On Democracy.io: …I don’t get it.

Alex Howard reported yesterday on the release of Democracy.io, a sleek new tool for emailing members of Congress.  It’s a nice tool, built with the support of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, based on open datasets created by the Sunlight Foundation.

I hate to sound like a broken record here, but… I don’t get it.

Here’s Sina Khanifar, in an interview with Alex Howard (emphasis added):

“Advocacy organizations that can afford it have long had access to tools for delivering bulk constituent messages, but those solutions are expensive and generally inaccessible for regular citizens. Democracy.io helps fill that gap by giving people an easy way to have their voices are heard in Washington.”

What’s the use-case here? Who are these “regular citizens” that want to share their thoughts and opinions with members of Congress unprompted by advocacy organizations?  Where are they getting their information from, and what’s prompting them to write these digital letters?

The literature on political mobilization is pretty clear on this point: people are far more likely to partake in political activity when they are asked to do so.  Whether that’s donating money, knocking on doors, showing up to a hearing, or writing a letter, we tend to take political action because someone we trust/generally agree with asked us to do so.

Participating-because-we-were-asked is sometimes treated as non-“organic,” not as democratically healthy as spontaneous citizen participation that comes out of the civic ether.  But let’s be real for a second: it takes a very particular type of person to walk through life believing that (1) they have all the answers, (2) Congress needs to hear those answers, and (3) writing an e-mail ought to do the trick.  On season 1 of Parks and Rec, Leslie Knope referred to it as “people caring loudly at me.”

This isn’t to say that Democracy.io isn’t nice tech.  It appears to be well-designed.  Some future, nascent social movements might be able to deploy this tool on a mass scale, bypassing software vendors that they can’t afford.  The codebase might be combined with something else to massively simplify some genuinely hard problems.

But, at least in its current form… I don’t get it.  Citizen participation tends to be organized and mediated through networked advocacy groups.  Those groups face a thousand different problems, some small, some big.  How did simplifying the process for emailing congress out-of-the-blue rise to the top of the list?

6 thoughts on “On Democracy.io: …I don’t get it.

  1. Hi,

    This new site had worked very well for me, I am just an regular citizen who recently found out my congressman had authored a bill that will greatly impact my town. It was kept secret, although many local government agencies met about it (again in secret). The congressman stated to committee “there is no local opposition”. This site has been helpful for me to be able to voice my concerns and state my local opposition. I have been a registered voter for +35 years and have only reached out to public officials a handful of times. I guess I am the person that this site is targeting. Thanks,

  2. Glad to take a crack at this – I created the Contact-Congress project in 2010, launched in 2011, while our non-profit PPF ran OpenCongress from ’07-13. Really glad to see its evolution and new interface from Democracy.io (UI is itself open-source, how about that).

    I responded to a deep Hackers News thread on our original goals w/ Contact Congress, with input from Eric Mill and Clay Johnson and Sina Khanifar – my response: https://goo.gl/y7S2M6

    To your post, Dave, I’ll reiterate – OpenCongress bill pages would receive thousands of visits a day, over half from search engines (2/3rds from Google), and our basic user surveys suggested visitors were searching for accessible, official info about bills they could share with their communities. So a user-friendly tool such as Democracy can appeal to a broad audience of “interested bystanders” searching for info, a valuable carrot to take the next step and write their members of Congress – and yes, while I think the potential is huge for open CRMs for constituent issues (and peer-to-peer organizing help), I agree the greater goal is for this to be part of an open infrastructure for engaging government – I’ve described the vision as one of networked open data on constituent priorities, with open-source tools for effective representative government. More specifically, new interfaces such as Democracy’s are use cases for first-time-engaging and then more-continually-engaging interested bystanders, in my view – I can share more info about our last user survey from OpenCongress days, around 2012. More user-friendly tools – and open data standards – to develop around local issue alerts, public meeting testimony, legislative committee accountability, and more. Hope this wasn’t too grandiose, can type more concretely about difficulty of connecting first-time visitors to issue groups with professional organizers and motivated community.

  3. Thanks David, I appreciate the additional context.

    If Democracy.io becomes part of a bigger suite of tools, it starts to make a lot more sense to me. But as-is, it still seems like a scaled-back version of ActionNetwork to me (also free for small-scale organizing), but without the list-building or event planning functionality.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Betsy.

    One clarifying question: how did you find out your congressman authored this bill? Usually, that informational stage is mediated through some kind of political organization or media organization. And those organizations are generally big enough to already have solid access to the capacities Democracy.io offers.

    The element of your experience that sounds unique and rare to me is this informational stage.

  5. Hi David,

    I found out about this Federal bill thru some neighbors (after it was introduced). We were able to (before this site was set up) get 100 neighbors to write/email the sub-committee within a 2 day deadline.

    2 of these neighbors have now set up a small local group to fight this bill/issue. It has all been very secretive and the day before the bill was introduced, our congressman’s office stated “nothing is in the works”. He then proceed to state when the bill was introduced that there is “no local opposition”. So, it is the big groups that are pushing for this bill (they stand to make a lot of money) and only a very small local group of concerned citizens trying to get heard.

    From what I am learning about this bill and the local (county/town) process, many things about this entire deal is “very unusual”.

    Just my thoughts, thanks.

  6. Thanks for sharing more about your experience, Betsy.

    If you haven’t already, I’d recommend taking a look at ActionNetwork.org. They provide a free set of organizing tools. If you and your neighbors are going to be holding meetings, planning events, and otherwise trying to spread the word and ratchet up the pressure, it may come in handy.

    Best of luck!

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