Civic Engagement Election 2016 organizing



A campaign by Civic Hall fellow Andrew Slack to unite Star Wars fans against the Empire of Darth Money.

As we speak, the dream life of Star Wars and waking life of politics are merging. One of history’s most popular authors, JK Rowling tweeted she believes Trump is so evil, that even in her deepest imagination she could not come up with someone as terrifying. Darth Trump is spreading on YouTube at Ludicrous Speed. This is not to mention that Ted Cruz’s campaign is offering a chance to see the film with Cruz (and they have him with a light saber). Bernie Sanders fans are saying, “You’re my only hope,” libertarians are comparing Obama to the Emperor, and the internet is chock full of Star Wars Hillary Clinton memes that truly cross into the surreal.yodahil

The force of psychological energy for effective cultural acupuncture runs strong when Star Wars meets American politics. And here’s how we think Star Wars can help us build a real U.S. Rebel Alliance, spoken in the vernacular of the movie but written against the backdrop of our political reality:

We need to defeat the Empire of Big Money so that we may live in a Republic that is of, by, and for the Force—the Force of interconnectivity that is We The People, when all of our voices are heard.

Right now, the Empire of Big Money has struck back against We the People, silencing our voices with the force choke of Darth Vader. It is up to us, to step up as Jedi-in-training and join the U.S. Rebel Alliance, the way Luke starts his journey in A New Hope. Remember, when Obi Wan invites him to get off of the outer rim planet of Tattoine, he is resistant:

“Look, I can’t get involved. I’ve got work to do. It’s not that I like the Empire; I hate it, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now… It’s all such a long way from here.”

Similarly, 84 percent of Americans polled believe that the Empire of Big Money is a problem but probably less than 1 percent feels agency to do something about it. It is time to awaken the Force of We The People and that is what we intend to do with the U.S. Rebel Alliance.

In the United States, we are 330 million people, all of us heroes waiting in the wings, wishing to go an epic journey but nervous to take on the Empire. And while activists work on issues around gun laws, taxes, climate, religion, racial justice, and economic equality, it’s pretty clear that regardless of where we stand on these issues, should any of us want to be effective on them, we need to recognize that the Empire standing in our way is Big Money.

To paraphrase both Joseph Campbell (whose concepts profoundly influenced the writing of Star Wars) and Ben Cohen from Ben and Jerry’s: if you want to understand what empire you are living in, look to the tallest building in the city. In the 1400s in Western Europe, the tallest building was the Church. By the time of the American Revolution, the tallest building became the political palace, the nation state. By the end of the 20th century, the tallest building in the city became the multinational corporation in the financial district.

We now have an empire that is of, by, and for the corporations. The Empire of Big Money. In the words of one presidential candidate, “Congress does not govern Wall Street. Wall Street governs Congress.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. As the saying goes, it is far, far better to light even the smallest candle than to curse the darkness. This past November, both Maine and Seattle won ballot initiatives setting up small-donor public financing systems. We the People spoke up against the Empire; candles were lit. Regardless of the Empire’s Dark Side, we can spread the light of those candles across our Republic. And that is what we are doing with the U.S. Rebel Alliance.

We are asking people to sign the Jedi Pledge to end the Empire of Big Money, to share this video starring Mark Ruffalo, Heather McGhee (head of Demos), Darren Criss (star of Glee), Baratunde Thurston (The Daily Show), and more. This Sunday from 7pm ET to 10pm ET, we’re holding a live webcast to geek out about the new film, and we’ll be holding a meme contest on fighting Darth Money.

By signing the Pledge, that’s all just the warm up. As we roll out on Twitter as @usrebelalliance, as well as on Facebook, Tumblr, and YouTube, you’ll hear about actions to get President Obama and the candidates to sign the Jedi pledge and use that to create accountability. We want to help make the very needed issue of Big Money center stage in the U.S. primary. Imagine getting the debate moderators to ask the candidates, “A lot of Americans are comparing Star Wars to the Empire of Big Money. If the Death Star is as they suggest, made by Darth Money and Super Pacs, how do you respond?”

In defiance of the notion that “serious topics” must only be addressed “seriously,” we are aiming to turn this winter into a Star Wars U.S. Rebel Alliance party to create change. We plan to use storytelling through social media, guerilla theater actions, and even U.S. Rebel Alliance hotlines in a where we are the heroes in a real world choose your own adventure.

But You are Our Only Hope! We want your ideas on strategy regarding the larger campaign, social media, guerilla theater, pragmatic asks, and more. We want to work with you on how to get people who have never been engaged in civic life to be working alongside veteran activists.

It is time for the franchise that brought us Obi Wan Kenobi to invite 330 million American heroes waiting in the wings to go on an adventure that balances the Force of We the People. It is an adventure to bring down the Empire of Money in politics while lifting up the heroic agency that flows deep in each of us. It is time to make good on our childhood dreams of becoming the heroes’ in films like Star Wars.

May we use the common thread of Star Wars to Awaken the Force that is We the People. May our light emerge from the Dark Side and the Empire. And #MayTheForceBeWithUS.

Civic Engagement New York Open Government



An open government platform launches in the city, with new features designed to increase civic engagement and participation in City Council meetings.

In 2011, Philadelphia was roiling over proposed changes to a retirement program for city employees that had cost the city $258 million in the decade after it was implemented in 1999. Mayor Michael Nutter wanted to cut the program all together, whereas Council members (some of whom benefited from the plan) wanted to merely scale it back. Mjumbe Poe, then a Code for America fellow, recalls that “with the way it was being covered, I wasn’t really getting what was going on.” So he started digging for primary source material, trying to get at the root of the issue. That’s where he ran into trouble.

“My options were limited,” Poe tells Civicist. “Generally pretty poor.” The city’s legislative portal, Legistar, was even less user-friendly then than it is now.

In addition to looking for background information, Poe wanted to be notified when things he was interested in came up in City Council meetings. That February, at one of the weekly hacknights he organized as a Code for America fellow, Poe led an introduction to scraping and, as an example, scraped the council minutes and agenda from Legistar. At another hacknight later that month, a team took his idea and built the first subscription service, an RSS feed that would send items with your search terms to an RSS reader. It was the earliest iteration of Councilmatic, an open government tool that was implemented in Chicago in 2013 and New York City just this year.

NYC Councilmatic, which launched earlier this fall at the Code for America Summit, is a project by the nonprofit Participatory Politics Foundation (PPF) in partnership with the civic technology company DataMade, and supported by Rita Allen Foundation. Like the original Councilmatic in Philadelphia, people can use NYC Councilmatic to find and track laws, resolutions, and other City Council activities on a more user-friendly platform than the official Legistar portal. In addition, David Moore, the executive director of PPF, is adding or boosting features meant to increase public participation, for example: highlighting legislation on the home page to draw visitors in; reaching out to local community groups to invite them to use the comment forum; and partnering with a text-messaging service to make the platform more accessible.

Improving on a city’s official legislative portal is a relatively easy task, but NYC Councilmatic aspires to a higher bar: to “demystify” the New York City Council.

“Pure legislative transparency alone isn’t going to give a site as much impact as we want it to have,” Moore tells Civicist. (Full disclosure: David Moore is a Civic Hall member.) “Open data alone isn’t enough.”

But, Moore adds, “if you provide official information in a shareable format with participation tools, you can see communities organically coming together to take action.” To illustrate his point, Moore points to a 2010 techPresident article by Civic Hall’s Micah Sifry about how the unemployed were coming together on platforms like OpenCongress—an open government platform at the federal level that PPF developed and operated until it was acquired by the Sunlight Foundation in 2013—in “de facto, organizing networks and self-help communities.” In the same piece, Sifry noted that three bills about unemployment benefits had garnered more than 130,000 comments on OpenCongress.

“It’s been proven that on sites like OpenCongress and [like OpenCongress but for states], people come together around their interests, to share information,” says Moore. “This is the model that we’ve been working to bring to city governments for the past four years and with Councilmatic it’s finally happening.”

Councilmatic started as an off-the-cuff project during a hacknight, so the blocks to make it easily replicable weren’t in place.

“I didn’t put a lot of effort into making it easy to deploy in other places,” Mjumbe Poe tells Civicist. “It was always a desire, but it was a side project from the beginning.”

“It took longer than expected,” says Derek Eder, of repurposing the platform in Chicago. Derek Eder co-founded the civic hacking group Open City, which got Chicago Councilmatic up and running, and founded DataMade, which is a partner on NYC Councilmatic.

In addition to not being familiar with the code base, Eder points out that significant differences in the way Chicago and Philadelphia’s city councils work necessitated extra features. Eder says the Chicago City Council can go through 1,000 pieces of legislation per meeting. He and Forest Gregg, a colleague at both Open City and DataMade, decided to automatically tag items as routine or non-routine, to make it easier for visitors to find their way to things of interest.

Eder and Gregg launched the platform in Chicago in June 2013, on the National Day of Civic Hacking. That month, Eder wrote a guest post for the Sunlight Foundation inviting hackers from other cities interested in doing something similar to get in touch. It was also on a list of suggested projects to tackle during a replication marathon that took place earlier this year.

It still took two years to get it up and running in New York City. This is not to slight the work that Eder, Gregg, Moore, and others have put into the NYC Councilmatic platform—and as mentioned before, it does include new features and an updated user-experience—but to draw attention to the challenge of putting out high-quality replications, even when the creators and developers along the way have the best, open-source intentions. Moore says the project would have moved faster, and that Councilmatic would have more features, if they had had more financial support.

NYC Councilmatic now runs on the Open Civic Data (OCD) standard. The Open Civic Data project, an initiative to make open data sets more consistent across organizations, didn’t even exist until late last year. Now that it does, Moore says getting Councilmatic up and running in other cities will be much easier.

“If a city started publishing in OCD tomorrow,” he tells Civicist, “we could have them up on Councilmatic…in under a month.”

Would Councilmatic be easier to replicate in other cities if it scooted a bit further into govtech territory? If, for example, Moore and co. sold the platform to governments instead of hosting it as a nonprofit organization?

“A nonprofit aura makes people participate in ways,” says Moore. “So we’re willing to host those conversations on our pages whereas on government websites, that might get too risky or controversial.”

But, Moore points out, the influence of sites like Councilmatic can be seen in government technology. For example, the bill status bar that Moore designed for OpenCongress is now a feature of Moore says they were also the first site to highlight most-viewed bills, and now does the same.

Examples of communities organically congregating around issues of shared concern are harder to find on Councilmatic than on OpenCongress, perhaps because they haven’t been marketed or presented as engagement tools. Moore points out that NYC Councilmatic is the first to spend resources on filling out a public comment program: reaching out to local groups and inviting them to comment on legislation; partnering with the text-messaging platform HeartGov to further spread the word; etc.

And if the platforms are driving civic engagement offline—increased attendance at City Council meetings, for example—it’s hard to prove.

As for what’s next, Mjumbe Poe and Derek Eder are planning on updating Philadelphia and Chicago Councilmatic respectively to include the changes in NYC Councilmatic, which Poe reiterated is a “major departure” from what came before.

Moore has ambitious goals for getting the platform into more cities around the country. He says he’s looking for funders to help fortify the public comment program in New York City and looking for national open data funders to help spread Councilmatic nationwide. Lucky for him, there’s no shortage of fields to plow: “There’s 20,000 municipalities in the U.S.,” he tells Civicist, “and right now nearly all of their legislative portals are a pain point.”

Civic Engagement Civic Hacking Protests



Some practical advice for conducting cultural acupuncture.

The final film in The Hunger Games franchise hits theaters today. Fans will be flocking to theaters to see the conclusion of Panem’s revolution, but the Harry Potter Alliance is already helping write the next chapter.

Odds in Our Favor is a campaign by the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) to hack the Hunger Games hype and get people talking about real life economic inequality. The practice of combining pop culture and civic engagement, which HPA co-founder (and Civic Hall fellow) Andrew Slack calls “cultural acupuncture,” helps leaders detect and redirect society’s psychological energy toward real world issues and action.

During the first iteration of the Odds in Our Favor in 2013, HPA asked fans to send in pictures of themselves holding up a three-finger salute to acknowledge that the economic inequality and oppression seen on screen were real world issues. In 2014, when Mockingjay Part 1 was released, we asked fans to share their personal Hunger Games stories around how issues like class, gender, sexuality, race, education, ability, employment impact their lives. These stories showed the reality of economic inequality in the U.S. With over 12,000 people telling their story, we were left wondering: what can we do to impact such a large and complicated issue?

This year, Odds in Our Favor is focused on sharing both stories of oppression and action. We’ve partnered with labor unions, nonprofits, artists and activists to form a “Coalition of Rebels” which provide fans with ways to take action. These partners share in-depth first person stories from the communities they work with at Each story—from Walmart workers to environmental disaster survivors to Syrian refugees—includes an action that either the storyteller has taken to create change in their community, or that the reader can take to make a difference. Fans are no longer just consuming or even telling the story; they’re participating in shaping it.

At the Harry Potter Alliance, we believe all fans can be heroes. Fans are passionate, enthusiastic, authentic and imaginative—four words usually missing when we talk about politics and civic engagement. Through cultural acupuncture we are using fandom as a force for good—and here’s how you can, too.


Cultural acupuncture means you don’t wait for people discover to your issue—you bring the issue to where they already are. The Hunger Games trilogy was one of the first major literary phenomena after Harry Potter. The energy and excitement was there, and fans were eager to engage with the story and the issues it represented. The Harry Potter Alliance chose to do something that ultimately shaped our organizing going forward: we followed the energy and did our first non-Harry Potter related campaign.

As the franchise grew to include four feature films, the energy continued to grow and to shift. Fans lamented that this story of economic inequality and revolution was being used to sell make-up and Subway sandwiches. We responded to this bizarre marketing by asking fans to tell the real stories of #MyHungerGames. This year, when the conversation shifted to anger and confusion around the Hunger Games theme park, we asked fans to share ideas for attractions that represent the real Hunger Games. Fans suggested $50,000 tickets, juggling acts where performers balance “rent,” “food,” and “medical,” and roller coasters that require three years of experience in order to ride.

By paying attention to Hunger Games fans, and to this particular cultural moment, we created a responsive campaign for engaging fans around issues of inequality.


As Odds in Our Favor has grown, we’ve worked with and learned from incredible partners. Having partner organizations on the campaign has allowed us to share stories from incarcerated young people, indigenous activists, mental health advocates, and other communities whose stories often go unheard in mainstream media. Partners also bring the campaign to new audiences: people who follow the partner organizations and use their services gain a new, creative way of engaging with issues they care about. The power of Odds in Our Favor grows, and partner organizers gain another tool for increasing engagement.

From labor unions to international NGO’s, we’ve see civic organizations use cultural acupuncture in incredible ways:

  • Project UROK created a special #MyHungerGames video series, where people shared stories about mental health and poverty.

  • OURWalmart and Fight for $15 have used the Hunger Games as a part of their protests, with workers holding up the three-finger salute and rewriting the lyrics to “The Hanging Tree.”

  • AFL-CIO have highlighted present-day labor issues in easy-to-read listicles illustrated with eye-catching gifs from the film.

  • Campaign for Youth Justice adapted their “Hands of Support” campaign to include the three-finger salute to demonstrate support for incarcerated young people.

  • HPA chapters have used the Hunger Games to organize their communities around everything from refugee support to climate change education. We’ve seen art shows, hunger (games) banquets, donation drives, teach-ins, and more.


Author John Green has long advocated that stories belong to their readers and that it is the imagination of readers that bring narratives to life—which we believe means that fans hold the power to continue the narrative long after the series ends.

Through the work of fans and partner organizations, we’ve done just that with the Odds in Our Favor campaign. We’ve shared #MyHungerGames stories from an impressive array of communities: workers, prisoners, refugees, protesters, mental health advocates, climate change survivors, and many more. Each story we share includes a call to action: sign a petition; start a discussion; join a march; tell your story.

With so many diverse partners and issue areas, these stories and calls to action could have sounded like a disjointed cacophony. Instead, weaving The Hunger Games narrative through each story and action has created the lyrics to a collective song that every civic organization should be singing: our issues are entwined, your liberation is bound up with mine, and everyone’s actions make a difference. In 2015, we’re witnessing a revolution, and cultural acupuncture is allowing us to understand what that means and imagine ourselves as heroes in the long narrative of history and change.

Katie Bowers is the Campaigns Director for The Harry Potter Alliance, which uses the power of stories to inspire social change.

Civic Engagement Civic Tech future of work



“I sensed that we needed to hear from people who were formerly incarcerated and that they might be less likely to have internet access.”

Always ahead of the curve, the city of Austin, Texas, launched an online community engagement portal in 2008. Called SpeakUpAustin, the platform is the cradle of the city’s bike share program and played a part in shaping a plastic bag ordinance. It allows anyone with internet access to publicly share their opinion on upcoming policy decisions without having to attend a public meeting. Although this was a leap forward in terms of accessibility and convenience, participation was still limited by one major constraint: internet access. This summer, however, the city took steps to change that by using a text-based tool called HeartGov in tandem with SpeakUpAustin to poll city residents about a Ban the Box initiative.

The Ban the Box campaign to delete the part of job applications that asks about previous convictions has been around since 2004. The campaign began seeing some success (in Minnesota, for example) in 2009. Since then, cities like Boston, Philadelphia, New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, and others have removed the question.

“The Austin city council decided to follow the lead of several other cities and jurisdictions in looking at what people are calling a fair chance hiring policy,” says Larry Schooler, the manager of Austin’s Community Engagement Division. “The idea behind it is really to try to help those with criminal records, with histories of being incarcerated have a fair chance at getting hired.”

“The policy could mean that employers would need to delay criminal background investigations until a conditional offer was made to an applicant, even a person with a conviction,” Schooler clarifies.

Schooler’s position was created in 2009, when Austin’s communications director decided to invest more resources in engaging the public in innovative ways. “I’ve sort of gone from being a person to come in and facilitate meetings here and there to someone who is really trying to design a new system of public engagement,” Schooler tells Civicist. “I’m spending a lot more time now creating tools and programs and doing trainings than I did at the beginning.”

HeartGov first came to Schooler’s attention after he saw a short piece I wrote last year for techPresident, about testing the tool in Brooklyn. He reached out to Asher Novek, who developed the tool as part of his master’s thesis at NYU’s Gallatin School, and they began discussing ways to use HeartGov in Austin. (Full disclosure: Asher Novek is a Civic Hall member and has done some contract work for Civic Hall assisting with marketing.)

Schooler decided that the public polling period for the fair hiring policy, which ended at the end of August, was the perfect opportunity. “One of the reasons I wanted to use HeartGov on this one in particular is because I sensed that we needed to hear from people who were formerly incarcerated and that they might be less likely to have internet access,” Schooler explains to Civicist.

Working closely with Novek, Schooler came up with three questions, one that asked what kind of companies should be subjected to a fair hiring policy, how the policy should be enforced, and how the city should implement the policy. City residents interested in providing feedback could text a local number and would get the questions one after the other in response.

The city solicited input on the hiring policy via email, text message (HeartGov), and an online discussion board (SpeakUpAustin), although Schooler notes that, because this was a relatively abridged public input period (less than a month), there was limited publicity. All told, the city received 150 online discussion posts, 175 texts (from 60 or so respondents), and a handful of emails.

“Some of [the texters] were obviously people who had been formerly incarcerated and had been dealing with this on a first hand basis,” says Schooler. “I’m not taking sides in the debate over the policy—but it was really gratifying to see people so directly affected by a policy be participating like that.”

A preliminary report Schooler shares with Civicist shows that the majority of text responses were in favor of the fair hiring policy, whereas the online responses were more mixed, even skewing against the policy.

“There were a couple people who posted online who did seem to have some history [of convictions or incarceration],” says Schooler, “but not nearly to the extent that the texters did.” More of the texters were employees, whereas there were greater numbers of employers responding online.

Without HeartGov, the city might have gotten a very different picture of local opinion on the fair hiring policy.

Schooler dreams of one day better integrating the text and online responses, so that participants online can see what people are texting and vice versa. He also has yet to figure out how to handle two-way communication with people using HeartGov. “I didn’t do any personal responses this time. There just wasn’t the bandwidth for me to do that, or the time,” Schooler says. “In an ideal world I would in some way respond—we did respond at the end, when we closed things out, to say thanks.”

The two-way conversation has always been what Asher Novek envisioned for his tool. For example, HeartGov continues to be used in some local officials offices in New York and he says he feels it is his responsibility to “nag” offices to respond to constituents reaching out through the tool, until it becomes a habit.

As for what’s next in Austin? HeartGov has already been pulled back into service, as part of a community forum on building equitable economic development in East Austin.

Civic Engagement Direct Action movements



“We’re creating tech-savvy, conscious leaders, who so happen to be radical black and brown youth.” —Abby Bobé

  • Twitter. Facebook. SEO. The so-called digital divide. Everything covered during the six-week, 100-hour Roy Clay Sr. Workshop is an opportunity for political discussion. Run by the St. Louis-area activist collective Hands Up United, the workshop teaches area residents between the ages 16 and 30 how to code, and they put their new skills to use by building websites for black-owned area businesses and nonprofits.

    There are plenty of programs that have set their sights on diversifying the technology industry—Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, Telegraph Academy—but the Tech Impact initiative is arguably even more ambitious. Alongside instruction on HTML and JavaScript, participants in the Roy Clay Sr. workshop—named for a Ferguson-area man who became a prominent black entrepreneur and engineer in Silicon Valley—receive a political education.

    “We’re creating tech-savvy, conscious leaders, who so happen to be radical black and brown youth,” Idalin “Abby” Bobé, a volunteer with the initiative, tells Civicist.

    Tara Thompson, a director at Hands Up United and point person on the Tech Impact initiative, concurs. “Changing the ratio is obviously important,” she tells Civicist, referring to programs that focus on diversifying the tech industry, “but if you’re changing the ratio solely to change the numbers and not to to have a greater impact, I wonder how effective that is.”

    The workshop meets three times a week: from 5pm – 9pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and on Saturdays from 10am – 6pm. But Bobé says that sometimes participants will hang around for a couple extra hours on Saturdays. Instruction is provided by mentors, mostly from the technology sector in St. Louis, who donate their time and energy to the program.

    Hands Up United was inspired to start this program last year during Ferguson October, when local activists called for a boycott of major corporations in the area. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that many St. Louis area residents were unaware of locally-owned alternatives in their community because they had no web presence. A problem with a relatively simple solution had presented itself, and Hands Up United created a program to tackle it.

    The workshop empowers students with new knowledge and skills, and it helps support local businesses.

    “Lastly and perhaps most importantly, it’s about building community,” says Thompson. “I impress on them every day that there is no honor in being the best coder in this class if there is someone who is struggling.”

    Participants are expected to stay connected after graduation. They need to keep in touch with the businesses they helped, in case the owners have problems with the website. And, according to Thompson, at least three students from the first cohort have come back to help mentor the second.

    At graduation, participants receive a $500 stipend and a laptop valued at $700. (Thompson says that of the 12 participants preparing to graduate on Sunday, only two have access to a personal computer outside of class.) The program also feeds the students every day they hold workshop, a not-insignificant expense.

    Thompson says the biggest hurdle is always money. The first workshop, held in February, was crowdfunded last November. Hands Up United launched another crowdfunding campaign last week to raise enough money to cover stipends and laptops this Sunday. ThoughtWorks, the consulting firm (and Abby Bobé’s employer), will match the funds up to $15,000.

    “We have a lot of work to do,” Thompson says towards the end of the interview. “I mean society as a whole…if you care at all about these issues and really just as a human I encourage you to get engaged.”

    She points out that protest is not all standing in the street, facing off with the police. “There’s a way for everyone to plug in if you care about other humans.”

    Read next: How Black Girls Code plans to teach one million black girls to code by 2040.

Civic Engagement Democracy Participatory Democracy



The People’s Lobby is run entirely online using the digital tools NationBuilder and Loomio.

  • Last month, the City Council in Provo, Utah, voted unanimously to continue the Provo People’s Lobby, an experimental process in participatory democracy in which city residents collaborate online on a policy recommendation that is then submitted to the City Council for consideration and possible implementation. The process, which I first wrote about in March for techPresident, is run entirely online using NationBuilder and Loomio.

    Participants in Provo’s first People’s Lobby were selected at random from a pool of approximately 75 people who submitted or voted on the “pressing issues” they want addressed in their city. Invitations were sent to one person from each of the 25 neighborhoods represented in that pool; ultimately 14 residents participated in the deliberations on the decision-making platform Loomio. Their efforts were guided with minimal moderation from People’s Lobby creator Jeff Swift, Loomio consultant MJ Kaplan, and two political science students at Brigham Young University.

    Recruitment, Swift and his fellow moderators write in a report on the Provo People’s Lobby, required a lot of “handholding” via email and phone calls to get people on board:

    Future efforts will benefit from seeing the results of the first, and we have learned what information is important to transmit at this stage to ensure that participants will understand what they are signing up for and be ready to participate. We also anticipate that there will be a certain level of drop off no matter what we do, and this is acceptable. We are recruiting a small jury of residents and do not need a fully representative body in order for the Lobby to work as designed.


    Passing the deadline extension on Loomio. (Screenshot courtesy of the Provo People's Lobby)

    Passing the deadline extension on Loomio. (Screenshot courtesy of the Provo People’s Lobby)

    Originally slated to last two weeks, the process had to be extended to four because both stages took longer than Swift anticipated. First, participants were provided with the list of pressing issues collected in the month prior and instructed to choose an area to focus on; then, they deliberated over the specific recommendations they wanted to make to the Council.

    “They spent almost two weeks picking a topic; [the process was] extended another two weeks for a total of four, and they still barely had time to craft policy recommendations,” Swift tells Civicist. “It was at the very end of the second two weeks where they were able to agree on a final proposal.”

    “I think I didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be to settle on a topic,” Swift adds.

    At the end of the four weeks, after five discussions consisting of 205 comments by the participants, three priorities for supporting agriculture and public green spaces in their community were submitted to the City Council. Jeff Swift says he was at first disappointed in these policy particular recommendations because it turns out that these initiatives were already on the City Council’s agenda in some form.

    Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 9.49.20 AM

    “I would have wanted something exciting,” Swift tells Civicist.


    Comment made during the first Provo People's Lobby. (Screenshot courtesy Provo People's Lobby)

    Comment made during the first Provo People’s Lobby. (Screenshot courtesy Provo People’s Lobby)

    But that’s the inherent danger in creating democratic processes: making space for people to push for initiatives one thinks are unnecessary (one of the original suggestions submitted by the public in the earliest stage of the Lobby asked for a big box store in Provo, a proposal Swift was relieved they didn’t pursue) or flat out disagree with. “I have political opinions and there’s a good chance that the People’s Lobby will go in the other direction [in future iterations], and that’s ok,” Swift says.

    What the results do show, Swift points out, is that either the City Council is acting on their agricultural agenda but not sharing their progress with the community, or that they have stalled on their work in that area. Hal Miller, a Councilman and the liaison with the Lobby, tells Civicist that the results were received as a sort of “endorsement” of the work of the Council, and that these items have been pushed higher on the Council’s agenda.

    Swift says he is working on changing the mechanisms of the Lobby to prevent this kind of redundancy in the future. It is one of many small changes Swift will make after the People’s Lobby inaugural run. To start, the process will be allotted more time from the beginning.


    Not every resident will have deep knowledge of all or even most issues the Lobby might tackle. (Screenshot courtesy Provo People's Lobby)

    Not every resident will have deep knowledge of all or even most issues the Lobby might tackle. (Screenshot courtesy Provo People’s Lobby)

    Then, he will also increase the guidance by the moderators. Swift’s instinct was for them to be as hands off as possible, but that ultimately led to a handful of voices—many of which belonged to current or potential political actors in the community—essentially intimidating less politically experienced participants out of the process. One way Swift hopes they can change this is by beginning the Lobby by meeting—again, still entirely online—in small groups where people are hopefully more likely to feel comfortable voicing their opinions. The small groups will then take their ideas to the others.

    “We’re going to be more conscious about keeping the conversation moving forward,” Swift says.

    Although the numbers in the report on the Provo People’s Lobby are low, Hal Miller and Jeff Swift are both optimistic. Miller points out that Utah, and Provo in particular, suffers from low voter turnout. While a process like the People’s Lobby has the potential to increase civic engagement, it also means there is a steep learning curve as residents find out what it means to be civically engaged.


    Voting on proposals. (Screenshots courtesy Provo People's Lobby)

    Voting on proposals. (Screenshots courtesy Provo People’s Lobby)


    “It exceeded my expectations,” Miller tells Civicist. “I thought there would be more difficulty composing the lobby, more difficulty to bring them together in an ongoing way, and that it would prove difficult to harness the respective energies of the members of the lobby given that it included members who are well known for their activism.”

    Swift and the other moderators were pleased with the results considering how foreign an idea the Lobby is:

    Considering three facts, this level of engagement was heartening. First, this was the very first time anyone in the world had tried this process. It was frankly a bit confusing to understand and we have gotten better about explaining it. Second, we started with an email list of zero people and grew our list to 90 people. This foundation will magnify our efforts for future efforts. And finally, that marketing was limited to Karen Tapahe’s [Community Relations Coordinator for the City Council] tireless promotion on Facebook and to PR channels. In the future the People’s Lobby team will do more marketing and promotion to get the word out.

    A second experimental round of Provo People’s Lobby will begin in September. After that, the Council will have to decide whether to incorporate the process into their budget. The cost of the first two rounds were covered by an anonymous donation.

Civic Engagement Open Government petitions



In light of today’s announcement, I think it’s fair to say that WeThePeople is no longer a virtual ghost town.

Last year I argued that the White House’s epetition site WeThePeople had become a virtual ghost town, but today the administration’s Chief Digital Officer, Jason Goldman announced some important changes that promise to breathe new life into what had become a stagnant site.

The White House has cleared out the backlog of 20 truant petitions that had exceeded the 100,000 signature threshold but never received an official response, including several originally submitted in 2011 and 2012, along with the two-year-old petition to pardon Edward Snowden. It also has announced a new policy that all petitions that clear the threshold will receive a response within 60 days “wherever possible.” It has created a new team of people responsible for answering citizen petitions. It has posted more open code to and GitHub as an extension of its Write API, inviting third-party websites to integrate their petition-gathering with the White House site. And has announced that it will be the first major site to take advantage of the Write API, and will begin partnering with WeThePeople on petitions aimed at the administration.

The new 60-day policy is a welcome correction. It restores the promise of the site and makes a meaningful commitment that, if citizens collectively come together and petition their government, the government will listen and offer a timely response. The timeliness of response is crucial, specifically because the administration isn’t promising to agree with the petitioners.

A petition is just a single political tactic. If you want to change government policy, a petition alone usually won’t be enough. When the government negatively responds to your petition, that creates a focusing event. It’s an opportunity for additional media scrutiny and political organizing.  

Take a look at how the Huffington Post has covered the “Pardon Edward Snowden” petition. Snowden’s supporters rallied over 100,000 people to sign that WeThePeople petition in June 2013. Then 25 months passed. During that time (as John Oliver pointed out in April), public attention has mostly drifted away from Snowden’s revelations. The White House response will put this issue back on the public agenda, at least for a little while. It’s like oxygen to the activist fire—even when the government disagrees, the act of public disagreement is far preferable to suffocating silence.

That being said, the 60-day response policy is far from the most important part of Goldman’s announcement. The partnership is much more significant in the long term. The partnership is crucial because it lessens the tension between being the venue for and the target of political petitions. It means that WeThePeople is no longer competing with,, Credo Mobilize, Care2, or  These organizations are optimized to promote long-term, large-scale citizen engagement.  The White House petition site isn’t (and probably shouldn’t be). Rather than choosing between creating a WeThePeople petition or creating a petition, motivated citizens can reap advantages from both.

It also means that we can rightly start to measure WeThePeople by different metrics than the other sites. And that’s important, because it’s when you evaluate WeThePeople according to the same metrics as MoveOn petitions or that the “ghost town” imagery emerges.

Consider: 19.5 million individuals have signed a WeThePeople petition. There have been a total of 27.7 million signatures. Depending on how you measure it, that’s either a very large number or a surprisingly small number. If the White House petition site were an advocacy group, it would be almost 2.5 times larger than But the ratio of users to signatures means that, on average, people have signed only 1.42 petitions apiece.  Or, put another way, most people sign one WeThePeople petition and never come back. Only 2 or 3 petitions are started per day on WeThePeople. receives hundreds per day. Those are “ghost town” metrics: People visit once, see little, and never return.

By comparison, has developed a measure called MeRA (members returning for action) to determine its effectiveness. If people take one action with SumOfUs, then never come back again, SumOfUs calls this a weakness, not a strength. Sites like and devote tremendous resources towards optimizing their sites to promote active petition-creation, petition-sharing, and repeat petition-signing. Their MeRA scores are much higher than WeThePeople’s.

If you are a social movement organization that wants to build power for social reforms, repeat member engagement is very important to you. It’s a key building block in developing the type of deep engagement that can eventually drive social change. Up until now, the White House site was effectively competing with these movement organizations for our civic attention. Integrating with means this competitive relationship becomes a collaborative relationship. If groups like MoveOn and Care2 follow suit, it will represent an important evolution within the digital petition world.  

The partnership also improves the likely longevity of the site. When the next President takes office in January 2017, he or she will have to decide whether open petitions and digital government is going to remain a priority. Jimmy Carter installed solar panels during his time in office. Ronald Reagan tore them off. I doubt a President Trump would place as high a priority on digital civic engagement as President Obama has. The more that WeThePeople integration is baked into the functionality of other large petition sites, the harder it will be for the next President to shutter WeThePeople’s doors.

Moving forward, I’ll be watching for two things to determine just how successful this revitalized WeThePeople turns out to be:

  1. Does the White House keep its 60-day commitment when a wave of big, controversial petitions arrives? Jason Goldman has made a promise here. I’m hopeful that he’ll stand behind it. It will be a few months before we know for sure.
  2. Do other third-party platforms like MoveOn Petitions, Care2, and Credo Mobilize follow’s lead and integrate with WeThePeople? It’s no surprise that took the lead here—open government advocate Jake Brewer recently left for a job at the White House, and is the 800 pound gorilla of petition sites. If the other civil society petition sites all follow’s lead, that will clearly establish WeThePeople’s niche.  

In light of today’s announcement, I think it’s fair to say that WeThePeople is no longer a virtual ghost town. It’s becoming more like a virtual resort destination—lots of visitors, who get a lot out of their experience, but very few locals who actually call the place home.

And that’s probably how it should be.

Civic Engagement Civic Hall Media

Why We Need a Civic Imagination

Why We Need a Civic Imagination

The crisis in civics is a crisis in agency. The solution is more efforts to revive and expand our civic imagination.

  • “We do not need magic to transform the world. We carry all the power we need inside of us already. We have the power to imagine better.” —J.K. Rowling

    If the definition of technology is any tool or process we use to organize ourselves to achieve some goal, then the most important technology we have, as humans, is our culture. Culture is the knowledge we collect and pass on to our children, the rituals we use to organize society and give meaning to life, and the expectations we have of how people are supposed to behave. And any discussion of the potential of civic tech to change the world for the better has to confront the challenge that culture presents.

    The hardest thing to change, when it comes to getting an organization or institution to embrace a new technology or way of doing things, isn’t the technical capacity of that organization’s staff. It’s something more amorphous: its “culture.” Otherwise, as management expert Peter Drucker says, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

    Today, our civic culture is at a crossroads. Many Americans appear to be withdrawing from public engagement, frustrated by the seeming ineffectiveness of traditional political processes. Meanwhile, there’s new energy around the idea of doing-it-ourselves, using the disruptive potential of the open internet, open data, and social networks, to make things work better.

    So it feels like a great moment to come to Civic Hall to explore how we might hack the civic culture, and look for ways to turn some of the energy that our culture now channels into entertainment and distraction and outdated rituals into more substantial kinds of public engagement.

    As I approach this work, I’m drawing on the insights of several great teachers, starting with Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor at USC Annenberg. Jenkins defines the civic imagination as the capacity to imagine creative alternatives to current social, political, or economic institutions or problems. When we address the civic imagination, we are addressing the heart of our malleable societal norms.

    It was Jenkins who helped me understand the work I’ve done for the last ten years with the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA). The HPA uses parallels from Harry Potter to engage fans across the world to improve upon the story of our world. Together, HPA members have built libraries in Rwanda, Detroit, the Mississippi Delta, and Brooklyn; sent five cargo planes to Haiti; funded the protection of thousands of civilians in Darfur and East Burma; continue to give to their local communities in our 270 chapters in over 30 countries. After more than four years of advocacy, we got Warner Bros to make all Harry Potter chocolate Fair Trade or Utz- certified.

    After extensive research on the HPA, Jenkins writes:

    These kids weren’t political when they first joined HPA: They don’t come from the kinds of backgrounds where politically active youth traditionally come from. Research has shown that most kids who go on to be politically and civically engaged first learn to talk about politics around the dinner table; they have a civics teacher who brings in real-world examples, and connects their history book to their lives; they’re involved in certain extracurricular activities like student government. After the age of 16 or 17, their lifelong political engagement tends to be fairly predetermined. The HPA’s work is breaking that mold.

    In all of our efforts, we’ve been inspired by JK Rowling’s statement about our power to “imagine better.”

    Unfortunately, instead of imagining better, the civic culture conjured by our national leaders and elected representatives seems barren of such optimism and does little to speak to us as anything more than consumers of government, or just as plain old consumers. What an impoverished civic imagination that implies! Mainstream education debates are focused on test scores without prioritizing the complex inner lives of our students, our political experience is dominated by big money, etc. If what we appreciate, appreciates, we are building a society of human beings with little respect for anything human or imaginative. Even some of our best government innovators are pushing to improve public services not because they add to human dignity but because they want government to treat its “customers” at least as well as Amazon or Google.

    Worry about how many Americans are turning off from civic engagement has led to some well-intentioned efforts that misunderstand the problem. While Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has done terrific work on iCivics, an online platform that uses video games to help students learn more about how government works, she is mistaken in thinking the central problem is a nosedive in how we as citizens understand our political institutions.

    Ethan Zuckerman of MIT’s Center for Civic Media has not only pointed out that the data does not reflect the existence of such a collapse in civic knowledge, he has joined Jenkins in arguing for a broader definition of civics that is far more accurate to the experience of all citizens, particularly to young people. Whether we know it or not, we are engaged in the makings of a civic experience every time we are on social media. Think of how hashtags have become cultural statements, even the names of political movements. The challenge is not, as O’Connor hopes, to get people to expand their knowledge of how government works. The crisis in civics is, in actuality, a crisis in agency. The solution is more efforts to revive and expand our civic imagination.

    The crisis in civic agency is causing exponential damage. While most people believe that issues like human rights atrocities, widespread inequality, and ecological devastation are serious and deserve immediate attention, the average person does not believe they can do anything about them. We’ve lost incalculable energy, talent, and resources on solving complex problems because of the frustration, fatigue, and complacency that come from feeling overwhelmed and helpless.

    Through my experience in co-founding and directing the HPA, I have seen first-hand how building a robust civic imagination can lead to a vibrant community discovering its agency through campaigns that effect social change and helps other changemakers replicate those victories on a wider scale. The accomplishments of the HPA stand in the way of “grown ups” who tell kids to get their heads out of fantasy and into the so-called “real world”; in fact, fantasy is not simply an escape from our world but an invitation to go deeper into it. We dream at night, but our culture dreams through books and movies and stories. Working with those stories is cultural dream work. Working with stories that we put energy into is cultural acupuncture. And that is where I hope to focus my work as Civic Hall’s first Civic Imagination Fellow.

    In cultural acupuncture, we find where the psychological energy is in the culture, and move that energy towards creating a healthier body for our world. In cultural acupuncture, stories are the proverbial needles; stories are what resonate. Stories are what can expand our civic imagination and allow us a transformed sense of agency.

    My plans as a Civic Imagination Fellow are ambitious. One area of focus is the invention and re-appropriation of holidays. In recent years, we’ve seen a huge trend in this direction. Seattle recently changed “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous People’s Day.” Some have equally serious goals, like Mandela Day, when people are called to take action to change the world; or Giving Tuesday, when online advocacy groups push post-Thanksgiving shoppers to donate to good causes. And others have a more light-hearted emphasis, like April Fool’s Day online, or Talk Like a Pirate Day.

    On August 3, to get things going, I’ll be hosting a meetup at Civic Hall around Esther Day. Named after my dear friend, the late Esther Earl (who inspired John Green to write the bestselling book and blockbuster film, the Fault In Our Stars) and led by the foundation in her name, Esther Day is the world’s first baggage-free holiday about love.

    Beyond exploring how we reboot our national holidays, I will also be developing several culture hacking campaigns, including one that draws on the attention around the Hunger Games movie to expand the discussion around economic inequality, and an even more ambitious effort to tap the excitement around the upcoming Star Wars film to help focus more attention on the problem of big money in politics.

    There’s so much more to come and I look forward to a dialogue here and in person as we collaboratively explore an ambitious agenda to fire up the civic imagination.

Civic Engagement New York Participatory Budgeting



In New York City’s fourth year of participatory budgeting, five city council districts pilot a digital ballot and experimental voting interfaces designed to make “the best decision possible.”

On a warm Saturday afternoon in April, a mother perched on the steps of a public library with her two children, holding an iPad. “I want to do the last one,” one of the kids said. “Wait,” the woman replied, “I’ll tell you what to push.” On the sidewalk in front of the library stood the local city council member, Brad Lander, pitching people as they walked by: “Want to help decide how to spend one million dollars?” It was one of the last days to vote in New York City’s fourth year running participatory budgeting, but for the first time people could vote on a laptop or iPad.

