsider.com , constituent input is one of the most important factors in a legislator’s consideration of new bills and issues. New legislative initiatives sometimes originate with a constituent letter. That doesn’t mean your Representative or Senator is taking a poll on every decision to be made. You elected them to make good policy by educating themselves on the pros and cons of each issue, balancing competing priorities, and running decisions though their personal filter of experience and values.
I am saying that the cacophony of incoming messages has become too loud for legislators to hear what constituents are saying. The result is an absolute, unrelenting, aggressive information overload . Clay Shirky has suggested, “Any time you hear the term ‘information overload,’ ask: ’which filter is broken?’" The broken filter is the Lucy-and-Ethel-in-the-chocolate-factory state of affairs for the staff and interns of the 541 legislative offices on Capitol Hill.
We have all had times in our lives when we think, there ought to be a better way . Usually, within a few years, someone invents the technology to facilitate that better way. With Congress, it’s a little more complicated. Until now, those outside Congress who understood the technology and potential of Web 2.0 just didn’t get the cultural and institutional limitations of the legislative branch. As Wayne Moses Burke of the Open Forum Foundation recently wrote , “technology is NOT the hard part. It’s the legacy systems.”
Those legacy systems under the Capitol dome can sometimes squash all but the bravest attempts at innovation. And if a tech solution to staff information needs and constituent communication overload comes from the Hill, it is usually partisan, as with the House Democrats’ DemCom intranet or the House Republican’s AmericaSpeakingOut . That’s not criticism, it’s just the way Congress works. That was not the “better way” I was looking for.
Congress is not by nature a hospitable environment for third party tools, as evidenced by the Franking Committee rule change required to free up Congressional use of Facebook and YouTube or to “ Let Our Congress Tweet .” That kind of uphill battle keeps the tech innovators with bigger fish to fry from developing a Congress-focused solution. Instead, social media evangelists implore Congress to adopt the social media tools available today. . . and Congress has, to a certain extent. Sen. John McCain is currently being celebrated as the Senator with the highest “ Digital IQ ,” which the GW and NYU researchers called "the definitive benchmark for online competence.” Leaving others to comment on that (h/t @wmburke ), I just think that perhaps we are setting the bar a little low for use of technology for messages going in and coming out of Congress.
One example I knew of someone who had gotten it right with technology and created a tool that was useful to Congress, staffers, media, organizations and members of the public, was Josh Tauberer, the creator of GovTrack.us . The GovTrack open API for data on bills pending before Congress is now so prevalent it powers almost every site that contains bill information. So I called Josh, we talked about the still fuzzy concept, and began working with others you will hear from on this blog to imagine a workable web-based solution.
POPVOX is the first tool that starts by applying Web 2.0 technology to answer some of the information needs of Congress. The great thing about starting with Congress is that POPVOX then answers the needs of the organizations and advocates and members of the public that are trying to get Congress’ attention. I will credit Clay Shirky again with summing it up much better than I ever have. He imagined that the POPVOX concept could "move us from the Town Square, where the one who gets heard is the one who yells the loudest, to the Marketplace of Ideas.”
We will tell you more about this Marketplace of Ideas in later posts. In the meantime, if this sounds interesting to you, please leave us your email (look in the sidebar on the right), let us know if you would like to help us beta test, and spread the word.
All the best,
(For media inquiries, please contact Marci Harris, POPVOX’s CEO, at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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