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Start-ups aim for a more democratic lobbying system

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Last December, the Mobile Informational Call Act, which would have allowed companies to make robo-calls to cellphones, was halted by the bill’s sponsors, two congressmen from Nebraska and New York, after thousands of citizens weighed in to oppose the measure.

Nearly 12,000 of those citizens voiced their opposition through Popvox, a District-based start-up that aims to transform the top-down structure of policymaking. Popvox is an online platform that collects correspondence between constituents and their representatives on certain bills and issues, organizes the data by state, and packages the information in pie charts and maps so lawmakers can easily spot where voters stand on a proposed bill. In the case of the Mobile Informational Call Act, 11,581 Popvox users lined up against the measure, while 117 supported it. And the bill, which was endorsed by the American Bankers Association, the Mortgage Bankers Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was withdrawn.

Popvox, which was founded in 2010, is part of a growing movement among D.C. professional services veterans to create new businesses aimed at helping the masses — rather than well-heeled corporations — influence public policy. Though their business models are different, their founders — who come from traditional backgrounds such as lobbying, government, public affairs and technology — share a common objective to make policymaking more accessible and transparent.

Lobbying has long been done by paid advocates whose strategy was to meet with congressional staffers and committee members, or score a meeting with a member of Congress to make their case for a bill, said Popvox co-founder and chief executive Marci Harris. The representative would make a decision on the bill, and that would affect their constituents.

“If your case had merit, you could win sympathetic members [of Congress] over to your side,” Harris said. “It would’ve been considered rude to rile up their constituents if you could convince the [member]. Now, things have shifted significantly ... There is a sea change. It doesn’t mean professional lobbyists are obsolete. It’s about a different kind of public involvement in policymaking that technology makes possible.”

‘Voice of the people’

The idea for Popvox was born when Harris, a former staffer for Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), and Rachna Choudhry, then a lobbyist for the National Partnership for Women & Families, met at a dinner party and traded frustrations over the lack of transparency in how constituents communicate with their representatives. Letters and e-mails were often sent to members of Congress on a one-off basis. There was no platform that allowed the public to view the sheer volume of correspondence or visualize where they were coming from, what issues they supported or opposed, and what geographic trends formed around certain issues. On Popvox, anyone can search for a bill and see exactly how many Popvox users from each state support or oppose it, read their letters to their representatives and see their personal comments (much like comments left on a news story).

Popvox, which is derived from vox populi — Latin for “voice of the people” — charges clients a monthly fee for a software service they can use to organize advocacy efforts. Popvox has about 20 clients, including corporations, nonprofits and associations. They pay a fee to embed a widget on their organization’s Web site that allows Web visitors to share their name, e-mail address, Zip code and sentiments on a particular issue with the organization.

“From my former lobbyist’s hat, if I had this kind of data, it would have been much easier for me to come up with a strategic plan for lobbying,” Choudhry said.

In July, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) announced that House Democrats would begin using Popvox to feed into the official intranet for House Democratic staff — meaning that if a company or association uses Popvox to endorse or oppose a bill, that information feeds directly into the intranet system used by 2,000 House Democratic staffers.

“We’re working to make it an easy way to get information in front of Congress so you don’t have to have the big budget to get your message to Capitol Hill,” Harris said.

Pooling resources

A second District start-up is aiming for the same result, but in a different way. BlastRoots was founded by Chris Hull, a former executive at public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, and John Merz, former director of technology for AOL’s in-house incubator Greenhouse. The company began its beta version in early October, and has raised $350,000 from friends and family — including $150,000 from the founders themselves — and are meeting with potential investors.

Hull and Merz envision BlastRoots as a platform where citizens can make small contributions of $100 or less toward an issue they feel strongly about, and that money will be pooled together to hire a public affairs specialist or lobbyist to advocate on their behalf. The company takes a cut of every transaction. They have yet to decide whether BlastRoots will partner with a single public affairs or lobbying firm, or many.

“Right now there is no way to pool resources and have a platform be in contact with the public affairs industry,” chief executive Hull said. “We want the political system to work better. It’s healthy to have the public involved.”

The BlastRoots platform allows users to create or join a campaign, and links their activity on BlastRoots to their Facebook and Twitter feeds so they can invite their friends and followers to join the campaign. The site also tracks how many members of Congress the campaign has attracted by how many e-mails, Tweets and letters they’ve sent in response.

The idea, firm president Merz said, is that someone without a lot money can change the world.

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