Freeport, Illinois — It was back in January of this year when the city of Freeport reached agreements with two companies to aid in citizen interaction within local government policies, procedures, decision making and within the non-profit sector.
One platform agreement was the approval of a contract for NonProfitTHRIVE, a local partner with a company called Polco out of Madison. The other was the approval of a Contract for Citizen Engagement with the company Polco directly.
So what does this mean.
Polco, a shortening of the concept “Political Compass, helps governments get data they need to enact public policy. Polco functions like a social media platform.
1. A policy maker creates a “post” or in other words, they ask a question. The question can be embedded in a web article, shared on social media, or accessed via Polco’s website.
2. Registered voters can then respond to the question by creating an account with the service, which validates their identity by referencing public voter databases.
3. Once a user (voter) submits a response, they can see real-time results instantly.
The software has been deployed in cities from Austin, Texas (population 948,000) to Two Rivers, Wisconsin (population 11,800) — and recently, Madison, Wisconsin.
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.
The city of Freeport says it will post questions directly to residents on Polco’s website and app. It says residents (registered voters) can visit https://polco.us and create an account. (It’s in the top right hand corner)
Co-founder of Polco Nick Mastronardi was interviewed by Sandra Sloan of FundingSage and said the company was founded in Texas in May 2015. POLCO was inspired by the book “Wisdom of Crowds” and the idea of crowdsourcing. Today, Polco is based out of Madison
“Compared to our few competitors, POLCO’s biggest advantages are that we verify the residency of our users for more reliable data and more informative analysis. Also, we make a concerted effort to get broad, informed, and organized input for city staff. While we accept input from all respondents, we also provide city officials verified results broken down by city district.”
Mastronardi said the way his company helps foster participation by citizens is that they make all their polls third party embeddable to really meet citizens wherever they are digitally.
The city of Freeport says residents can now directly influence the local government decision-making process by using the Polco software.
Looking deeper into Polco, the software (company) registers constituents by mapping them to their own voter registrations. While its stated 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 all but eliminates the ability to have bitter back-and-forth arguments.
Once the user has voted, they can only see anonymized comments.
“Like reddit, they can upvote the strongest arguments for the things that they voted on,” co-founder Alex Pedersen said in a story on Digital Trends. “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.”
For citizens it operates as 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.
“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.”
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. Alex Pedersen spent more than seven years in the Air Force before working as a Strategy and Operations analyst at Google.
And while it all sounds wonderful and like green grass everywhere, what happens when you digitize democracy?
Truth is, no one’s quite sure yet.
Sources, other reading: