Continuous dialogue between government and society is the lifeblood of a representative democracy. Due to rapid advancements in technology, getting involved in politics is no longer just about voting in elections; our options now extend beyond joining a political party, hitting the streets to protest or handing out how-to-vote outside election halls. Today, Australians are tuning into an ever-growing number of social media channels to get their voices heard.
Twitter, for example, has become an active space for elite-public interaction and “talking back” to sites of power – whether political, economic or media (Chen & Vromen, 2012). At the same time, however, some scholars believe social media has enabled “a lower level of engagement” where young people feel less inclined to physically participate in politics – for instance, in campaigns and protests. This form of political participation has been called “slacktivism”.
Besides, are politicians really reading our tweets? Like many other Australians, Tony Simpson, a NSW Southern Highlands-based entrepreneur, is frustrated that our government pay such little attention to what we articulate online, let alone act upon our suggestions. This is why he created LobbyCrowd – an online platform that combines traditional political lobbying with modern crowdsourcing.
“I was inspired to build LobbyCrowd by the sheer volume of “slacktivism” in my social media feed. People are clearly not happy with the political status quo and LobbyCrowd hopes to give individuals a greater voice in the political process,” he says.
Simpson firmly believes that the role of politicians is “to represent the views of their constituents above all else, including party politics and personal opinion”. His interest in the political process is not unprecedented, as he was also a foundation member of Australia’s first internet-based political party Senator Online. Although he has since left the party, his desire to make an impact in politics lived on. And given how immersed he is in the startup scene, having also founded DebtTo10K with Jessica Bailey, it’s unsurprising that he decided to take the tech startup route to scratch his itch.
So how does LobbyCrowd work exactly? Simpson explains it in steps: 1) have an opinion; 2) feel strongly enough to do something about it; 3) go to www.lobbycrowd.com.au and ‘buy a call’; 4) fill out the call form stating who you are, the issue you care about, your position on that issue, who you want LobbyCrowd to call and any specific comments you would like them to include in the call; 5) get a notification as soon as the call has been completed; and finally 6) listen to the call recording and encourage others to get involved.
Simpson points out that LobbyCrowd is apolitical, and will represent whatever view on whatever issue that clients want. “We will of course be looking to create partnerships with existing lobbying groups to help facilitate their causes,” he adds.
Though it’s only been a couple of weeks since its launch, LobbyCrowd has had positive discussions with nbndefender.com, the group responsible for the NBN petition on change.org that gained over 250,000 signatures. LobbyCrowd will be officially launching the NBN Defender campaign very soon.
When it comes to monetisation, Simpson says they’ve priced each call at $5. This goes towards paying staff for making and managing calls, the technology that enables them to make and record these calls and allowing the recordings to be accessible on the website. The startup will explore other monetisation opportunities down the track.
LobbyCrowd appears to be the first of its kind in Australia, but the technology is similar to Silicon Valley’s Amplifyd which was launched a couple of months ago. Simpson says LobbyCrowd is the “Amplifyd for the Australian market”, but with two advantages.
“We do not require you to sign up or that a ‘campaign’ exists before you can engage our service. Anyone, any issue, any position and your voice can be heard,” he adds.
In addition to partnering with existing lobby groups, LobbyCrowd’s engagement strategies includes social media campaigns. “I can see a lot of #qanda in my near future,” says Simpson.
Is LobbyCrowd going to take off in Australia? Many debates on political engagement and democracy over the past decade speculate that young people’s declining political engagement and overall apathy towards politics is because of this sense of ‘helplessness’ they feel. If political participation is declining, there are two main possibilities: 1) Australian people’s apathy will hinder proactivity; or 1) LobbyCrowd, if marketed correctly, will remove this sense of ‘helplessness’ that Australians feel when it comes to political issues.
“We’re hoping that we can have a real impact on the Australian political environment. I think we have the right balance between ease of engagement, price point and political impact,” Simpson says.
Despite the fact that the internet is seeping into every corner of our lives, not all online modes of activism are effective in politics. Simpson acknowledges this especially when it comes to online petitions, echoing what Scott Blankenship, Founder of Amplifyd, told Startup Daily in a previous interview. Blankenship said, “the sad truth is that online petitions are becoming obsolete in the US. Because of their ubiquity, and lack of signer verification, politicians in the US are either drastically discounting their value or creating internal policies to completely ignore them.”
Same could be said about the Australian political system – especially today, where bureaucratic dysfunction is arguably at an all time high. The Australian government don’t appear to be reading, let alone responding, to online outcries – whether it be a petition or mass tweets.
“A petition of 10,000 signatures is easily filed away as where 10,000 phones calls will really make our politicians pay attention,” says Simpson.
He adds that it would be detrimental to politicians if they don’t engage in this process.
“Even if they are not interested in what the electorate have to say they certainly cannot act in a manner that makes that public knowledge. LobbyCrowd will really make our politicians accountable,” says Simpson.
Whatever the outcome may be, one thing’s for sure, a startup like LobbyCrowd and Amplifyd couldn’t come at a better time. We’ve seen the social enterprise movement boom over the past decade, with social startups being launched in response to the many issues humanity faces today – the most pressing being global poverty, climate change, asylum seekers, and gun laws.
It’s apparent that Gen Y in particular are natural change-makers; they reject the status quo and they want to see justice in the world.
I believe Gen Y is the most important target market, because they’re natural change-makers. There is a desire amongst this generation to see justice in the world; but at the same time, they are the most ignored segment of society.
So far, the response to LobbyCrowd has been very positive. Simpson says, “we’ve been in discussions with one group already (NBN Defender) and they are very excited by the possibilities. As for the public, we are already selling calls with no more effort than a few Facebook posts.”
On a final note, Simpson stresses that LobbyCrowd is “giving the people back their voice which has been drowned out by big business and certain parts of the media.”
But the startup won’t be able to make the difference it strives to make, without the help of Australians. The good thing about LobbyCrowd is, for people who want to have an influence over public policy, don’t have to engage in the tedious process of calling government officials. There are a bunch of silver-tongued callers we can crowdsource to do it for us.