POPVOX tries to bring the voice of the people into Congress

The explosion of social media use in the United States has been greeted with enthusiasm by digital evangelists who argue that online platforms will be an upgrade on the existing communications systems between citizens and Congress. After the 2008 and 2010 elections, it’s clear that while social media now plays a role, the voices of citizens aren’t necessarily being heard in Congress any more effectively. Where phone calls used to swamp Capitol Hill switchboards, now, email, tweets and Facebook comments can overwhelm Congressional staffers. That reality was articulated in a speech by Marci Harris at the Gov 2.0 Summit this year, embedded below:

Two months later, Harris’s new company, POPVOX*, has announced its public beta, aiming to “bridge the gap between the input the public wants to provide to Congress, and the information Members of Congress need to receive.”

“Constituent communications are overwhelming Congressional offices,” said POPVOX CEO Marci Harris in a prepared statement. Harris, who has worked as a Congressional staff member, understands this issue better than most. “Members of Congress really do want to hear what constituents have to say. Unfortunately, today’s communication tools dramatically increase the ability to generate messages going in to Congress without helping Congress handle the influx. The increasing emails, Tweets, Facebook comments, petitions, form letters, faxes, etc. are having the unintended effect of turning genuine citizen engagement into unintelligible noise.”

The approach that POPVOX takes to this information flood is to act as a platform for citizen-to-Congressional staff communication, identifying citizens as constituents to staffers, guiding visitors to pending legislation and publishing data-driven dashboards that show the organizations that are lining up on the issues. The customers for POPVOX are the advocacy organizations that want to get more awareness of their legislative lobbying and to partners with similar advocates.

“Many grassroots campaigns don’t take into account that Members of Congress have limited ability to respond to general expressions of outrage or support. They can introduce, co-sponsor, or vote yes or no on a bill. That’s about all they can realistically do,” said Harris in her statement. “By focusing the POPVOX platform on pending legislation and not general ‘issues,’ and making comments on POPVOX public, searchable and sortable by anyone, we are able to turn constituent voices into something that a legislator can actually use.”

According to POPVOX, the service has already been used during its pre-beta release by organizations that oppose H.R. 4646: Debt Free America Act or those that support H.R. 676: Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act or by the Association of Flight Attendants to build support for H.R. 915: FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009. A number of bills up for consideration during the lame duck Congressional session this winter have also been receiving user comments, including H.R. 1751: American Dream Act and H.R. 3458: Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009.

POPVOX, a nonpartisan corporation, joins an increasingly hot space. TechCrunch covered Votizen in September, another startup which has received $1.5 million dollars to “make sure government representatives hear your voice.” Sound familiar?

As Jason Kincaid noted, “The startup sprung, in part, from the success of a Votizen-powered Twitter campaign earlier this year that was held in support of the Startup Visa. Thousands of people tweeted their support for the bill, and Votizen actually delivered their messages by hand to the appropriate people.” Another firm, Frogloop, coordinates social media campaigns in support of advocates’ issues. FireSide21 provides a suite of technology tools for constituent communications, including CRM, email marketing, telephone town halls and more.

The open question for POPVOX now will be whether their platform can reboot the relationship between citizens and legislators, and do so sustainably, effectively and profitably. Given the historic low ratings for Congress, there’s certainly plenty of room for improvement.

*DISCLAIMER: Tim O’Reilly, my publisher, provided angel funding for POPVOX. He calls it “a kind of Google Analytics service for politics, bringing visibility and actionable insight to both Congressional staffers and advocacy organizations.” My choice to cover the beta launch startup did not come as the result of his request nor that of Harris, who I met for a briefing on Capitol Hill earlier this year.

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.


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