OurSociety’s purpose is to create a more transparent, collaborative, engaging democratic process that empowers grassroots leadership. We’re accomplishing our mission through the development of a platform that enables a consistent experience for obtaining information on and engaging with local governments. By having all of the municipalities within the U.S. on a single non-partisan, non-profit local government platform, we can realize tremendous benefits for both the administrations and the constituents.
Elected Representatives – Who Are They?
Before we get into exploring challenges that local governments face and the solutions OurSociety offers it’s vital to get to know our local representatives. We’ve met with some elected officials in the state of New Jersey who fulfill their duties on a part-time basis around their current employment. During our conversations we observed a trend with locally elected officials; they’re dedicating time because they care about their communities and the people within them. Local municipalities are about people; both regarding the leadership and the community.
Every local municipality leader we’ve spoken with lives in the town they serve, has/had children enrolled in public schools, and has participated in community events. Often they were involved in numerous other activities such as local charities, youth sports, or other social clubs. Local elected officials are for the most part people who understand the value of community.
Unfortunately, we were unable to find any statistical data on the professional makeup of New Jersey’s elected civil servants. The elected representatives we’ve met come from a variety of professional backgrounds such as Legal, Education, Business/Entrepreneurship, Finance, Tech, Skilled Labor, and more. Diverse experiences and perspectives are a great asset when it comes to accurately representing constituents but may also lead to challenges associated with conflict visions of how to best manage community resources. Despite these challenges most locally elected officials to work diligently to make decisions that they believe represent their community’s best interests. The overall impression that we were left with from our meetings with local government officials is that local civil service is about people helping people.
Civic service is a challenging profession. Our observations, surveys, and meetings have helped us identify some core challenges that your local municipalities are facing.
Municipality Challenge: Preconceived Notions
Local governments face numerous challenges with the people and municipalities they represent. In our user studies, we found that the majority of NJ citizens surveyed view politicians as corrupt, reinforcing other studies we’ve quoted in the past. Unfortunately, this view of the corrupt politician has been projected onto locally elected civil servants. In our discussions with elected representatives, personal stories were shared about how their achievements were perceived to be a result of their political “dealings.”
Recent studies have shown that the perception of political corruption leads to a decrease in voter turnout and participation. Most local municipalities are not equipped with the resources to combat negative opinions at the scale we are witnessing, leaving them fighting an uphill battle from the start. OurSociety recognizes that its level of participation can judge the health of a democracy. To help improve communities and local governments we needed to find a way to engage the unengaged.
Municipality Challenge: Poor First Impressions
Communication and information are a vital part of fostering an informed and engaged citizenry. What is the first thing you do if you want to learn more about something, someplace, or someone? Most of the U.S. would “Look it up on the internet.” Websites and internet presence are the critical first impression for many citizens, yet a random sampling of New Jersey municipality websites reveals a world full of clunky design, complicated and confusing layouts, and a complete lack of uniformity from town to town. Also, there is a complete lack of consistency with the information provided. Trying to find the same category of content between websites is a new and confusing experience each time. These design flaws present significant obstacles to transient residents who rent property within the municipality.
It is counter-intuitive to expect participation in local elections and community events among demographics when their primary method of information gathering and connectivity is outdated and complicated. This problem is not solely about Millennials; American internet users are the majority of all age groups.
Municipality Challenge: Measuring Success
How does a local government administration measure its success? With each administration catering to the needs and wants of a unique set of individuals measuring success within a uniform set of standards seems unlikely to be successful and accurate. When analyzing local government actions, we do not have the luxury of measuring from a purely cost/profit perspective as many of the projects assume some sort of intangible social benefit within them.
How would we propose to measure the success of a new park? We know the financial costs associated with building it but understand that parks generate little to no revenue so a pure cost analysis is not a valid indicator. The municipality could try and measure success by the estimated amount of people using the space over a given period but does that accurately define the success of the park? Measuring the success of social benefit projects is a complicated and shifting challenge that all municipalities in the United States face.
If local government desires to better understand the impact of community efforts with the intention of improving administrative actions, then nontraditional metrics are needed.
