Civic Startups Introduce New Technology to Government

BY Cindy Huang  July 31, 2012 at 8:43 AM EDT

Former congressional aide Marci Harris was frustrated with the way information
and messages flooded into the office of Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., and got lost. In
2010, she left to solve government’s biggest problems.

“The way information is processed is breaking. There has to be a new way,” said
Harris, who went on to found PopVox, a tech startup that works to improve the
communication between Congress and its constituents.

Earlier this week, more than 600 entrepreneurs and government and technology
leaders came together at the Next Generation of Government Summit to hear
speakers, attend presentations and participate in workshops about how to
improve government. The workshops included “Tech Tips: 50 ways to be more
effective,” “Problem Solving: Improving Technology” and “How to Drive Big Changes
in Government.”

With technology advancing at a rapid pace and billions of people receiving
information on the Internet and their mobile phones, entrepreneurs and developers
are trying to bridge the gap between new technology and old government habits.
These civically focused startups are building products that they hope will change the
way things are done on Capitol Hill. But their odds for success are tough, as many
of them navigate uncharted waters and face competition from thousands of other
startups for users and funds.

In 2011, Harris partnered with lobbyist Rachna Choudhly and programmer Joshua
Tauberer to launch PopVox.com. On the website, users search for bills they’re
interested in supporting or opposing. PopVox delivers the message as well as the
count of people who support and oppose the message.

“It is public and transparent. We’re an independent metric of what people are telling
Congress,” said Harris. “There’s never been an insight to what information Congress
is receiving.”

PopVox has five full-time employees, one part-timer and four interns who meet
every morning on Google Plus.

Many civic startups are staffed similarly, employing between two to 10 people,
with some joining as college volunteers. They meet in coffee shops, living rooms on
Google Plus and Skype. They have small budgets and big ideas.

In the last two years, Washington, D.C., has developed a vibrant startup community.
Michael Mayernick, founder of the social startup website, Proudly Made in DC, said
that tech meet-ups in the nation’s capital have grown to rival those of New York
City. His website has grown to feature more than 300 startups in the area that come
together to share ideas about how to re-vamp government services.

Among these young companies are GovLoop, an online community for government
workers to share insights and best practices, TechChange, a social enterprise that
offers online courses in technology for social change and international development,
and Votifi, an online polling company.

“What we’re doing is solving the problem that polling industry is facing: declining
penetration of land phones,” said Aasil Ahmad, co-founder of Votifi. “We’re building
an engine that runs real-time polling and analytics.”

Votifi sends political surveys to mobile and online platforms and allows users to
engage with each other on political issues of the day. Their clients are organizations
interested in public opinion, such as political campaigns, advocacy groups and
media companies.

With the success of companies like Facebook, Twitter and Groupon, it’s not
surprising that many entrepreneurs see the potential in conducting business and
communication online. But this industry has its share of challenges.

“User acquisition is a challenge all startups face given the number of concepts
competing for their attention,” said Ahmad. These startups not only compete for
attention. They also compete for funding. According to Ahmad, startups focused
on government and policy have trouble attracting investors because the there is a
perceived small market for these products. Thus, the majority of these startups will
fail.

Andrew Wright shut down his company Grasshop.com, a site for people to start
their own grass root campaigns, after founding it in 2007.

“I fell into every pitfall you could fall into,” Wright said.

Without any training in programming, Wright found that his biggest mistake was an
inability to grasp the technical aspects of his product development. His challenges
included competing for users with dominant online social spaces like Facebook
and Twitter, introducing new technology to reluctant congressional offices and
acquiring users.

“Any technology startup needs to innovate and stay ahead of the trend to be
relevant and useful,” said Wright. “That’s where we fell down.”

While failure is a common story, there are startups that have transformed into
established companies that now play an integral role in government.

FedBid is an online marketplace for government organizations to buy products and
services. After procuring its first client in 2001, its client list has grown to include the Departments of Defense, State, Labor, Homeland Security and Health and Human
Services. FedBid employs 243 people and serves 15,000 buyers and 53,000 sellers.

Startup founders all said they oscillate between success and failure on a weekly
basis.

“It’s like manic depression. You have elated highs and points of despair. You have
this mindset that everything is riding on this and that can leave you vulnerable,”
Wright said.

Lou Aronson, founder of Votifi, echoes the sentiment.

“I was talking to one of the guys at Start-up America and he asked me, ‘Is today a
week you feel like the king of the world or a week that you wish you were in an
office pushing paper around?’” said Aronson, who left his law practice behind in
2011 to pursue his startup full-time.

While all these startups deal with the ups and downs of venturing into a new
frontier, they’re all enthusiastic about their product. With Americans getting rid of
700,000 landlines a month, Aronson has confidence that a mobile platform is the
best way to engage people about the important issues of the day.

Votifi has engaged 100,000 people in its surveys, resulting in 1.6 million answered
questions, and GovLoop hosts 59,000 government workers. TechChange has built 50
to 60 online courses, with 30 to 70 students enrolled in each one. And PopVox has
gained 130,000 users since its launch in 2011.

While Harris can’t say whether PopVox is going to be the next Facebook for
Congress, she has full confidence in its concept.

“Whether we’re doing it in the way that’s going to be ‘the way’ or be ‘the team,’ we
have to prove every day. But we never doubted our product will exist,” said Harris.