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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

POPVOX, H.R. 589 and the 99ers

"It was impossible to get a conversation going, everybody was talking too much."
- Yogi Berra

Congressional staffers say that messages from their constituents are getting lost. When Congress receives some 300 million emails per year, that's not hard to imagine. Add in the phone calls, letters, faxes, Facebook posts, tweets, et al, and it's no wonder that it's impossible to get a conversation going.

Coming from a ten-year background working with a number of advocacy organizations, Rachna Choudhry knew the problem well. At a dinner party with Marci Harris, then a legislative counsel in Congressman Pete Stark's office, the conversation touched on ways to address the problem. Here's how Rachna described it:

I first met Marci at a dinner party two years ago. When the host mentioned that she was a congressional staffer, I immediately perked up. I was, after all, working for an advocacy organization whose purpose was to inform Members of Congress and influence the policy-making process. Simply put, I was a lobbyist.

Instead of having a typical Washington dinner party conversation, however, (e.g. Who do you work for? What issues do you cover? What's on your "docket" right now?), we discussed the extent of the breakdown in the system. Even with the overwhelming amount of emails, letters, phone calls, faxes, literature drops, tweets and Facebook posts from individuals across the country, it was still a challenge for Congress to ascertain the positions of organizations and understand the concerns of their constituents. The signal-to-noise ratio was skewed. Congress was getting too much noise, so much so that it was interfering with the signal - the underlying message.

That's how POPVOX was born. POPVOX, which launched its public beta in January, is one of those "so simple, it's brilliant" ideas. It gives ordinary citizens like you and me a way to make our voices heard in Congress. It also gives grassroots organizations, which may not have the resources of the professional lobbying groups, a place to make their positions known. Last, but not least, it simplifies the process for Congressional staffers by putting information about issues, opinions and bills into an easy-to-digest legislative docket.

The website is very easy to use. In our conversation for this article, Rachna mentioned that POPVOX passed the "mom test" - she recruited both her and Marci's mothers as test users and asked them to use the site without any assistance. The moms came away with a positive experience.

Because it offers people the option of commenting on bills, POPVOX can put a human face on legislation. One bill that we in the 99er community are very interested in is H.R. 589, the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Expansion Act of 2011. One of the comments by a supporter tells an all-too-common tale, but one that needs to be heard:

"I have been actively seeking employment for over 2 years. I lost my job through no fault of my own. I returned to school & aquired more skills. I've worked most of my life & never had a problem securing & retaining jobs. I am almost 60 years old. I have used all my safety nets. I am a burden on my family. With UE compensation I can least contribute something. I miss working, I enjoy working. I don't want to collect UE benefits but the reality is that I need them desparately. I would use those funds immediately to pay for basic goods & services which in turn will help stimulate the economy."

That message will go directly to the commenter's Member of Congress, Representative Allen West in Florida's 22nd Congressional district. It will also be available on the site for anyone in Congress, like Representatives Barbara Lee and Bobby Scott, who focus on the issue of unemployment. It will be public for every person interested in the bill.

Because it offers organizations of all sizes the opportunity to register their positions on bills, POPVOX can also amplify the voice of the small, grassroots organization. Rachna used the analogy of Blockbuster vs. Netflix: Blockbuster has all the major titles in stock, but Netflix also has the smaller films that didn't get that much exposure. POPVOX, like Netflix, gives the smaller guys a chance, and opens access beyond the major advocacy groups. Again, using the example of the 99ers, the different advocacy groups are now starting to register their presence and their positions on H.R. 589. One group, the American 99ers Union, represents several smaller groups. We're seeing the beginning of a network effect, where the more organizations support a bill, the more will join in.

I asked Rachna about user registrations: for POPVOX to be most effective, people need to give the site their name and address. POPVOX verifies that information and uses it to match people with their Representatives. When POPVOX delivers constituent messages to Congress, staffers can be sure that they're looking at their home district's opinions, and that's one reason why Rachna has gotten positive feedback about the registration process from users.

How can the 99er community use POPVOX?

First, simply by using it. Each 99er who registers and adds their support adds their voice to a growing chorus that POPVOX can further amplify. Second, by encouraging family, friends and supporters to do the same. Next, for those of us with a story to tell, POPVOX offers a platform from which to tell it, and an audience that's there to listen. And, just as with individuals, groups who register, endorse bills and record their position statements make it easier for the groups who follow.

It's not about quantity, though: when I asked Rachna if there was a number (of supporters, groups, etc.) that could ensure a Congressman would be influenced, her reply was that POPVOX was more about the quality of the messages, and how that could influence decision making during the legislative process more than a number could.

POPVOX is one of many tools in the advocacy toolkit. Its ease of use, its ability to verify constituent voices and its ability to make those voices heard by the right people at the right time, should make it the first tool on the list for us.

As we were ending our interview, Rachna mentioned that POPVOX is a finalist in the SXSW Accelerator competition. Best of luck to the POPVOX team!

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