Municipality Challenge: Untapped Resources
The most valuable resource on Earth is human capital. Municipalities are populated by a variety of people who have varied skill sets and perspectives that could be used to help the community. Administrations fail to recognize the full potential of their human capital because they lack the method and means to do so. Town Hall attendance is typically an inaccurate reflection of the community as a whole because of the lack of attendance and participation. One meeting a month on a weekday for an hour or two is not much of a commitment on paper, but it is incorrect to view this challenge in a vacuum. Many community members are busy with family, work, school, and more so sparing an hour or two is just too inconvenient. OurSociety recognizes that if we’re going to improve engagement we have to make it easy and accessible.
OurSociety is focused on two closely intertwined challenges facing local governments; the consistent decline in engagement and participation and the ease of constituent access to accurate information. A Pew Research Study identified political knowledge as a critical indicator of who will vote. “Six-in-ten intermittent voters say they sometimes don’t know enough about candidates to vote compared with 44% of regular voters the single most important attitudinal difference between intermittent and regular voters identified in the survey.” Not voting results in a lack of agency in our political process which in turn creates apathy towards the process. Apathy is cancer to a successful democracy. OurSociety is focused on solving these challenges through the use of innovative and easy to use technology.
Understanding Our Users
OurSociety breaks out users into two major categories; people who are interested in politics and people who are not. Combining these two users on a single platform means offering two very different experiences while having them function together collaboratively. Each user type will find different value on the platform while both benefit from the unified experience. Focusing on both users allows OurSociety to gain a better understanding of the bigger picture through our data collection. All of the data we collect and analyze will be summarized and released to our users so that everyone can gain a deeper understanding of our local municipalities.
Engaging the Unengaged
Unengaged users may not be interested in learning about their local governments or may be interested but lack the necessary time to commit to understanding all of the issues. To engage the unengaged we started with a question; how do we help people make informed voting decisions in the least amount of time possible? Our Societal Value Matching algorithm was developed to answer this question. The database is populated with 500 questions over 27 different categories and is designed to grow exponentially as users submit additional questions. These questions serve as a sort of political personality test; there is no right or wrong answer. This data is used to show how their values match with the values of their elected representatives and local candidates who have access to and answer the same questions as you. Voting in your best interest is now as easy as telling OurSociety about yourself!
Imagine walking into a voting booth. If you’re like most people, you pick a side and vote the party line, possibly making an exception if you are especially informed about a specific person’s stance that you agree with. The chances are that you’ve never heard of most of the candidates so you pick a letter (D or R) and vote all the way down your ticket, hopeful that your vote represents your interests. Now imagine that same scenario after you’ve committed 20 minutes of your time over the next year to tell OurSociety about yourself. You walk into that same voting booth, take out your phone, load the OurSociety virtual ballot, and see every available candidate listed with a numerical percentage next to their name and face displaying how you match with the candidate based on your values and ideals. You’ve eliminated the guesswork and given yourself more choice in your vote, breaking from party lines and focusing on the issues that matter most. By committing 20 minutes to OurSociety, you’ve just taken a significant leap forward in building a better democracy. Most importantly for many people, this will be a gateway to better citizenship; making the habit of being a conscious participant in our democracy.
Issue Based Voting
OurSociety focuses on issues and people, not parties. We do not identify any political affiliation for any of our users; instead empowering OurSociety users to vote based on issues and values instead of arbitrary party-lines.
Engaging the Engaged
OurSociety provides a unique way for users to become involved in their community and local government for a fraction of the time typically required. We’re focused on creating a hub of innovation that better reflects our communities through virtual municipalities.
Each municipality page has a Policies, Plans, and Vision section where Elected Representatives, Candidates for Office, and Citizen Users can contribute ideas and plans to help improve their community. Articles have a built-in agree/disagree vote to help gauge the interest of community members, and constructive feedback may be submitted in response to existing content.
Citizens have the opportunity to become Community Contributors by submitting their policy, plan, and vision suggestions. Imagine you’re an educator teaching in Manhattan but living in New Jersey. Your children attend public school in your local municipality’s district. You recognize an opportunity to improve your local school district’s practices by implementing a technique you learned while teaching in Manhattan. OurSociety empowers you to share your idea and plans to apply it to your entire community from your computer or smartphone. This allows you to spend more time focusing on the details of your proposal and less time dealing with the bureaucracy. Your community and elected representatives can view the suggested plan and choose to agree or disagree with the project. If your program has traction within your community, your representatives can review the feedback and determine if they would like to contact you for more details or move forward with the plan.
