This interview is part of a series of expert interviews on the future of digital democracy. The entire whitepaper, including 12 interviews, can be viewed here.

Marci Harris is the CEO and co-founder of PopVox, a platform that helps citizens communicate with their governments. She developed the tool while working as an American Congressional staffer on the team drafting the Affordable Care Act. Marci is passionate about the responsible use of technology to benefit humanity. She serves on the boards of the People-Centered Internet and LaunchTN, was named a “Top 100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company (2012), and has been a fellow with the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democracy (2016), New America California (2017), and is an affiliated scholar with the CITRIS Policy Lab at UC Berkeley.

CitizenLab – “Could you tell us why you founded PopVox, and what your main objective behind it was?”

Marci Harris – “PopVox started in 2010. At the time, I was a congressional staffer. When the congressman had to vote on a bill, he’d ask his team three specific questions: “who’s on it?”, “where are the groups?”, and “what are we hearing about it from the district?”. Knowing who co-sponsors the bill, which interest groups are aligning with it and what constituents have to say about it are important pieces of information that help members of Congress take positions on bills. Back in the day, even though every staffer was looking for the answer to the same three questions, it was really difficult to find the information. The data was spread across different systems, and the methods used to manage constituent input were very unpractical. My early goal for PopVox was therefore to solve the issues I was encountering in my own job. The idea was simple: we wanted to provide an answer to these three questions and to make them available to the public. We set up the platform to share bills online, allowing groups and constituents to share their positions on the bills and ensuring that citizens’ input was shared with congressional offices in a way that could be easily processed.

Around 2011, we launched the beta and solved that technical problem… but we also found about 20.000 other problems that needed to be addressed. We’ve spent the past 10 years building upon the underlying technology and listening to a large number of voices both inside and outside of Congress to figure out how to leverage technology for better interactions between constituents and lawmakers, for better information to lawmakers, for better understanding of the process for constituents… It’s sometimes frustrating to look around after a decade and realise you still haven’t fixed Congress!

One of our biggest learnings is that for most of what we work on, technology isn’t the key. We’re seeing some great success right now in some of our work with committees in Congress to receive public input on draft stages bills. What’s changed here isn’t the technology, but it’s having members of Congress who are listening and willing to use the input.”

“Bringing the public in is the only way to come up with efficient, legitimate solutions.”

C – “How is it possible to foster that type of behaviour from politicians?” 

Marci Harris – “I don’t think we as external companies and groups can foster this behaviour –  I think it needs to come from within and the moment has arrived that people inside institutions really see the need for these tools. Idealists, like us in the Civic Tech world, have been convinced of the potential of technology for years, and we’re now at a stage where members of the institutions are also proactively starting to seek out this technology. 

We’ve recently been working with the Natural Resources Committee and the House of Representatives on a process to receive public input into the draft of a bill (the input is usually collected after the bill has been drafted). When we pointed out to the staffers that the high amount of transparency they were implementing could generate very positive but also negative input, the team responded this was exactly what they were after. That type of behaviour wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago, and the shift partly comes from evolving expectations from the public. Citizens are now used to highly personalised experiences, and to have their voices listened to in consumer interactions. There’s a growing desire to see this replicated on the public level through increased interactions with their government. 

On the government side, there are two factors behind the accelerated adoption of transparency and engagement technologies that we’ve seen in the last couple of years. First, Congress is suffering from a lack of capacity – the work of public servants is increasingly complex, and they need better tools to do their job more efficiently. Secondly, the ongoing legitimacy crisis means that Congress can’t just work behind closed doors anymore. Bringing the public in is the only way to unstick the gears and to come up with effective, legitimate solutions.”

C – “How can participation be made inclusive?”

