Where Civic Action and Technology Collide

Posted by Madeline Reddington /November 5, 2015 / Advisors, Entrepreneurial Advice, FounderTalk, Hot Topics, Uncategorized

comet-impact-590x368On his mission to “help the world organize communities better,” Michael Moschella has built leadership infrastructures as VP at NationBuilder, a founder and board member at New Leaders Council, Chief Organizer for the Truman National Security Project and the Center for National Policy and a board member of Netroots Foundation. He was named one of the 50 top campaign influencers in America by Campaigns and Elections Magazine in 2014. Moschella talked with FounderDating about how new technology is changing the way people engage with the government and the parallels between the campaigns and startup worlds.

Ron Bouganim of the GovTech fund said that GovTech is the next big frontier – do you agree?

Both CivicTech and GovTech, which are cousins in the bigger category of “organizing technology,”are part of a huge shift in how governments fundamentally work. Here’s one way to describe that: In the broadcast era of communications, Ronald Reagan cuts a 30-second TV ad, people see it and they decide to vote for him. In that era we had created a government that used Hamiltonian means for Jeffersonian ends. We created large, federal-scale projects intended to help local communities. Now organizing technology is shifting the whole thing in reverse, to Jeffersonian means for Hamiltonian ends.

The goal is to solve major systemic problems—like police brutality, racism, gay rights, energy policy, health care and terrorism—but doing that by empowering local communities.    Tweet this

In 1965 that would’ve been a silly idea. because if a city council in San Antonio had figured out how to do something really well, there’s pretty much no chance that anyone in Rochester, NY would learn about that. In 2015, it’s a lot easier for a city council in a place like Provo, Utah to create something that’s interesting and innovative and then for a ton of other city councilors to learn about that and consider doing the same thing.

How did we get here?

We have had a systematic shift in the world from an advertising model to a community engagement one. Ads are super saturated, users simultaneously consume media on multiple devices, and there’s so much information availability and social connectedness that people tend to rely on friends and networks for recommendations rather than engaging with corporate marketing. That shift is also super prevalent in the public sector.

You blogged about Google’s study identifying people who pay attention to civic issues but don’t actively speak out or participate as “Interested bystanders.” How does organizing tech fit into that story?

Because of the things we’ve created to make life easier, the average American today has more free time in one day than the average American of 100 years ago had in a week. There are basically two things to do with that extra time. One is  to watch a lot more Netflix and the other is to engage in the community. According to Google’s report, half the world wants to do that latter—to engage. What organizing technology does is make it much easier to reach them, talk to them, show them there are people like them, and create ways for them to be involved.

How did you make the leap from campaigns and government to organizing tech?

Campaigns are organizing.

A political campaign is like a startup that has an ending, and it’s winner-take-all.    Tweet this

A great way to learn how to be an entrepreneur is to campaign a bunch. There’s a very finite timeline, you can’t mess around, and on election day you’ll get a very clear indication of whether you won or lost.  You’ll also deal with some of the craziest people in the world.

Speaking of that run up to that election deadline, how do you deal with that cyclical nature of campaigns in running a business?

First, we’ve moved into a 24/7/365 campaign world in the U.S. As soon as the election cycle is over in November of 2016, advocacy organization and groups with policy interests will immediately start gearing up massive campaigns to seize their opening with this new president. That’ll happen basically from the day after election until late 2017, when people start to rev up for 2018 congressional elections. So there’s a very fast growing industry of engagement. The second thing is the day that the campaign is over, half of the people that ran now have to govern. They have all these amazing data tools, targeting technology and advertising to get elected, and now they’re in government. What next? As soon as the campaign’s over, the next day you shift into enabling people to maintain their promises. It’s just a different leader-following relationship; instead of candidate to electorate, you have government to citizen. But the coding, the “ones-and-zeros” of it all fundamentally stay the same.

What’s the biggest myth about working in or with government and nonprofits?

The biggest myth about working with government is that government is less efficient than businesses. It’s just completely not true. The government can be less resourced.   Tweet this

But by and large, when I was at NationBuilder, we did major efforts with some really big governments like Boston, Los Angeles, New York and at the federal level too. And often those things were up and running well before the timeline would be for big business branding stuff.

What are the 3 things you learned in the last few years that you wish someone would have told you?

  1. When you’re somebody’s boss, sometimes people will just be afraid of you and not really tell you the truth. That’s a huge challenge for people who are hiring staff—to not be the crazy boss. Especially if you’re kind of a fast-moving person.
  2. Sometimes you need slow down. I’m the type of person to zoom ahead. I’m always at 80 mph, even when the speed limit is 55mph. Sometimes that’s not good; you can move too fast or work too hard. You’ve got to keep everybody together
  3. Be decisive about people. One thing that was very different in the nonprofit/political world is you don’t really fire anyone or restructure—you layer in new folks. But once you have VC funding, you can’t play that game. If you’re the type of person who wants to make friends, and be nice to everybody—which a lot of people in the government and civictech world are; as humans that care deeply about helping other humans—that may ultimately trip you. I’ve seen other people coming from the public sector worlds struggle with that fundamental piece of letting people go or saying they’re not the right fit. But that attitude doesn’t work when you’re spending someone else’s money with the clock ticking.

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