Public Data for Public Good
OurSociety tracks and analyzes all of the data being entered in our platform, both from the Societal Matching Questions as well as the submitted Policies, Plans, and Vision articles. OurSociety will analyze this data, identify relevant trends, and release the information to all of our users to help them better identify and understand the concerns and needs of the community. By centralizing local governments across the nation onto OurSociety, the societal value data can be used to identify collaborative projects based upon the priorities of our populace. This information will allow us to shift our political focus in all levels of government from competitive wedge issues to collaborative projects that occupy the vast majority of American’s minds.
Disseminating Best Practices
As more municipalities participate in the OurSociety experiment, the data we collect will be used to identify and share best practices being used in local municipalities across the nation. This free flow of information will help locally elected representatives equip themselves with the best methods, projects, and practices to improve their communities. Better government begins with more efficient practices. OurSociety opens the door to new levels of efficiency in local communities.
Transparency & Accuracy
When we first envisioned the OurSociety platform we began with a foundation of core principles that would define our users’ experience and the societal value we could provide. If our objective is to centralize local governments onto a single platform to use data to innovate and improve our municipalities we had to ensure that the platform and software were built to prevent abuse.
The first decision was to ensure that all of the data we collected and analyzed would be provided to the public for free. Data releases will be aggregated and anonymous so individuals never need to be concerned with their personal information being connected to our analysis. Under no circumstance will data be sold, traded, provided, etc. to an individual or organization in exchange for compensation of any sort. OurSociety provides no opportunity for preferential treatment of any kind. No advertisers, no paying for higher visibility, etc. Our revenue stream comes from small monthly contributions from the municipalities using the platform and political candidates using OurSociety to boost their campaign reach.
OurSociety is a registered 501c3 charity and accepts donations from people who support reimagining our democracy with a focus on innovation, experimentation, inclusion, and collaboration. OurSociety’s vision is to create a public utility; a tool designed to improve democracy for every citizen of the United States regardless of socioeconomic status. Dollars donated help to fund the continued development of the platform feature sets.
Accuracy in information is a problem that the U.S. is struggling with now more than ever. OurSociety is a moderated content platform. We have detailed rules in regards to what type of content is acceptable on the platform. OurSociety is about creating innovative and experimental solutions to improve local communities. It is not about complaining about existing issues, insulting local candidates or elected representatives, furthering business interests, etc. When content or questions are submitted to OurSociety, it is vetted by our team of Fact Checkers to ensure the accuracy of the information and sources provided. Our Fact Checkers follow a strict set of guidelines to make sure that they are evaluating for accuracy and truth, not whether the concept agrees with their values. OurSociety users can have confidence that the information they are receiving is accurately sourced and constructive. Whether or not they agree with it is now a matter of reading and reflection!
OurSociety supports local Ambassadors who want to become involved in their communities. We’re working with local High Schools in our beta testing towns to provide free civic education classes to Seniors utilizing the OurSociety platform. We lead discussions with students about what civic engagement is and could be. Our programs help students suggest community improvements to their elected Representatives and have the Representatives return with our Ambassadors for a second class to discuss the submitted policy and plan suggestions. Our objective with educational outreach is to demonstrate to students that their votes matter and they are important members of our society.
An Evolving Experiment
OurSociety is about connecting people with their elected representatives and communities in ways that make sense for the modern information age. We want to empower community thinkers and leaders to offer their perspective on how we can build a better society for all of us. To be successful with our purpose, we must continually grow and evolve our platform to better serve both our citizen users and municipalities.
OurSociety implements continuous feedback loops with our users to learn how we can better improve our offerings. Currently, we have a long list of concepts we would like to develop to improve community management functions for municipalities and a more robust set of features for our citizen users to take advantage of.
The Most Important Part
Centralizing local governments on the OurSociety platform presents a clear pathway for American Democracy to become more engaging and innovative, but it all starts with you. At the time of this writing, we are working with 2-3 municipalities to on-board onto the platform and begin the OurSociety experiment. Where we expand to next is up to you! We’ll focus on areas where we see the most engagement with OurSociety both in quantity of accounts created by location as well as participation on our platform and through content submissions. If we’re going to make genuine, positive change in our communities we must utilize modern technologies to improve processes. OurSociety offers more value to more people as we scale and grow with new users. We believe strongly that this type of innovation and the public solution must be a non-profit, non-partisan platform that is transparent and accountable to the people. Your participation in our movement is critical; our volunteers are working hard, but in the end, OurSociety belongs to all of us. Our success will be based on our collective efforts. Better democracy is here; we just have to make it happen.