Marci Harris, Founder of POPVOX, on the future of civic engagement
Entrepreneur, lawyer, and former congressional staffer Marci Harris co-founded POPVOX — derived from “Vox Populi,” or “voice of the people” — to connect people and lawmakers to facilitate more effective participation and better governing by creating a place for people to learn about pending legislation and to provide meaningful input.
“There is a stigma about government being slow and bulky … but it’s improving,” Harris said. “Congress really wants to incorporate innovation and listen to the people, but it’s hard to figure out how.”
POPVOX facilitates this process by working extensively with public data, ensuring that every bill introduced in Congress — and select regulations — are available for public input.
Experts, advocacy groups, and companies register their positions endorsing or opposing bills or regulations. Individuals (verified constituents) then also weigh in on them; their comments are delivered to legislators or federal agencies, and are aggregated and available publicly through POPVOX.
“One consistent thing I saw as a Congressional staffer and that I hear over and over again from elected officials is how important the input and attention of their constituents are,” Harris said. “They say: ‘Make me do it’ — and they mean it.”
While they currently focus exclusively on the U.S. Congress, POPVOX is working to expand to the state level by January 2017.
Referring to bipartisan efforts made in recent years to modernize government, Harris noted: “One of the best-kept secrets in DC is that the gears are actually starting to turn in Congress.”
Both parties hope to better utilize available data and adopt new technologies to make bureaucratic processes more efficient.
On the topic of civic engagement, Harris said that she and the team at POPVOX talk a lot about “political efficacy” — which could be greatly improved by engaging in conversations about how the system works, so it is not so intimidating; offering non-partisan, apolitical explanations of the process so it doesn’t feel like it is only open to insiders; and providing simple ways to follow along and share thoughts on the issues.
“We are finding that the key to helping people engage is not simply technical,” she said. “While technology can create opportunities for engagement and make it easier to participate, that doesn’t help if people feel that no one is listening or that the system is too complicated to understand — and we all feel that way at times.”
Harris warns against an overly-critical view of government, encouraging political participation from people of all ages, rather than withdrawal:
“Be careful of anyone telling you that the system is broken. Young people seem to default to cynicism, but we have extremely powerful voices — we have to use them. We have to decide who we are.”
By giving people small samples of success in engaging with their representatives, Harris hopes people will be able to “feel their own efficacy.”
POPVOX believes that the civic technology space can help with this.
“In the public and political space, understanding that you can be effective is a first step to actually being effective. It’s so easy to become disillusioned if you think you can’t impact issues, if you’ve never seen how much power you can have,” she said. “We are the government, and the government is us — it’s not some distant thing that we can’t control.”
While sometimes it seems as if one must “go outside the fishbowl of government to get anything done,” Harris says it’s difficult but not impossible to bring about real change: “and herculean efforts are being made at all levels, with tremendous results.”
“Be careful of anyone telling you that the system is too broken, so you shouldn’t bother,” Harris noted. “It’s understandable that young people default to cynicism, but they have extremely powerful voices. We have to use our voices. We have the power to decide who we are as a country.”