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"Disrupting" Lobbying With the Power of People

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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.