Madison startup promotes political engagement without leaving the house

By April 6, 2018

Polco is a Madison-based company who is working to improve citizen engagement with a simple online polling system.

Founded in 2015, Polco creates polls and surveys about local issues to ask questions directly to citizens, improving voter participation and government transparency, as well as requiring less time and money being spent on traditional surveys and polls.

Nick Mastronardi, one of the co-founders of the company, felt that these traditional methods of reaching out to the public were inefficient and out of touch with society, causing the results to be skewed in favour of the few who participate. He spoke to Madison weekly newspaper Isthmus about why this propelled him to make a difference.

“It’s crazy. They’re pursuing so many fractured communication channels, like landline use, when most younger people are just on cell phones,” he said.

Even when governments move to digital media, they’re not getting it right, he complained.

“They’ll try to message through Facebook or Survey Monkey, where it could be one person taking the survey with 10 different accounts,” Mastronardi said. “It leaves citizens confused about where to participate, so they just don’t.”

Polco started active polls and surveys in Dane County, but the website boasts that it has now expanded to three dozen cities with 46 active communities and 13,668,039 citizens represented.

There are a variety of government officials who have promoted the initiative, for example, Dane County Clerk Scott McDonnell, who spoke to University of Wisconsin student newspaper The Badger Herald.

“Their product was really interesting in that one of the problems we have in county government, is that it’s not always clear what county issues affect city residents or students,” McDonnell said.

And it’s not just governments and local councils that can get involved. The company is also advertising use for schools, where they hope it will save time by unifying communication channels and be able to generate actionable information from the majority of families, rather than just the vocal few.

Polco is working on one of the most difficult elements of democracy, which is citizen engagement. Due to its simple and clear online format, it could be a great way to introduce younger students to the democratic process by using it as a tool in classrooms, creating the next generation of informed, engaged adults.

The Badger Herald also noted that political activism has been on the rise since the election of Donald Trump, and one of the advantages of Polco is that it gives citizens a mechanism to directly influence things that are important to them. Activism can often be fragmented and disorganised, but using their online platform is a transparent and focused way to transmit opinions from the individual sphere to the public one.

Although activism is rising, focused political participation in the US is on the decline, and Pew Research found that only 18% of U.S adults had been an active member in a group that tries to influence public policy or government. Although sobering, this statistic is hardly surprising as many people simply don’t have the time to attend lengthy meetings, or the inclination to listen to other members of the community giving long-winded speeches about the simply despicable state of the library toilets.

We live in a society that values convenience above all else, and the Internet is starting to take bigger strides into the political sphere with the rise of liquid democracy and companies like Polco. Paradoxically, these initiatives could boost active public engagement by allowing them to participate without even needing to leave the house.