New Technologies For A New Era of Advocacy

Our digital world achieved tremendous progress in the past 2 years as digital revolution has transformed the way Americans interact with technology and consume media. One word sums it all up: MOBILE. We can’t live without our mobile devices.

Recent studies show the United States and the United Kingdom leading the pack on smartphone adoption with 75% and 73% of the adult market, respectively. While the underdeveloped world lags behind on smartphone adoption, we are on track for worldwide cell phone ownership. This is great news. Mobile phones have helped address key world problems — and “connectivity” has made them true equalizers. It is not a stretch to say that with mobile adoption has come transformational behavioral change. In a world with more mobile devices than people, mobile tech is dramatically disrupting “the way we live” by disrupting every industry, including government.

The accelerated penetration of mobile across demographics is a huge opportunity for civic engagement… but it also just makes sense. Just like today it is unthinkable not to be able to make a payment, take a picture, or get directions from our phones, in a few years we will find it unthinkable not to be able to weigh-in from our phones on the measures that govern our lives.

But civic tech means so much more. From our early times citizens have advocated for issues they care about. Prior to the digital age, rallies and protests were the main vehicle for public advocacy; people have been rallying in the streets for one cause or another since ancient times. But, today, our virtual personas help us to be in more than one place at the time. Did you miss Earth Day rally? Join the Twitter Chat! Digital tech truly amplifies our voices to effect change.

Any elected official will tell you that direct, in-person meetings with their constituents is one of the most effective means of direct advocacy. Tom Kean, State Senator from Nassau New Jersey, said in a recent panel discussion:

“The most important thing you can do to impact laws is talk to your legislators.”

However, in-person visits are expensive and difficult for most people.

Emailing elected officials, especially Congress, is also not easy. For example, to email a federal official, an advocate needs to know her own nine-digit zip code (information that you need to pull from a piece of mail or the USPS website).

On another hand, the overuse of email communications, the automation of email services, and the shortening of our attention span have made emails less effective.

So where is the opportunity?

New applications like Phone2Action and NationBuilder allow everyday people to connect with elected officials from mobile phones — in seconds. In a few taps, you can email, tweet, Facebook and call your official to share how you feel about an issue you care about. Just like you use your phone to get a Lyft or book an AirBnB you can use your phone to ask your official to vote YES on a piece of legislation in which you believe.

Mobile technology for advocacy is a game changer, not only because of accessibility (we all have a cell phone) but also because mobile is cool and can help make advocacy cool.

But there is more.

It is clear that technology advances and connectivity are dramatically accelerating the pace of change. Smartphones are also exacerbating the natural human desire for “instant gratification.” People want more things, better things, and they want them faster. Technology fulfills our needs; from the exotic (but not for long): drones delivering our packages, to the everyday: apps for cloud storage. Customer demand requires more innovation and innovation requires updated regulations. But the speed of policy-making is much slower than the speed of innovation. Too often, entrepreneurs, instead of spending their energy working on their companies, have to fight status quo regulations that restrict their ability to innovate.

So what is the one thing that motivates lawmakers to act faster? The desire to please their constituents. And this makes citizens the untapped resource for the rapid feedback lawmakers need. The complete loop: Constituent connects directly with lawmaker on issue — lawmaker supports issue — constituent votes for lawmaker — lawmaker gets re-elected. And it took the constituent just 2 minutes to initiate this cycle by taking action from their phone. Boom.

There is a saying, “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission.” This is very true for technology. Most of the tech we use today was not introduced to us, we were immersed into it and we adopted it. Think of Twitter, SnapChat, the sharing economy. The entrepreneurs behind these transformative companies did not ask for permission. And many people thought they were crazy. Take Brian Chesky, the founder of AirBnB. In an interview with The Atlantic in 2013, he said “People said [the idea for AirBnB] was absurd.” Over time, these disruptive technologies have become mainstream. We don’t use them every minute of the day but we use them when we need or we want. I predict the same progression will be true for civic engagement. It will not take every minute of our days, but times will come when we want to have a say in our communities about the policies that govern our lives. Our phones will be the mechanism for social change. And connecting with lawmakers will become commonplace.

Envisioning constant civic participation from every corner of the country (and the world) may sound a bit out of reach today, but in a few years, it will be a reality. If you would have asked me 10 years ago that FM radio would disappear I would have not believed it. This week, Norway announced that it will become the first country to scrap FM radio. The country will completely switch to digital radio in the next two years.

We live in very exciting times.


Originally published at latism.org on April 23, 2015.

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