Social Advocacy & Politics: An Advocacy Tool Review of Countable

DrDigipol
Alan Rosenblatt Director of Digital Strategy, turner4D

Posted on August 12th 2014

Social Advocacy & Politics: An Advocacy Tool Review of Countable

Back in the mid-90s, online advocacy was born. In its original incarnation, CTSG (Carol Trevelyan Strategy Group) was building custom applications to send email to Congress. Within a year or two (1996), Capitol Advantage launched CAPwiz, the first off-the-shelf online advocacy tool for organizations to create campaigns. These platforms, and the many competitors that followed, allow organizations to create mini campaigns websites that match activists ZIP codes to their Congressional district and allow them to send an email to their Senators and Representative with just a few clicks. Organizations can also pre-load the email text to make it easy to take action, and then use the built-in Constituent Relations Management (CRM) to create a targeted email list and send.

Capitol Advantage then created a website called Congress.org, where individual citizens could learn about legislation in Congress and use the CAPwiz tool to send their own personal messages to their elected officials. In recent years, CQ-Roll Call purchased Capitol Advantage and has change Congress.org, removing the CAPwiz feature.

The changes to Congress.org created a gap in the market for online advocacy designed for individuals. And that is where Countable comes in. Countable is a new advocacy phone app recently introduced in the Apple app store that is designed to serve the individual.

Bart Myers, founder and CEO of Countable, explains, “We found that there was a huge disconnect between politics and people, with few resources for the average citizen to keep up with what's going on in Congress and what kind of legislation is being passed. The majority of Americans are generally dissatisfied with the job their legislators are doing and we thought, wouldn't it be great to create a way for people to know what's going on and give them a way to actually make a difference?”

Myers says the focus of the app is “to provide a fun and easy place for people to stay informed about what their congressional representatives are doing, an easy way to tell them what they think and make sure they listen.”

The app has potential, but is still a little rough. It is fairly exhaustive, displaying ALL the upcoming bill votes in Congress. That means the interface is a bit cluttered with some really unimportant bills and bills offered simply for political posturing that will have no impact on reality. That said, it shows people just how much time Congress wastes on stupid votes. And this is something people do need to see.

According to Countable’s CEO, “by summarizing legislation with succinct yea and nay arguments, we're essentially translating congress speak into everyday language. Similarly, by offering one click communication, letting your congressperson know how you feel about issues is as easy as "liking" a post on Facebook. These features especially appeal to Millennials, whom are often underrepresented in the political landscape.”

But, the descriptions of the bills on Countable are problematic. Countable staff manually writes them, which can be a daunting task, to say the least. Keeping the descriptions neutral is difficult, at best, and the temptation to spin them one way or the other must be strong.

I also think there is insufficient information for people to make informed choices. Many of the descriptions just don’t tell me enough. In most cases, I really wanted a link to the full text of the bill to make my judgment, but that was not available.

Finally, the weakness of many of the descriptions are especially problematic because Countable is asking people to vote up or down on each bill before they even see the information available on the app, let alone the full text. I am all for getting people engaged in legislative politics, but I am also a big fan of an informed public. And this app still encourages people to make uniformed decisions.

As I said from the outset, the app has potential, but as it stands I worry that it is inadequate to the task of engaging Millennials in a sufficiently meaningful way. But it is new and the creators are definitely working on improving it as people use it. I am looking forward to checking in on their progress in a few months.

DrDigipol

Alan Rosenblatt

Director of Digital Strategy, turner4D

Alan Rosenblatt, Ph.D. is a social media and online advocacy strategist, professor & thought leader. He is Director of Digital Strategy at turner 4D (formerly Turner Strategies), the co-founder and host of the Internet Advocacy Roundtable; Ombudsmen and co-founder at Take Action News and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins, American, (Georgetown and Gonzaga Universities), where he teaches courses on internet politics. He was Associate Director for Online Advocacy at the Center for American Progress/CAP Action Fund from 2007-2013, where he created and directed the Center’s social media program. Alan taught the world’s first internet politics course ever at George Mason University in 1995. He founded the Internet Advocacy Roundtable in 2005; blogs at SocialMediaToday.com, Connectivity.CQRollCall.com, DrDigipol.Tumblr.com and occasionally/previously at BigThink.com, HuffingtonPost.com, techPresident.com; serves on E-Democracy.org’s board of directors and Social Media Today’s Advisory Board; In 2008, he was a fellow at George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet; and is a co-founder of  MediaBureau.com.  Alan has a Ph.D. in Political Science from American University, an M.A. in Political Science from Boston College and a B.A. in Political Science and Philosophy from Tufts University. Find him on Twitter and across social media at @DrDigiPol.

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Comments

DrDigipol
Posted on August 12th 2014 at 6:42PM

UPDATE: There is an error in the article above. Full Text of bills are available on the App. In my review of the app, I did not see the link to the full text. It was off in the lower right corner and escaped my view.

BartMyers
Posted on August 13th 2014 at 3:48AM

Thank you for the thoughtful review Alan.  Your comments get to the heart of the challenge that we're trying to solve.

And thank you for your comment regarding the correction. It's true that we endeavor to provide a wide variety of resources, including the full text, for voters to become informed about a bill.

The challenge we all face as citizens as we attempt to understand what's happening in government is significant. We encounter legislation of all types - from the straighforward and unimportant (renaming post offices) to the incredibly complex and often contradictory (omnibus spending bills).

In all cases, our Representatives must make a choice - Yea or Nay - and we're giving voters the same ability - tell your Reps how to vote and then evaluate how they do - did they represent your views or not.

We  navigate the complexity by giving voters a quick overview, a deeper analysis, and links to the source resources that we're using. If you want to dig in - please do - and if you have insights - please let us know - we encourage user feedback

1 - High level overview (a short summary, a case for and against, a cost estimate, and so forth) - much like this - from today's featured bill - giving preschool teachers more access to education:

2 - Greater detail:

3 - if you feel brave - the entire text of the bill  (this is page 1 - read the rest here)

Thus far, it appears to be working. Users spend several minutes on the site, vote on multiple pieces of legislation and send messages to their Reps en masse. 

In the coming weeks we'll be releasing an Android version of Countable (finally!), better notifications, and expanding our legisliative coverage.

We welcome your feedback.

DrDigipol
Posted on August 13th 2014 at 3:39PM

Thanks for the details Bart. I am glad you have shared all of this with our readers. You've got an ambitious project that is serving an important need.