In 2017, the developers of the cloud-based messaging platform Twilio noticed an emerging trend wherein many organizations were trying to use messaging to foster increased engagement in democracy, to connect constituents with elected officials, and so on.
As a result, Twilio started Voices for Democracy, a nonpartisan initiative aimed at improving those engagements between constituents and the individuals or groups who represent them in the political process. Essentially, from its unique vantage point, Twilio saw increased interest in being heard as well as a lagging infrastructure to connect that interest to those in power. In the process of trying to improve upon this, Twilio subsequently compiled a set of best practices. Now, the organization has released those best practices via a guide dubbed Messaging for Action: How Civic Changemakers Drive Massive Engagement.
“This report is an effort to help organizations that are new to mobile messaging applications use them effectively to drive productive engagements with constituents so that they become active, involved people in their democracy,” said Jacob Talbot, a senior marketing manager with Twilio.
This guide, like the whole of Voices for Democracy, seeks to help a wide range of organizations, from groups engaged in get out the vote efforts to others working to help elected officials properly gauge and act upon the voices of their constituents.
The guide includes input from 12 diverse experts on mobile messaging, including the director of mobile messaging at DoSomething.org to the senior national online organizer for the Sierra Club. The resultant report is a heavily stylized compendium of 17 specific tips, split into three categories: content, flow and strategy.
The tips run from the relatively simple — be authentic — to the more complex — track engagement stats. Each tip includes brief advice about how to accomplish it.
Holistically, Talbot said Twilio is looking at fostering increased democratic engagement through messaging apps as a three-pronged effort: the first is getting people engaged as voters and out to the polls; the second is getting them to actively communicate with elected officials and advocacy groups; and the third is building capacity for those same elected officials to effectively receive, analyze and respond to increased interactions via new technologies.
Twilio has certainly seen a need for the last item. When developers launched the Voices for Democracy project in 2017, their goal was to foster 100 million interactions. By the end of that year, they had facilitated more than 300 million. Twilio is set to massively exceed that number in 2018, with its platform currently averaging about 15 messages related to democracy per second.
Fostering increased constituent participation and satisfaction with the democratic process with new technologies is certainly a heavy lift. For nearly a century this has largely been accomplished through traditional tactics such as high-volume phone call campaigns and basic one-on-one conversations.
There is no precedent for the ease with which communications can now be sent through programs like Twilio on mobile devices. Put simply, a new mode of communication has emerged wherein the population expects to be heard — be it by family, a corporation, or an elected official — nigh instantaneously.
And Voices for Democracy, along with the resultant best practices guide, is far from the first effort to facilitate more meaningful interactions through new tech. In fact, Voices for Democracy is partnering with three other organizations with similar missions: Dosomething.org, which is one of the largest youth engagement nonprofit groups in the world; Democracy Works, which has brought 2 million users onto its Turbovote voter engagement app; and the OpenGov Foundation, which is working on a project called From Voicemail to Votes that seeks to make phone calls to elected officials more meaningful.
The fact that three groups with such disparate missions already exist within the same space speaks to the breadth and complexity of the challenge. As such, setting out to use tech to make democracy more robust and representative can seem insurmountable and abstract.
For Twilio, however, Talbot said the effort really comes down to partnering with groups like those just mentioned, and then providing tangible services to them, including products, technical support for those products and funding in the form of credits and discounts for nonprofits.
Really though, the core of this work is perhaps best captured by a quote in the guide from Kathryn Peters, the COO and co-founder of Democracy Works.
“Talk to people and use teach as the medium for human-to-human conversation,” Peters said in the report, “which is still the biggest changemaker there is.”
To learn more about this effort or to get a copy of the best practices guidebook, click here.
Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.