Why We’re a Civic Startup

We applied to be a part of the Code for America Accelerator last week. The accelerator is designed to help build “civic startups” – that is, startups focussed on helping governments interact more effectively with citizens. Filling out the application was a great exercise for us because it forced us to articulate why we consider ourselves a civic startup.

Helping governments communicate with the public

We’re building Measured Voice to solve a problem faced by government organizations at all levels: the need to communicate briefly, frequently, and directly with citizens.

We initially built Measured Voice to collaborate with our government clients on writing social media messages, scheduling them to go out at the right time, and measuring their impact. The collaborative nature of the tool has let us work closely with clients as they find their social media voice. We used it internally for about a year before we decided to open it up to other people who might want to use it. Over time, a handful of government agencies and programs found it and started using it, including the the IRS, USDA, and FCC among others. We’ve loved hearing from other people who have found the tool and found it valuable.

Now, we want to make Measured Voice faster, more accessible, and more useful. We also want to help more government organizations with it, which is why we hope to participate in the Code for America Accelerator.

While there are many social media management tools, none are focused on government, and none focus as closely as we do on the most important component of government social media communications: clear, strategic messaging. As more government organizations are pushed to communicate via social media, we aspire to be the tool agencies choose to develop professional, mission-driven, social media communication teams.

Our wildest ambition is to help improve the clarity of language used in public facing government communications.

Great enough for government work

Before we heard about the Code for America Accelerator, we spoke with a number of people about our plans to improve Measured Voice and make it available to more clients. When we told people we wanted to focus on government clients, most of them winced. Literally. The general attitude was that we’d be better off seeking clients outside of government. Government sales cycles are too long. The government’s requirements are too tough. We’re actually ok with those things.

The way we see it, the government’s standards for accessibility and security are goals to aspire to, not inconveniences to discourage us. By building software that meets those standards, we help make the Internet more accessible and more secure. By sharing our work, we’ll be able to help other companies do the same – whether they’re building software for the government or not.

Besides, we’re solving an important problem! Our #1 goal as a company is to do work that we’re proud of. If we can help government organizations communicate more effectively with citizens, we’ll improve millions of people’s experiences with the government. The chance to work on these kinds of problems is what gets us out of bed in the morning.

As we say above, we’re solving a problem faced by governments at all levels. There are plenty of agencies, bureaus, departments, offices, and commissions to keep us busy for a long time. Measured Voice is a product that we enjoy working on, but we also believe it makes real business sense. We hope that participating in Code for America’s accelerator can help us prove it.

But Jed Sundwall, president of Measured Voice, and a social media consultant for several federal agencies, believes the problem facing ThinkUp and its successful deployment and use among those agencies boils down to a combination of the mundane and philosophical. Sundwall has downloaded and experimented with ThinkUp himself.

On the mundane logistical side, federal IT departments are risk averse and don’t want to install anything that might pose a potential security risk on their web servers, he said.

"For most agencies, IT staff exist to make sure the department’s e-mail system works," he said. "Few agencies have the resources to work with something like ThinkUp."

Then there’s the broader issue of the assumptions behind ThinkUp’s approach to citizen engagement and crowd-sourcing policy.

"Gathering useful input is a massive design challenge," Sundwall notes. "Agencies can’t just ask on Twitter: ‘Hey what do you guys think about fracking?’"

Instead, getting useful public feedback involves a lot of strategic planning and reaching out to specific audiences, involving “a lot of hard work that software can’t solve,” he said.

Some of that work involves posing the right questions, figuring out what the agency is really asking of the public, and making sure they’re reaching out to the right pool of people who would be interested in providing feedback on a specific policy issue.

"Mostly, people just want government to work, and the only time they want to get involved is when it’s not working," he asserts. "I disagree with the idea that people want to chat with the government: If government agencies do engage, they shouldn’t waste people’s time, and it should be purposeful."

Expert Labs: Putting The ‘Public’ Into Public Policy Wasn’t Easy | TechPresident

It’s worth noting that Beth Noveck proposes some very sensible solutions to the challenges related to citizen engagement in Wiki Government – at least she does in the final chapter, which is the only part of the book I actually read. Also, please support our favorite “famous hipster technologists and personalities” as they turn ThinkUp into a company!