Editor's note: This story is part two in a three-part series on the role of technology in tackling government corruption. Read part one here.
People could technically do something about corruption in the public sector, and they would if they thought there was something in for them. For its problems, the U.S. allows its people a relatively high level of freedom. Groups that attempt to index concepts like "freedom" mostly place America only below small, rich and culturally homogenous nations like Norway and Switzerland. Americans are allowed to change their government, and they have the smartphones that could make it not too difficult or dangerous too.
Leaders at Google think people are ready to act. They reference those waiting for a platform as "interested bystanders." And in recent years, there's been an explosion of apps and websites designed to fill that gap in the market. Government itself is publishing more of its data online. There are so many new apps designed to hold politicians accountable that it's hard to keep track of all of them. Brigade is notable because it's the most polished and has the strongest focus on being entertaining.
Companies like Brigade are trying to bring the excitement surrounding social networks like Facebook and Twitter to the democratic process. It's a mobile app and social network that allows users to share opinions, vote for and against other people's opinions, and discuss the issues with strangers, family and friends — from the Super Bowl to capital punishment. The app was born in 2014 with $9.3 million in funding from Facebook's Sean Parker, Salesforce's Marc Benioff and Silicon Valley angel investor Ron Conway. Brigade also started with a recognition that the system is broken and that's why people don't want to participate in it, explained Brigade President James Windon.
If voter turnout is any indication, the system is at least partially broken. U.S. voter turnout is very low compared to other democratic nations. In the 2012 election, turnout was 53.6 percent, according to Pew Research, and that rate drops to about 40 percent or lower during midterm elections.
The trouble with building a "social network for politics," which is how Windon said the media is characterizing Brigade, is that politics is not easily accessible.
"The best way to build 'a social network for politics' is to not make it about politics," Windon said. "That’s why we started with the tool we started with, which is around opinion expression. Because as much as people may find the political process and all this complexity anathema — everyone has opinions. Everyone has views, everyone has beliefs. Everyone has issues they care about."
Brigade starts with the basic building block of a person's belief about some issue, and then attempts to pile on impact by creating community and, eventually, promoting collective action. Through partnerships with groups — like Color of Change, Fight for the Future, Center for Food Safety, Heritage Action, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Americans for Tax Reform, just to name a few — Brigade is connecting taps and swipes with real-world meetings and events that impact government policy and the daily lives of Americans. And by enticing Americans with narrowly defined issues they care about, apps like Brigade could be the vehicle or space, as the theory calls it, that fuels deep democratization.
"We think one of the reasons the system is broken is people's feeling of isolation, feeling of disenfranchisement, largely because they end up acting as a citizen in a solo way," Windon said. "We can start to stitch people’s social lives back together with their civic lives."
Political scientist Robert Putnam's 2000 book Bowling Alone explains how the American's civic and personal life began diverging during the second half of the 20th century. Technology has an odd quality of bringing unlikely groups of people together and simultaneously pushing other people apart.
"We often think about, 'How can you build connection between people that creates both positive and negative feedback loops around participation?," Windon asked. " How do you make people want to participate? How do you make participation worthwhile?'"
To attract users, apps like Brigade will need to find great answers to these questions. They need to make people think they're creating impact, create actual impact, and ultimately make participation feel both socially gratifying and unmissable. To overcome apathy, apps need to make non-participation feel like a substantial opportunity was missed.
"If you talk to a lot of people about why they volunteer or why they attend town hall meetings or why they do things that are civic in nature, often the reason is because they find them socially fulfilling," Windon said. "They enjoy the positive feedback they experience from interacting with other people who think like them around some of the causes that are most important."
The presidential election is the central meeting place for American democracy. If an American doesn't vote for the person who will lead the country the following four years, he's unlikely to participate in democracy any other time.
The developers of mobile dating app Tinder saw an opportunity in the presidential election when they launched a new feature called Swipe to Vote. It's a partnership with Rock the Vote and polling platform Wedgies that encourages users to share their views on political issues by swiping left or right. The app then matches users with a presidential candidate and encourages users to register to vote.
New websites like campaign-finance.org collect campaign contribution data to make it easier to see where politicians are getting their money.
Companies like Free & Fair offer open-source election services and systems that promise to make elections secure and honest.
There are dozens of websites and apps that attempt to track political activity and ride the coattails of the data movement — Perspectivo, Rocket Lobby, Promise Tracker, 4US, Represent.us, MapLight, Digitdemos, HealthyDemocracy.org, 4pia, GovTrack, iCitizen, Countable and Activegiver are some of them. The idea is to hold officials accountable and attract participation in government and democracy. Each service pursues a variation on the theme of corralling information around politics, putting it together so it's both comprehensible and relatable, and sometimes building a community to go with it. One challenge lies in the great volume of information available. There's more government data available than anyone can make sense of, and some politicians are banking on that.
Former Colorado state representative and senator Ron Tupa isn't one of them. After being termed out of office, Tupa began building Digitdemos, a website that allows Colorado citizens to "vote" on bills introduced by the Legislature and then compare their votes with their legislators to see how well their officials are representing their beliefs. As a politician, Tupa said he always considered himself a populist. That means he viewed his role in the system as that of a conduit — he saw it as his job, he said, to vote the way the people wanted him to vote.
Just as citizens get scorecards and a dashboard to see how well officials are representing the people, Digitdemos gives politicians similar information. Tupa explained that he would have loved having a tool like that when he was in office. To gauge public opinion on issues he wasn't sure how to vote on, he mailed out paper surveys, he said, on things like marijuana legalization, whether drunk driving should be a felony, class size limits, genetically modified foods, and affordable housing.
Even a politician like Tupa, who wanted to accurately represent his populace, was working hard to get the information he needed to do his job well. It's a ton of data, new ideas and concepts to keep track of, which is why being a politician is supposed to be a full-time job. There's little chance of any but the most dedicated and jobless of citizens keeping up with the hundreds of bills that pass through their state's legislature each year.
"We did 682 bills [in 2015] and some of those bills are introduced in the last week of session," Tupa said. "Like, the last literally four days of session. That’s not typical, but my point is that it is impossible to know how your constituents feel about some bills in such a short period of time."
The Legislature may not fully know or care what the people want, but perhaps it's just as well, because the majority of the public doesn't know what the lawmakers are doing, either.
"I can tell you definitively — I’m not kidding you when I tell you, and I follow this daily — that I can’t even tell you how my rep and my senator voted on any bill that went through the process [in 2015]. Not one. I have to look that up myself. There is not a single news story that I saw that actually showed how my legislators voted."
Bills being rushed through the Legislature with little or no public oversight doesn't sound like democracy, but it's common. Those last four days when the Colorado Legislature rushed a bunch of bills through was the same period it passed Senate Bill 288, which was a bill to give pay raises to several groups of public officials, including themselves.
While Brigade struggles with the question of how to make people care, tools like Digitdemos gather the information in one place for those who already do care, but don't know where to find data.
"There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have this," Tupa said. "I don’t know why this isn’t already out there. And since it isn’t, I decided to create it."
A similar platform called 4US also has a similar origin story. Though never a politician, the platform's creator, Dana Buchawiecki, shared going through a similar astonishment at the amount of red tape, gerrymandering and needless government contracts.
"I was a FEMA contractor during Hurricane Katrina and really got to have my eyes opened on how broken the system was, and how corrupt the system was at the local and state level to the federal level," Buchawiecki said. "I was really kind of disgusted with the whole thing. … Louisiana, where I was working, was under control by Blackwater, which I saw absolutely no reason for."
Blackwater, or Academi, as the private military company now calls itself, has its own special place in America's catalog of corruption. Returning briefly to Johnston's analysis — post-war efforts in Iraq overseen by Blackwater place funds stolen by the firm as high as $6 billion, though "we will never know the full scope of the resources lost," he wrote.
"As [the disaster] started going to another level, it was just looking at the government on some of these emergency spending bills [and the] amount of pork at the 11th hour because they knew these bills had to get through," Buchawiecki said. "It was disgusting watching people leverage a disaster for their own personal gains within their state and constituency. That was the catalyst [for 4US]."
Working abroad, Buchawiecki said getting some distance from his country put the political system in per-spective, but made the politicians themselves inscrutable as ever.
"I was thinking, 'I don't even know what my congressman does. I don't know what my senator does,'" he said. "All I know is come election time, I'm looking at all these campaign ads that are out there and 95 to 98 percent of them are negative attack ads on the other candidate. Do I remember what he did over the last two or four years? Do I know what he voted on? Are these campaign ads legitimate? Is he living up to his end of the bargain if he's saying he's against abortion or if he's for health care? Does he vote on those things?"
As Buchawiecki began digging into the data, he said he began to see what he was up against. It's one thing for Ron Tupa, professional politician, to build a website about law-making, but for everyone else, it's so much gobbledygook. He began learning about the political process, looking at the data, and building a platform that allows citizens to compare their votes to those of their representatives and to view a historical compatibility chart so that when election season rolls around, the voter doesn't need to gaze deeply into the candidates eyes trying to decide if he's lying or not. The platform's goal is also to be customizable — a trend that pervades all of technology — so people can focus on the issue they care most about: themselves.
"By nature, we're selfish. Unless something is directly affecting us in the immediate future or right now in the present, it's very difficult to get people involved in anything," Buchawiecki said. "So, what we're trying to do … is we're trying to tailor the system so it relates to that person. Obviously, I'm not interested in maybe tax law or I'm not interested in Medicaid, but I am interested in gun laws and health care, so how can the system start using algorithms and start using smart software to start learning on what the user is interested in? And start basing content so that content's driven by the user."
Read part three: Overturning the Dark Side of Tech (to come)
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.