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.