The relationship between technology and politics has always been a somewhat uneasy one. At least, that's how it used to be, but the 2016 Presidential election appeared to have woken a sleeping giant and energized the entire civic tech category. Now, there are a growing number of startups working to solve problems that can energize and activate voters, unleash the power of small-dollar donors, and reinvent the way lobbying and local civic engagement works. Two startups that are embracing this newfound engagement represent the tip of the growing civic tech moment.
Ben Yee and Matt Casey are two founders building new businesses around what they perceive as critical unmet needs.
Matt Casey describes his startup Act On This as a political action cheat sheet. He and his partner were hands on, working with the Sanders Campaign through the summer. Was he caught off guard by the election? "We were fortunate to be traveling throughout the summer, so Trump's win didn't come as a complete surprise," says Casey. "Many of the people we ran into, including Democrats, felt deeply frustrated with the political establishment. They had lost trust in their reps, the political process, the media, and felt powerless against 'the establishment.'"
"Technology, of course, played a role; it has since the television camera lost Nixon his first election. What's new this time is the way people consume information and the way the media now plays to it. Click bait spreads fast in social networks and brings in ad dollars to media outlets" explains Casey. "But the positive possibilities of technology were there, too! Bernie Sanders received more individual contributions than anyone else running for the presidency, ever. Social networks, automation, et al. have reshaped our society, and with that comes some responsibility. Silicon Valley is making the world a different place, but we need to make sure those changes are for the better."
So, Act On This is a response to the election. "Our main goal is empowering civic action. The vast majority of people want to engage and make a difference, but they don't know how. Even something as simple as calling your representatives can be an opaque and confusing process if you're not plugged into activist/political circles. We want people to understand that they can make a difference within the political process," explains Casey.
Act On This is partnering with national nonprofits to enable their state-level organizers, and while Casey cares about the business, right now the focus is driven by activism. "We've gotten this far on our passion, sweat, and skills. We're blessed with a team of volunteers that includes developers, designers, marketing professionals, and a lawyer, so our costs are minimal," says Casey. For Casey and his partner Christine Miao, success is about getting people engaged in politics. "If we can get enough people engaged and informed, policy changes will follow."
If Act On This is focused on empowering activism, then ShiftSpark, kind of like Kickstarter for individual lobbying dollars, aims to re-invent how lobbying dollars are collected, directed and measured. Ben Yee was a Digital Director for Barack Obama during the 2008 general election, and while he worked with high-dollar donors, he found himself frustrated that he couldn't get state and local politicians engaged in an issue he cared deeply about: hydrofracking. His ah-ha moment came when he put the pieces together and invented ShiftSpark.
Ben explains, "ShiftSpark is the lobbyist for the people. It works for anyone who's ready to invest in change. We take pledges to donate if a problem gets fixed. If it does, those pledges can become contributions. If it doesn't, people get their money back."
His passion to change politics is expansive. "By working together, Americans could quickly take back our elections from wealthy interests and outclass any billionaire attempting to take on the public," says Yee.
Because politicians need to be both effective and efficient with fundraising, though, they are compelled to grant access and attention where it's easiest to get money. This means focusing on larger donations. ShiftSpark aims to turn that on its head. By making it much more efficient to organize communities of real people, that gives those people real influence in politics.
If Yee can turn passions into targeted results oriented donations, the change could be a game-changer. For example, Presidential elections now cost almost two billion dollars. In contrast, American consumers spend about $6.5B celebrating Halloween. "If every person who actually walked to the polls and voted for Barack Obama in 2012 had contributed $15," says Yee, "it would have funded his entire campaign."
For both Yee and Casey, it comes down to one thing: using tech to power change. "What's broken is that people do not understand how politics really works. We don't teach civics in schools anymore and political parties, especially the Democrats, are no longer focused on actually engaging voters," says Yee. Ironically, the problem may have been self-inflicted, he says. "The Democrats have invested heavily in data-driven, sanitizing technology which centralizes power in gatekeepers."
So, in the era of the Twitter-powered President, grassroots activists have work to do.
Says Yee: "Donald Trump's Twitter exemplifies the sort of dirty, direct connection that the technology to win elections must incorporate. Democrats have built wonderful one-way channels. But any important political tech will be a two-way channel." And Casey agrees, it's more than just trying to stop the new tech-enabled voices of the opposition. "Let's not just stamp out fake news, let's amplify grassroots enablement."