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Can democracy be digitized? These vets at Polco say yes

Polco for Community Organizations and Advocacy Groups
If you’ve never been to a city council meeting, consider yourself lucky. A city council meeting in America is often just an opportunity for the same angry citizens to rant about whatever their hot-button issue is this week. Political operatives know them as “the squeaky wheel challenge,” while polling professionals talk about the “STP problem,” otherwise known as the “the same ten people problem.”

But now a startup in Madison, Wisconsin wants to break this dysfunctional cycle of civic engagement by offering a new communication platform that gives citizens a straightforward way to voice their opinions and ideas to elected officials and policy makers. On the flip side, it helps cities, counties, nonprofits and school districts conduct verified policy polling with powerful data visualization tools to help them find the best ways to move forward.

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The company is called Polco, a shortening of the concept “Political Compass.” The platform is the brainchild of two veterans of military and public service who have assembled an A-team of economists, engineers, policy experts and entrepreneurs to bring their concept to the masses.

Admittedly, co-founders Alex Pedersen and Nick Mastronardi have extraordinary backgrounds for two guys entering the wild-west world of startups.

“One of the bizarre effects is that so much is going on at the federal and state level that it’s almost like people feel like we’re an anchor to something that is tangible and controllable.”

Prior to starting Polco, Mastronardi was a Senior Economist at Amazon and a member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers at the White House. That was after he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin and served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force for more than a decade. Meanwhile, Pedersen spent more than seven years in the Air Force before working as a Strategy and Operations analyst at Google. He earned his Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School. These are not typical backgrounds for startup entrepreneurs.

“We served, so public policy is important to what we do,” Mastronardi told Digital Trends. “It’s why we joined the military. It’s a matter of civic duty. We also really love technology based on where we chose to work after leaving the military. When the opportunity presented itself to work at the intersection of the two, we couldn’t resist.”

“The whole idea is to help people better navigate the public policies that are on the table and what they actually mean,” Pedersen agrees. “It’s to help people communicate in a civil way. It’s the whole point.”

How Polco Works

Here’s the deal about Polco: it succeeds in providing real time or aggregated feedback to policy makers from real people in a way that other platforms simply cannot.

“We looked at it through a couple of iterations,” Pedersen said. “People are using Twitter, Facebook, Survey Monkey and Gallup polls , all for roughly the same applications. There are huge trade-offs with all of them. We were trying to find the true intersection between those applications, carve out that space, and make it our own thing.”

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Fundamentally, it’s a polling and data analysis platform. When Bryant, Texas officials wanted to know if its citizens would support a fee of $3.18 per month for curbside recycling, they turned to Polco. When Fayetteville, Georgia officials wanted to know what its citizens thought about Starbucks getting a liquor license, they turned to Polco. Where normally a few “squeaky wheels” at a city council meeting would have controlled the conversation, Polco’s operatives discovered the issue had a 90 percent approval rate.

The platform is also fluid enough to field lots of different kinds of questions, ranging from pulse questions (standardized, recurring questions to track sentiment over time) to open discussions, yes/no polling, and formal petitions.

Local Government Civic Engagement - POLCO

But here’s where Polco gets interesting. The company registers constituents by mapping them to their own voter registrations. While all data is anonymized during the analyses process, Polco can guarantee that its users are real voters, as opposed to disgruntled people who sign up ten times to take the same poll. Polco voters are allowed to vote exactly once on any given issue, and offer a single comment that isn’t directed at any other user. The platform has literally eliminated the ability to have bitter back-and-forth arguments that characterize other social media platforms. Once the user has voted, they can only see anonymized comments. And then the platform shifts again.

“Like reddit, they can upvote the strongest arguments for the things that they voted on,” Pedersen said. “How that keeps things civil is that someone new to a question can not only see the official background material, but they can also see the strongest reasons for and against any given issue. We see a lot less trolling and a lot more constructive criticism.”

A Local Solution Serving Many Constituencies

It’s been an interesting road for the founders of Polco, who started in San Francisco before joining the Seed Sumo accelerator in Bryan, Texas for a bit and then landing at the Madworks accelerator  in Madison’s University research park. In its new home in the Midwest, Polco has already won the city’s third annual “Pressure Cooker” contest from the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce as well as the “People’s Choice” award at the Wisconsin Innovation Awards.

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“Some people are calling the rust belt the new civic engagement belt,” Mastronardi said. “We’re excited to be in the heartland. There are very blue areas and very red areas here but everyone is very focused on policy, rather than labels. These cities we work with reflect what our product is designed to do, which is to bring people together to discuss important policy issues facing them and their cities and their state.”

