PPF Blog

Follow-up Thoughts on “What’s Needed for Civic Engagement”

Last week, I published a long-simmering blog post on the open-source infrastructure we’re missing for greater civic engagement in the U.S. online political space.

"Waves Clock" - still image - from http://www.michaelbellsmith.com/work/waves-clock (2012)

“Waves Clock” – still image – from http://www.michaelbellsmith.com/work/waves-clock (2012)

I was pleased to have a solid conversation about these ideas on Wed. on the micropublishing service with Alex Howard, Daniel Schuman and Matt Lira – wanted to type-up follow-up thoughts for my argument. (Let’s expand & continue the conversation w/ more organizers’ & product-managers’ voices – get at me – there’s been over 200 unique pageviews of my blog post, but only two real direct comments over Twttr.)

(Images in this post are from my friend Michael Bell-Smith‘s site, check out his exhibition at Foxy Productions in NYC.)

Last week, I slapped together that pseudo-visionary ramble ahead of a Knight Foundation event on #opengov here in NYC – was also spurred by the midterm elections, and accompanying gnashing & wailing about terribly-low voter turnout.

  • So much money and media oxygen spent on an important, but zero-sum, one-Tuesday-in-November event, with too-depressed public approval ratings. (That’s the U.S. political game, after all.)
  • So many people running headlong to Facebook & Twitter to vent, celebrate and share news & blog articles about the election – with no way to channel that information going forward into structured open data, for legislators and government entities to use in policymaking.

I confess my blog post was – pretty transparently – aspirational – that is, I believe the potential is massive for open-source tools for civic engagement. The public-benefit use cases are there, some open-source code is ready to leverage, comparable projects have succeeded abroad with impact, and the desire is there from a vanguard of government stakeholders to use open tech for public participation – I argue, the open-government landscape has been missing funding for nonprofit tools like this on the levels of, to pick an example from the Knight Foundation’s essential civic-tech report, neighborhood forums. Primarily, I argued that existing civic-tech needs stronger hooks into policy to achieve impact and facilitate far-greater adoption.

Now, to surface some principles and chase some follow-ups – on tools such as Liquid Feedback for the U.S., or Councilmatic 2.0, or AskThem as an open version of ParliamentWatch (from Germany). Below, I pull back the curtain a bit on the funding landscape for non-profit civic technology, it’s going to get rather detailedly real. But with all the funding going to civic-tech & open-gov & research, who’s building the open-source tools? 

  • These tools should be nonprofit, to incentivize governments to use them and intake their public comments. This generally will mean, in practice, noncommercial as well, no banner ads or native advertising. Civic aura.
  • These tools should be open-source, to maximize public trust and enable the most remixing by developers, and open-data, to funnel public opinion and political feelings into the legislative & legal processes – and the networked public sphere.

It can sometimes seem, or be conflated, that “civic tech” is the same in its incorporation, business / sustainability strategy, and product priorities. But nonprofits & community projects are different from civic startups that go through most accelerators and receive high-six-figure early budgets. “Oh, it’s all political action, if it happens on Facebook or NextDoor or Mindmixer or via Action Kit or on Councilmatic or on MoveOn.” – when differences obtain, for what we’re aiming to build & support, if there’s to be a lower-middle-class-sized-accommodating nonprofit #opengov community heading into 2015. On unpacking the inside / outside of government question – broadly, there exists:

  • tech entirely-outside government (such as OpenCongress or Councilmatic);
  • tech mostly-outside government, where some elected officials volunteer to participate (such as AskThem or Change Decision Makers);
  • tech mostly-inside government, paid-for-by-government (such as Mindmixer or SpeakUp) where elected officials or gov’t staff sets the priorities, with the reliable expectation of an official response; and
  • deep legacy tech inside government, the enterprise vendors of closed-off CRMs to Congressional offices (incl. some defense contractors, even, I see you Lockheed).
"Squiggle Sign" - from: http://www.michaelbellsmith.com/work/squiggle-sign/ - (2013)

“Squiggle Sign” – from: http://www.michaelbellsmith.com/work/squiggle-sign/ – (2013)