Marci Harris – “In the early days of Civic Tech, we piggybacked off existing advocacy systems in the US. Large advocacy groups would use our tools and direct large numbers of users to them, e.g. through widgets on their website. This is the old way of doing things, focusing on numbers and quantity rather than on quality. This fits well into advocacy tactics that rely on building an audience and playing on large numbers to influence politics, but I don’t think this is the optimal way to do civic participation today. 

The project we’re working on with the Natural Resource Committee is taking a different approach. It has fewer participants, higher friction but also higher quality engagement and the final input is more incorporated into the legislative process. Over the past couple of years, PopVox has also been working with political scientists and running pilot programs to recruit representative samples of citizens and engaging them on particular issues. The aim is to test whether this improves the constituents’ experience and the quality of the input that’s collected and whether it has a higher impact on decision making. There are a lot of these citizen panel experiments happening, and the next challenge is figuring out how to do that at scale. I see a lot of innovation coming in that regard over the next decade – I’m not sure where it’s going to go, but we’re interested in being part of the conversation.  

Another thing I think about a lot is the use of data and evidence in policymaking. There’s this idea that there’s necessarily a trade-off between both, and that collaborative decisions come at the expense of data and evidence, or vice versa. I think that we should actually aim to mix both notions: get the public better informed through the use of data and evidence, and get public input to inform decisions.” 

C – “How do we ensure that the technology underlying Civic Tech tools remains neutral, unbiased and transparent?”

Marci Harris – “The big self-regulator is that… there’s no money in Civic Tech. You can’t think of participants as customers, and you could never charge participants on a platform. The question of the ethics of Civic Tech comes down to business models, and in this field, normal business models just don’t apply. At PopVox, there are multiple times where we could have taken VC [Venture Capital] money if we had accepted to sell user information, or allowed users to pay to elevate certain topics. We decided not to do those things, which is one of the reasons why we’re still here today. Time has shown that ad-based, engagement-based models aren’t always the best systems – especially when it comes to public good questions. 

The researcher Erhardt Graeff is working on metrics to measure political advocacy in Civic Tech. He argues that ‘clicks’, ‘eyeballs’, ‘time on site’ and other success metrics currently used on social media and marketing platforms are actually detrimental to democracy. The success of Civic Tech platforms should instead be measured on engagement depth, trust levels and the impact that the input can have on policymaking. Moving the needle to these metrics can help foster ethical business models.”

C – “How do you create the conditions for meaningful engagement on the PopVox platforms?”

Marci Harris – “First and foremost, PopVox is not set up as a discussion platform. It’s a platform for people to send a message to their lawmakers, and I think this has protected us from a lot of the trolling and issues that you can see on other platforms. Another important element is that users who sign up to the platform have to provide a real address, a real name, and a real email. This information isn’t made publicly visible on the platform, but it is shared with the member of Congress that you’re contacting.

One of my colleagues is doing research on the ‘public square vs the Ballot Box’ notions. The idea is that there’s a wide range of anonymity and participation levels in the offline world (from shouting in a public square to signing an editorial in a newspaper) and that this range should be replicated in the online world. Of course, you shouldn’t expect to have a great impact if you’re just shouting in a square – higher quality engagement is what gives a greater opportunity to impact the process.” 

C – “How do you get citizens to go higher on the participation ladder, and engage meaningfully?” 

Marci Harris – “I put the responsibility for meaningful engagement on the government side. I think that we Civic Tech actors have had it wrong for the past decade. We thought that if we could create the tools, improve the user experience and reach out to large numbers of people, then we could fix the situation. Those are of course all important pieces,  but ultimately I think what really matters is having a receptive government on the other side. Over the years, I’ve seen that the secret recipe for success is when lawmakers or committees truly pay attention and engage with the citizens’ input. There are of course a lot of basic things that can be done on the user side (localisation and languages, user experience,  good copy…) that we in the Civic Tech field can work on – but ultimately the real question is: are people’s voices having an impact?” 

This conversation is part of a series of 12 expert interviews on the future of digital democracy. You can read the full white paper here.

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