Polco is already live or ready to launch in 26 municipalities across the nation, and they expect to have approximately 50 commitments by October 1. In addition to an initial seed round of funding of around $900,000, the Polco team recently rolled out a Kickstarter campaign that gained the company a lot of attention during this year’s heated political news cycle.

While the campaign was unsuccessful in raising its $35,000 goal, it did catch the attention of hundreds of backers and nearly $10,000 in pledges. To a degree, it was also a way for the company to measure the interest in Polco and potentially have citizens subsidize or sponsor the platform in their own community.

A city council meeting in America is often just an opportunity for the same angry citizens to rant about whatever their hot-button issue is this week.

The next step in terms of financing is far more ambitious: a Series A venture capital round is kicking off in September with a goal of $1.5 to 2 million.

The long-term financial model is sound, both ethically and financially. Polco is always free for individual citizens, while the company charges city governments and other organizations an affordable subscription fee with scalable rates base on city population or other demographic units, starting at around $500 monthly.

Asked if the controversial political atmosphere in the United States has affected how Polco operates, Mastronardi said, “Well, the environment has been good for business.”

Alex added that the events happening at the national level are having a profound impact on what happens at the local level.

“One of the bizarre effects is that so much is going on at the federal and state levels—and because our focus is primarily local—it’s almost like people feel we’re an anchor to something that is tangible and controllable,” Pedersen said.

“In that sense, our focus remains steady, but I think the idea resonates with people even more than before because there are so many unknowns out there right now. When we’re talking about things that affect people a mile away from you instead of in Washington, D.C., it becomes more attractive to have a voice at the local level.”

“Some of the smallest towns are really interesting because the issues they’re facing are very different than those in a municipality with 100,000 citizens, or 500,000 citizens,” Mastronardi said. “Something as simple as putting up a stop sign can be a really contentious issue.”

Giving Voice to Everyone in the Community

An interesting side effect to developing Polco has been discovering just who it appeals to. Pederson and Mastronardi have crisscrossed the nation educating communities, organizations, school districts and other potential clients.

“Our platform represents different things to different groups,” Pedersen said. “In terms of flexibility, anyone who can navigate social media can use Polco.”

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That means for citizens, it’s simply a civic engagement platform—a way to learn what’s going on and have a voice that gets heard. For local governments, it’s a way to collect useful and verified data from most citizens in the community whose sentiments may balance out the vocal few at city council meetings. To tech investors, it’s a unique social media platform and a new way to collect actionable data. Finally, journalists can use the platform’s backend to test whether the data collected by Polco on any given issue is really valid or properly reflects the community demographics.

Where the founders almost breeze over their accomplishments is that the Polco platform is portable across mobile and static platforms, meaning it can be embedded into nearly any social communication platform, including a city’s website, Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn accounts.

“Cities like to have traffic driving to their websites, so it made sense to us that a citizen could respond on those platforms,” Pedersen said. “In fact, one of our first steps with a potential partner is to evaluate where their engagement with their constituents happens.”

“Cities like to have traffic driving to their websites, so it made sense to us that a citizen could respond on those platforms.”

“Who are they hearing from? Where is it coming from? Is it representative of the community? Once we figure out that a city has a touch point with 20, 30, 40 percent more of their community than they think, we can formulate an outreach plan to use Polco going forward.”

Polco offers a way to capture underrepresented voices and respond in real time.

“For the first time, we can quantify a gap in communication,” Mastronardi said. “Before, if it’s a free-form town hall or an ambiguous survey, you’re not characterizing who’s participating, and by extension, you’re not characterizing who is not participating. In real time, a city or a county can see if they’re getting real participating from all districts, and if not, they can refocus their outreach to ensure that they are reaching the underrepresented in their community. We can do the same thing by age, geography, or gender. It’s a way to find these missing voices and give voice to people who haven’t been part of the process before.”

Finding a Safe Space

In a political season that has seen some United States representatives have refused to face their constituents, the question emerges whether Polco might have a solution. The answer right now is uncertain, but the company has started some experiments to test integrating Polco’s verified response system with livestreaming platforms that might provide a safe space interface between a town hall, a politician’s livestream, and their constituencies in real time.

What happens when you digitize democracy? No one’s quite sure yet, but it promises to be interesting to watch Polco try to find out.

Clayton Moore
Clayton Moore’s interest in technology is deeply rooted in the work of writers like Warren Ellis, Cory Doctorow and Neal…
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