Tools like Liquid Feedback U.S. or Councilmatic should be developed by independent nonprofit organizations, like PPF or mySociety (UK), and then programs developed for governments to use them free of charge, or sell Software-as-a-Service to governments as consultants / vendors (to generate some earned-revenue streams). It’s great that so many civic startups, such as Mindmixer and others, are selling to governments, but my concept of the full potential of technology for open-government includes some (likely smaller) third-party sites – on the basis that they have the incorporated ability (if not nec. the resources) to innovate, conduct outreach in untraditional ways, and take risks in content (say, marijuana legalization or marriage equality or criminal justice reform) – as well as marketing and partnerships. They can be outside-the-Beltway, outside-the-state-house-or-city-hall critics, both ‘sousveillance’ practitioners and direct allies of government watchdogs, as PPF sought to be on OpenCongress for eight years.

One part of this is recognizing the reality that political discourse online will sometimes flare up and get angry; hosting & moderating on independent sites, while retaining the ability to deliver information into official government CRMs, helps make sure strong bottom-up debate can happen. When was the last time you saw an exciting interaction happen on a participation platform paid for by governments? Compared to, say, Reddit AMA’s with public figures, which are comparatively more vibrant at least, in part in their demand for substantive responses. I’m arguing, in part, that much exciting lived engagement happens best outside of official .gov feedback-and-listening platforms, on independently-managed community sites – that should then be able to transmit information into official government channels.

Another major part is that independent government watchdogs have greater ability to ensure their priorities for project development are in-line with the public at large and the #opengov community, as opposed to primarily following the city IT staffs & political leadership that cuts the checks. The accountability is more built-in with nonprofits, and that’s why PPF incorporated as a 501(c)3 organization, as opposed to a startup business, in the hopes there would grow reliable programs of charitable support for free & open web tools for civic engagement. The funding network for civic engagement is, we hope, still evolving.

Given all that, it’s been proven to be possible for successful nonprofits to give some free services & widgets to governments, such as a question widget for NYC council members from AskThem (in the works), or more-intensive consulting on web development around city services (as mySociety UK does, in-part). So third-party sites don’t need to be only-outside government, as long as their information is as-portable-as-possible into government CRMs (even without a robust open data standard for constituent communication, an “X11”. Nonprofit sustainability is a challenge, as PPF and others in our space have encountered, but good models exist to follow once core funding support has helped to establish the first successful projects.

"Magic Hands" - video still - from: http://www.michaelbellsmith.com/work/magic-hands/  (2012)

“Magic Hands” – video still – from: http://www.michaelbellsmith.com/work/magic-hands/ (2012)

It’s worth getting more specific on funding ranges & structures here – if the largest civic startups such as Brigade gathered $9.5m in first-round capital towards launch, and successful civic businesses such as Mindmixer took a $17m Series C round in Sept. of this year, by comparison, PPF aims to be – well, as big as the occasion supports, but in one reckoning – an approx. $650,000 annual nonprofit, covering five staff people (a three-person dev team, product manager & outreach coordinator) and lean infrastructure costs.

With that ballpark established, it’s easier to understand why funding a nonprofit team like PPF meets the public-benefit thresholds of value, if not nec. a 10x return after an acquisition. One type of quantifiable metric is web traffic: if PPF operates two major sites (AskThem and Councilmatic) and an open standards program (X11), maybe some consulting for open CRMs for government entities and web dashboards of public opinion, these tools together could: register in the low millions of users, reachable with their emails; receive approx. 350,000 web visitor sessions per month; partner with a dozen NGOs to promote issues and Q&A campaigns; and recruit thousands of elected officials nationwide to volunteer to participate as verified responders.

To be sure, there are many other metrics of use & engagement & audience that are important and would need to be weighed. But for now, if those metrics obtain, a hypothetical PPF $54,000 operating budget per month towards 350,000 (user-friendly!) web visitor sessions / mo. is appox. $0.55 per civic expression, not counting all the innovative tools & apps that can be developed off a truly open-source foundation. Comparable big-picture costs of other types of online civic engagement, anyone? (And of course, see our nonprofit advisor Anthea Watson Strong’s formula for civic engagement, from this past Spring at PdF conference and elsewhere.)

