Marci Harris is Changing How We Talk to Congress

5 years ago

There are people who talk about change and then there’s Marci Harris. In 2010, after years as a Congressional staffer, Marci founded POPVOX, social platform that “bridges the gap between the input the public wants to provide and the information members of Congress want and need to receive.”

I caught up with Marci recently (on the go, of course!) and she gave me the lowdown on the daily business of, oh, ensuring Democracy and the American way.

Q: Tell us about POPVOX.

POPVOX is basically a neutral, non-partisan online platform for civic engagement and legislative information. What that means in a practical sense is that we gather every piece of legislation in Congress and organizations, associations can create a profile and take positions on these pieces of legislation so that’s all transparent and you can see where these organizations stand.

In POPVOX, you can pull up a bill to see what people are saying about it, and individuals can go and weigh in on whether to support or oppose the legislation as well write a message to their Congresswoman or Congressman. We take care of delivering the message to Congress in the best possible way, usually through their electronic delivery systems, but we also keep it all on the site so its public and transparent and available for everyone.

Q: What compelled you to move from being a staffer on the Hill to facilitating communication between the public and our public servants?

I was a Congressional staffer and I came in at just about the time that technology was making it easier than ever for people to get lots of information into Congress, and really harder than ever for that information to be processed and for staffers to find what they needed. Our co-founder, Rachna Choudhry, was a lobbyist for a nonprofit organization and was seeing the problem from the opposite point of view -- trying to get messages IN to Congress.

It was this perfect storm of technological overload, meaning that numbers of constituent letters and phone calls and emails were going up exponentially every year -- it’s up to about 500 million a year now -- and that’s not even counting the numerous tweets and Facebook comments. It’s important for Congress to know its hearing from constituents rather than the entire Internet. Also, as a staffer working on policy issues it was so hard for me to just go research basic topics, to find what people were saying about the bills.

So the idea was to set up a platform where all of the activity from constituents, associations, lobbyists and advocates could be funneled into a transparent online system that would align the motives of all the players in the system.

Q:POPVOX has been up and running for just over two years-- are you where you imagined you’d be?

We’ve got a list a mile long of improvements and tweaks and things we want to do. We’ve done some really hard things well and some easy things we haven’t done at all [laughs].

One of our first goals was we really wanted to take away the intimidation factor of contacting government or keeping on top of what’s going into Congress. We wanted it to be the opposite of big marble steps that you stand at the bottom of and look up and think “oh wow, thats scary”. Instead, we wanted it to feel like a place where you’re comfortable and where you belong. We’ve broken down a few of the intimidation barriers but there’s still a lot to go.

Early adopters of POPVOX aren’t the typical early adopters of the next social media company in the Tech Crunch. A million people in silicon valley using POPVOX and no one else across the country would be a catastrophe for us -- it’s important to us that [our users are] from all over. Our early adopters were people more comfortable with government or who had been paying attention, so for us our scaling challenge and where we go next is extending that circle to people who maybe weren’t contacting Congress before.

Q: You're a former Congressional staffer. How have your former colleagues reacted to POPVOX?

I’m so proud of Congress, they have a pretty bad rap right now [laughs]. With social media and its ability to engage people, I think you see a level of adoption by Congress that’s surprising given the past. Congress has been notoriously slow to adopt technology, but something about social media really captures the reason a lot of people got into politics to begin with -- they like people they like having contact with people, they like feeling like they’re interacting with people, and social media allows more direct interaction with people.

Q: So, the goals you’ve set with POPVOX amount to a truly huge undertaking. What roadblocks have you encountered?

One of big challenges has been fundraising. We’ve walked away from money several times -- we’re just very picky and we don’t want any partisan money. I think the whole team agrees that we’ve learned a lot in this time. Now we’re really smart and learn and know exactly what our users want and what we should be doing next. We describe it as, we’ve built the plumbing -- all the bills go in, all the messages get delivered -- and now it’s time for us to start to build the building.

Q: You’ve said that the future of POPVOX holds the potential for more interactivity -– why is that important to you, and what form do you envision that taking?

That’s kind of back to my saying that we’ve done what’s hard really well and haven’t focused so much on what’s easy. Just to give you an idea, [there are] the basic things that one expects on a site that has a social media feel to it -- you would expect you go on POPVOX and be able to follow people there, and you expect you’d be able to send people to your POPVOX profile, and you’d expect that you’d be able to follow organizations you find interesting. Those are all things we don’t have right now; we’ve always known we wanted to do them, we just had a lot of infrastructure we had to get in place before we really could.

Q: It seems that for you Marci, POPVOX is a venture to serve the public, but like all truly successful undertakings, seems to come from a very personal place -- true?

My mom is a really really liberal activist in our small southern town, and my dad is a very Republican politician. Those two could never have had more different views on absolutely everything that came up. I spent my childhood going back and forth talking with one about one thing and getting one point of view, then talking to the other and getting a completely different point of view. You know loving these two people who had such vastly different views about what made sense was really enlightening.

Then, my first public service experience was after our town got hit by a tornado and I was put in charge of the recovery. That’s what kind of got me into this [focus on] government and Congress and how it works. Leading the recovery was very micro/macro, but it gave me an understanding about how much what happens in Washington affects people on the ground. It also gave me an understanding of all of the challenges of hearing “we might appropriate the money for this program” sometime in the future and thinking but we need it now.

Once you work on big problems you don’t feel good working on little problems again. It’s funny, I’ve talked to so many people and everyone kind of agrees, you could never predict what you’ll do with your life, but you can look back and see how every little piece leads up to it. The whole team feels very much like that about POPVOX, and I feel blessed everyday to work with such wonderful people.

For more thoughts on women, technology and business, please follow Kathryn on Twitter at @KathrynFinney

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