Participatory budgeting is the practice, originating in Brazil, of letting community residents decide how municipal funds should be allocated in their neighborhood. In New York City, it is an almost year-long process, beginning with the development of proposals in the fall, followed by a consultation with city agencies on budget and feasibility in the winter, and finally voting on projects in the spring. The participatory budgeting vote is a far more inclusive process than local elections: Immigration status is of no import, as long as the person is a resident of the council district in which they vote, and, depending on the district, residents as young as 14 or 16 can participate. This year, New York’s fourth, more than 51,000 people voted on how to spend $32 million dollars on capital projects.

“The level of engagement and enthusiasm in this year’s Participatory Budgeting process was unprecedented and deeply democratic,” Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said in a public statement. “Across the city, thousands of residents of all ages and backgrounds came together to make their neighborhoods a better place to call home. Participatory Budgeting breaks down barriers that New Yorkers may face at the polls—including youth, income status, English-language proficiency and citizenship status—resulting in a civic dialogue that is truly inclusive and representative of the diversity of this community and this city.”

There is also more space for innovation in the participatory budgeting process than in regular elections, which made it possible to test digital ballots and experimental interfaces in five of the 24 city council districts that ran a participatory budgeting vote this year (of 51 total districts). To make the digital ballot a reality, the city partnered with Stanford University’s Crowdsourced Democracy Team and Democracy 2.1, an international project to change community decision-making. The Stanford team led the development of the digital ballot, consulting with Democracy 2.1 and the city on the user interface, and Democracy 2.1 led the ballot implementation during the vote in April. (Full disclosure: Democracy 2.1 is an organizational member of Civic Hall.)

“Make it as easy as an ATM—that was our goal,” says Lex Paulson, a professor of political theory at Sciences Po-Paris and an international counselor at Democracy 2.1. At the core of the Democracy 2.1 project is a voting algorithm developed by a mathematician and anti-corruption activist, Karel Janecek, that privileges consensus over majority-wins.

Deploying the digital ballot in New York City this spring was an opportunity to test some of the alternative ways of voting developed by Janecek and the Stanford team. In each of the five districts where the digital ballot was piloted, participants were asked to vote on an experimental ballot after their real vote had been cast.

On the actual ballot, voters were asked to select five projects, regardless of size or cost, no more, no less. In contrast:

One of the experimental ballots tried to solve the knapsack problem, a mathematical problem of combinatorial optimization. In layman’s terms, that means getting the most bang for your buck. This experimental ballot allowed voters to choose up to one million dollars worth of projects. Unlike the actual ballot, which restricted voters to no more than five projects, this allows voters to choose many more projects, because they find they have space for smaller budget items left over after choosing big ticket items.

Lex Paulson says this can give arts projects an edge, since they usually have small budgetary needs but, because they are seen as inessential (as opposed to installing air conditioning in a school cafeteria), are less likely to be among a pick of just five projects.

“When people vote they should see the same trade-off that a city planner sees,” says Ashish Goel, who leads the Crowdsourced Democracy Team. We spoke in April at a voting site on the Upper East Side.

“Our design principle,” Goel said, “[is] how to build for people so they can make the best decision possible.”

A second variation of that ballot allowed people to choose up to two million dollars worth of projects, even though the budget was less than that. Giving people more options raises the likelihood that someone will pick a winning project, a key factor in Democracy 2.1’s “satisfaction index,” a metric that they developed to assess the success and impact of democratic processes.

“Our premise is that the higher the percentage of voters who end up supporting a winner, the greater the level of consensus and satisfaction with the process will be,” Paulson explains. “Our argument—which our pilot data from 2015 is continuing to strengthen—is that the D21 voting system, through the effect of more votes per voter, is the most efficient way to maximize overall satisfaction with any democratic process.”

One of the other experimental ballots gave voters “down” votes in addition to “up” votes, which allows the city to see which projects are the most divisive or controversial. Another ballot showed voters randomized pairs of projects, and the voter had to decide which of the two projects they would prefer to fund.

During a brown bag lunch at Civic Hall last week, Paulson explained the many benefits of using a digital ballot, in addition to increased opportunities for experimentation and innovation.

To start, digital is mobile. Staff and volunteers were able to take iPads into parks, to go where the people are instead of expecting them to come to the voting site.

Digital ballots can also be more information-rich than paper. It’s easier to add visual elements, and the ballot this year could be translated into Chinese and Spanish. The New York Times reported that in one district last year, two-thirds of the ballots were cast in Spanish and Chinese. While printing foreign language ballots is possible, going digital means that you don’t have to guess at how many to print and risk having too many or too few in a particular language.

While we’re on the subject, digital ballots save trees and ink. Fewer paper ballots also means fewer votes need to be hand-processed; digital means getting real-time results.

Digital ballots also allow for project order randomization. Studies have shown that the placement of a proposal at the top of the ballot improves the likelihood that the proposal will be funded. Although printed ballots are all identical, digital ballots, when randomized, can eliminate that small placement bias.

This year, Democracy 2.1 and Crowdsourced Democracy Team only got involved in the final stage of the participatory budgeting process, the vote. However, they will be involved from the beginning in next year’s process, which will begin in the fall.

Lex Paulson hopes to experiment using the Democracy 2.1 platform as a deliberative tool in the proposal stage of the process, not just a decision-making tool.

Sondra Youdelman, the executive director of Community Voices Heard, a community organization dedicated to making civic processes more inclusive, tells Civicist that she would like to take a look at the statistics gathered from the voter survey to identify areas with underrepresented communities. Community Voices Heard has been integral to developing New York’s participatory budgeting process since it launched three years ago.

“I mentioned to Lex and the group that I actually like the idea of having iPads and having people go out in the community and get people to vote if it’s targeted properly,” Youdelman explains. Her concern is that digital ballots, without additional outreach in underrepresented communities, could further increase the civic engagement divide in the city.

This year, in advance of the idea-generating phase of participatory budgeting, Community Voices Heard sent canvassers to knock on 4,000 doors in public housing buildings to poll people on the projects they would like to see proposed, and ask if anyone would want to be a delegate in the participatory budgeting process. The cards that those polled filled out had to be entered in by hand. A digital ballot, deployed properly, could make this process faster and more information-rich.

It’s one of many possible engagement processes that the city could “upgrade,” so to speak, with a digital ballot.

“We’ll have a longer runway to experiment this year,” Lex Paulson tells Civicist. “And council members say they want to do more.”