To track a city council bill with email alerts, or ask a question to your state senator for a program-cost of 55 cents seems like civic engagement worth funding, seems there’s leverage & opportunity there, when some other civic-tech projects receive millions of dollars with the goal of amassing tens of millions of users. The alternative is the individual’s political action will go on Facebook and be lost in the ether and the walled garden. (Some civic startups aim to sell consulting to government clients, develop new products, and perhaps be acquired towards an exit – assuming they don’t go public – and that’s an interesting path to take, but disagrees with my principle above that our #opengov focus & speciality is best outside government.)

"Magic Hands" - view 3 - from: http://www.michaelbellsmith.com/work/magic-hands/  - (2012)

“Magic Hands” – view 3 – from: http://www.michaelbellsmith.com/work/magic-hands/ – (2012)

For context, PPF’s OpenCongress, from 2007-2013, received an average of 4 million vists per year (333k / mo.) and 11 million pageviews, with just three full-time equivalents and no paid marketing budget or consultants. If Councilmatic can scale to 3 million visits per year for hundreds of U.S. cities (250k / mo.) and AskThem can grow to 1 million visits per year (85,000 / mo.), that leaves 15,000 visits per month to secure from dashboards of public opinion or other PPF sites to total 350,000 sessions / mo.

A primary contention in this week’s Twitter chat with Alex Howard was that e-participation platforms need policy hooks to continue to provide value, return visits, impact, adoption, user community, and participation of  elected officials. I strongly agree, as I hope my post last week argued – that advancing an idea into legislation, or a public floor debate, is a great outcome of a grassroots initiative from AskThem or other platforms. This follows the model of a couple of countries, Iceland & Sweden I believe, which promote popular petitions for official debate – towards that end, we’ll seek to develop new features so that popular questions on AskThem, or popular bill-text comments on Councilmatic or PPF’s OpenGovernment.org, do advance to a resolution, introduced as law or amendment or publicly tabled.

"Swoosh Composition" - from: http://www.michaelbellsmith.com/work/swoosh-composition/

“Swoosh Composition” – from: http://www.michaelbellsmith.com/work/swoosh-composition/

All of which is to say – the potential is huge, for millions of web visits per year and millions of users reachable over email on just a couple of small, realistic-and-practically-existing nonprofit platforms – if we can succeed in building the charitable funding support to get started. This is where we were headed with OpenCongress, developing it into a participation platform (much like Countable, actually), with individual aye/nay voting features in 2009, and commenting on individual sections of bill text (also ’09), and our innovative Contact-Congress feature set, launched in 2011.

We’ve circulated these proposals in various forms since ’06 – so having proven our success with OpenCongress from 2006 – 2013, and the success of our sibling nonprofits Fight For the Future and Amara video subtitling & translation software, we’d hoped to have gotten started in development of these years ago, so they’d already exist as community resources in the wake of the past several elections – but now, to look to the future.

To summarize, PPF seeks to build the following free & open-source tools for civic engagement, starting as soon as possible – we have the bandwidth and the development plans, we lack the funding for open-source programming and design time:

1. Liquid Feedback web platforms for surfacing political ideas and propositions – such as AskThem. Tracking of bottom-up legislative proposals can be done on platforms such as Councilmatic in cities, or PPF’s OpenGovernment.org in states/federal.

  • But also, a new version of Liquid Feedback for the contemporary U.S. political landscape – think of a design as nice as that of the awesome open-source Loomio deliberation platform, but as a Facebook for politics, with integrations into government stakeholders.

2. Open data standards for constituent communication with government

  • I call it “X11” – like 311 for questions, opinions, expertise and more. Move individual political actions out of closed social media and into the networked public sphere. (Most recently, as it applies to #Ferguson and more.)

3. Open CRM for government entities – enable p2p organizing by making the work of (1) and (2) above fully open & searchable, and shepherding it through actual government processes

  • This would enable fascinating data analysis and visualizations of political preferences by jurisdiction – not only all U.S. Congressional districts, but any state or city legislative district. Search & find advocates in other states who share your issues, and connect with them to share resources and organizing time.

4. Open data for every government entity that represents you, and their various communication channels – making it easy to connect individuals to resources 1-3 above, giving them official, structured, easy-to-use access to all of their elected officials.

  • Finally, the dream of DemocracyMap realized, to be able to track your political actions from a Facebook post to a comment in your Congressional district to a public response from your U.S. rep’s office.

A hypothetical $650,000 annual nonprofit budget for PPF and allies, resulting in the above-mentioned tools over two years, could be broken down: two $500,000 total grants from two civic engagement foundations; $100,000 total in consulting revenue; $50,000 total in microdonations (about $2,000 / mo.). PPF is missing the core foundation funding or major project funding to be able to move forward productively – but with this ballpark of funding, we could deliver the above-outlined projects, free & open-source to the #opengov community. AskThem running nationwide, Councilmatic in hundreds of U.S. cities, open-data dashboards visualizing issues by jurisdiction, open CRM consulting for local governments (esp. NYC).

"Return To Forever" - from http://www.michaelbellsmith.com/work/return-to-forever/ - (2009)

“Return To Forever” – install view – from http://www.michaelbellsmith.com/work/return-to-forever/ – (2009)

But there are many worthy projects deserving of two hypothetical foundations’ support totaling half a million dollars over two years. Towards this end, one might envision a threshold of popularity in nonprofit funding – if PPF launches Councilmatic and revamps AskThem, then hits traffic & use targets towards 350,000 visitor sessions / month, the second year of foundation funding is released or adjusted. Currently in the civic-tech landscape, hackathons & Code For America Brigade projects bring volunteers together, and Sunlight offers #opengov mini-grants of $10,000 and Knight Foundation a terrific prototype fund of $35,000. Those resources can indeed help launch or pivot a project, in the community. But above that level, foundation funding for civic engagement then focuses on #opendata, or legacy nonprofit programs – there are not a lot of $250,000 annual foundation grants out there for open civic engagement tools, we’re finding, though we’re continually hopeful and grateful for our existing foundation relationships. Many civic startups, or social enterprise startups, receive up to $700k – $1m in seed funding – why shouldn’t half of that amount be found to support open-source infrastructure over two years, to enable the open-data and developer community to deploy new tools, test their impacts, and innovate their feature sets? We simply don’t know yet what tech solutions might be developed in partnership with communities – for example, in my home city of Milwaukee, just off the top here, what resources for after-school programs exist in lower-income neighborhoods, and how tech can help organizers and neighborhood leaders there address hurdles and allocate city-government resources. It will take in-person organizing, to be sure, in real partnerships with target users, but we haven’t yet tried some approaches that seem to be working in other countries.

It’s not just PPF projects, like Councilmatic, or our larger proposals, like Liquid Feedback U.S. – I think the civic engagement space could see a lot of benefits from funding other open tech tools at the level of, say, $250,000 annually, for example:

  • Loomio group for every NYC Council district to publicly make decisions online and advance priorities to their council members’ offices.
  • Innovation in the field of email alerts & SMS updates on issues & news, delivered from civic engagement web apps to users. In my evaluation, just typing for myself here, open tech for these could really be shared between users of nonprofit platforms like OpenPlans’ Shareabouts, PAI’s LittleSis, and more.
  •  To say nothing of important infrastructure like DemocracyMap, open standards for delivering petitions to government offices, an open-source CRM for governments to track public issues from constituents, and more. These proposals, more than the nonprofit budgeting details above, are the crucial ideas I’m seeking to articulate and support with this overlong post. But really, who knows what incredible tools & apps could be built on that foundation.

Help us develop these new open tools and provide hooks into policy, from online platforms. Support our 501(c)3 non-profit, email: david at ppolitics.org, @ppolitics on Twitter – we have dozens of informed ideas and concrete proposals, we’re eager to get started. Let’s build some awesome tools.

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