The ‘Vox’ of the People and the Vanguard of Lobby Technology

A RECENT article for Global Research attributes (albeit cynically) the success of Syrian rebels to “clicktivist” website

Avaaz has become so influential that they were involved in disseminating propaganda with the proxy war in Syria. In fact, Avaaz has been supportive of the manufactured uprising in Syria that has made the Free Syrian Army (FSA) so successful.

Statements like this tempt one to place Avaaz and its kin – – into the same fraternity as Facebook, Amazon, YouTube, and Twitter—sites often called “revolutionary.”

But does such a site exist for lobbying?

“Absolutely,” says Marci Harris, CEO and co-founder of POPVOX, a site committed to “solving the problem of communication with Congress.”

POPVOX – derived from the Latin phrase vox populi, or “voice of the people” – provides an online venue for citizens to voice their opinions to Congress.  As an alternative to constituent letters and phone calls, which today do little more than exasperate congressional offices and occupy their interns, POPVOX aims to become the standard tool by which congressmen “measure the pulse of their district.”

Though this may be worrisome for lobbyists, Harris is quick to temper the implication that they would be usurped by her site.   “There is a sea change,” said Harris in a November Washington Post article, “[but] it doesn't mean professional lobbyists are obsolete. It’s about a different kind of public involvement in policy-making that technology makes possible.”

LobbyBlog recently caught up with Harris to ask a few questions…

LobbyBlog (LB): The [Post] article mentions how the 2011 Mobile Informational Call Act was halted by activists who opposed the measure through POPVOX.  Have there been similar cases since?

POPVOX CEO Marci Harris (MH): The Mobile Informational Call Act was one of the more clear-cut cases. I think the real story is less about POPVOX being the sole reason for a particular effect, but rather the activity on POPVOX serving as a transparent proxy for the overall advocacy on an issue. Some other examples are:

You can even look at the 15,000+ people who sent a message to Congress on The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). While there were countless ways that people contacted Congress on that issue, no other platform allowed you to see comments for and against, and how they broke down by Congressional district. Certainly no other platform allowed that data to be compared and contrasted with advocacy for other bills to see how it stacked up. That information will be archived once this Congress ends, and can be referenced by academics or the media for years to come as we finally have the data to study advocacy patterns (and maybe even the actual effect of that advocacy on outcomes).

For bills that are pending at the moment, I would point to the sentiment coming in on both the how to get your ex back

m/bills/us/112/s3412/report#nation” target=”_blank”>MiIddle Class Tax Cut Act, and the Violence Against Women Reauthorization.

For all of these cases, POPVOX is obviously not the only source, but it serves as the only neutral, transparent proxy.

LB:       You’ve mentioned that you don’t think professional lobbyists are obsolete, but do you foresee a day when they will be?  And is this a good thing?

MH: No, I don't see a day when professional lobbyists will be obsolete, at least in the near future. Digging into legislative details and procedure is very hard work. I think some of the more clichéd tactics of traditional lobbyists are becoming obsolete – technology and gift rules are a big part of that – but that leaves the true “in-the-weeds” legislative work that is most valuable.

The lobbying industry needs a re-branding and it probably should start with that word. DC legend has it that the word “lobbying” comes from those hanging out in the lobby of the Willard hotel back in the time of President Grant. You can't paint a more insular picture than that. Apparently that story is not actually true and the actual origin of the term refers to the lobbies in the House of Commons where constituents could go talk with their representative. Technology is providing a virtual version of the latter sense, the original lobby,” and it's a good thing.

As for the lobbyists of today, their functions in the truest sense is to understand what is going on, explain it to their clients, and explain their clients' positions to Congress and congressional staff. They provide information: research, institutional memory, and relationships. That will always be valuable. Now, information and relationships are moving online in most areas of our lives, so I don't think it is a stretch to assume the same will be true with lobbying.

In lobbying (and everything else), I strongly believe that any business model based on closed access or asymmetric information is probably not very sustainable in the long-run.

LB: How can today’s lobbyists adjust to the technological changes affecting their work?

MH: It's a great question, and one that people in every industry are asking. I think there will always be early adopters who set a pace for others to follow, and this blog does a great job of keeping people informed about what's out there.

I think one of the most important things lobbyists can do is form a relationship with their grassroots/web/outreach team. The “kids” (who are not all kids) handling online outreach were at first resigned to basements or closets or cubby holes and unappreciated by their organizations. Electoral campaigns have finally figured out that the grassroots teams not only deserve a seat at the adult table, but that they can also be the key to a winning strategy. The same is true for advocacy campaigns. This is a new world. Lobbyists need to understand that their relationships may go back thirty years and they may be able to cite chapter and verse of parliamentary rules, but without a way to make their case to Members' constituents (and demonstrate to Congress and the media that the case has resonated), all bets are off.

LB: Here’s a quote from the Post article: “In July, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) announced that House Democrats would begin using POPVOX to feed into the official intranet for House Democratic staff” …Have Republicans come on board with POPVOX?

MH: POPVOX delivers messages to every Congressional office, regardless of party, with 100% delivery guarantee. There is no need for Congress to “adopt” POPVOX. The House Dems have opted to receive POPVOX information in an additional way, through APIs that feed directly into their staff intranet, DemCom. This means that any Democratic staffer researching a bill on DemCom will see the POPVOX pie chart, heat map, and a list of the organizations signed up through POPVOX to endorse or oppose the bill. We have shared those APIs with all caucuses (House and Senate). We've gotten a tremendously warm response on the Hill from both sides of the aisle, not just to our APIs, but to our mission of working to make constituent input come into offices in the most easy-to-process way possible.

For more on POPVOX, visit