Q&A: Sarah Schacht on civic engagement, open government, Gov 2.0 and Betty White

05 July 2012 | Michele Bedford Thistle, Business Manager, Government, National Security, and International Organizations, Worldwide Public Sector

Sarah Schacht is a political entrepreneur who searches for simple technology solutions to complex social problems. Eagerly involved in politics from an early age, she’s been both a conservative republican and a liberal democrat, working for a range of causes and campaigns.

Sarah is the founder and executive director of Knowledge As Power, a nonprofit that works to open up governments and increase meaningful citizen participation in government.

As a leader on improving technology and transparency within government, her organization’s work leverages open document standards to make the process of managing and distributing government documents more efficient. She has advised many open government and Gov 2.0 projects across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the Caribbean.

Michele Thistle: I’d like to start by asking you about Knowledge As Power. In the civics section, you state that only 22 states test for civic knowledge in the US. That fact suggests that a broad swath of students in the US., who eventually become the voting public, are ill-informed about how the government works and how they can become engaged in the overall process.

What role do you see technology playing with regard to that shortcoming?

Sarah Schacht: In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in civic education in the US. It’s gone the same way that the arts and gym classes have.

If things aren’t tested on, they’re really not emphasized in classrooms, and civic learning today is mostly limited to the structure of government. Kids are tested on rudiments such as the three branches of government, how a bill becomes a law, and what the judiciary does.

They’re not taught how an American citizen can engage with these branches of government or how to make one’s voice heard in the legislative process. Students get the message clearly that it’s important to register to vote, but there is a failing in our civic discussion overall, both in schools and in our communities, about the importance of being an active voice about the issues that you care about.

Knowledge As Power offers a set of solutions that we’ve piloted in Washington state and in the city of Seattle. Those include KAPcitizen, which is our free online service for easy legislation tracking and communications for citizens to track legislation on any topic they care about, communicate effectively with their lawmaker, and allow the lawmakers to more easily manage the communications they’re receiving from constituents.

Most lawmakers are using Outlook. It’s a perfectly fine email management system, but it’s not really designed to manage tens of thousands of emails a day, or millions of emails a week. It’s really difficult for them to manage their communications.

Our tools allow communications from citizens to be more effective and more valuable. We launched a pilot project, KAPcivics, in Seattle through grants from the City of Seattle and Comcast to train community organizations and other groups, as well as individuals across Seattle, about effective civic-engagement strategies.

These strategies not only consider how the legislative process works, but also how one tells their story as a citizen to be effective and to more effectively persuade lawmakers. We’ve held dozens of trainings during the past year or so in Seattle and trained 800 or 900 individuals so far. We’re looking to expand this program, not only in Seattle but across Washington state.

We’ve had really encouraging feedback. We’re finding that 72 percent of our participants are more likely to engage their lawmakers after receiving the training.

Over 80 percent of them are more likely to vote. They’re reporting what I regard as positive changes in their attitudes with regard to their level of engagement with the governing process, as a result of the training.

We have developed a free online civics curriculum, also called KAPcivics, that’s Creative Commons licensed. Any teacher, parent, or even a state legislature could download and use it. The curriculum training is designed for 8th to 12th graders, although we train with adults as well. Our goal is to help people be effective voices, by communicating electronically with legislators, tracking what’s going on, and that sort of thing.

We hope to supplement the few civics education materials that are available in the classroom. Teachers can pick up these materials and implement them, for example, in a history, writing, or current affairs class.

Leveraging technology has enabled a real upswing in terms of petitions and form letters being used to foster civic engagement, particularly around specific causes that people care about. Unfortunately, those are statistically the least effective tools for engaging lawmakers.

We see sites like Change.org as being very effective at influencing corporations or unelected bodies, but they are not as effective at empowering citizen voices in the lawmaking process or engaging with elected officials.

Leveraging technology such as social media, it’s been exciting to see conversations develop around community issues, with greater awareness and more voices being heard. Mayor of Newark New Jersey Cory Booker during Snowpocalypse 2011 leveraged Twitter, which was an example of civic engagement in a new social media world. He made it clear that he wanted to hear from people if they were having challenges in the community.

That encouraged a whole new set of individuals from across New York to engage their government. Even if it was just at the level of saying, “Hey, my road isn’t plowed. What’s the deal?” [laughs] I would say that’s valuable civic engagement.

Civic engagement is often defined as volunteering, talking with your neighbors, reading the paper, or going to a community forum. Those are all well and good, although they are relatively soft sides of civic engagement that are not terribly controversial. I’m really more interested in tools and technologies that get people more deeply and meaningfully engaged in solving community problems or making sure that their voices are heard in the lawmaking process.

Michele: I have seen online efforts along the lines of “fix my pothole,” where people take a picture of the literal problem with their street and geotag it. Using that report, the city can call a truck, and the truck fixes the pothole. That’s an efficient system, although I appreciate that it’s not necessarily about civic engagement.

Sarah: That type of initiative is very helpful, in terms of helping citizens transact with government more efficiently, but I believe that true civic engagement is more about interacting and conversations.

Gov 2.0 and the open government and civic engagement conversations have been framed and been driven by folks who are really passionate about data but who don’t necessarily fully understand what the important ingredients are in a democracy.

One possible pitfall is illustrated by a pothole-reporting mobile app put in place by the city of Portland, Oregon.

Within the first month, the roads crew for the city of Portland received three years’ worth of pothole reports. Their road team was like, “What do we do? You have to shut down the app, because we can’t realistically keep up with this.”

The lesson there is that a vital part of leveraging these new tools for interacting or transacting with government is for both developers and government to set realistic expectations for that process. Just because we have an app doesn’t make government able to fix problems like magic.

Michele: On your Twitter bio, you describe yourself as the Betty White of Gov 2.0. Unpack that for me.

Sarah: I’ve been struggling with how to write a Twitter bio for myself, and I wanted something different. I started in on open government and online civic engagement when I was 20 years old. I’m now 32—not exactly ancient, but it feels like it sometimes.

I had started doing all sorts of research and making technical plans for what would become Knowledge As Power. I ended up parlaying the research and the skills I acquired along with it into doing technical planning for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in New Hampshire and in the main office in Vermont and in Iowa.

At that point, I was just this crazy girl who had an idea to make government more transparent and meaningfully engaged with citizens online. Now, I know everybody, and I’ve worked with (almost) everybody, but I don’t really think I’m going to be recognized for my work until I’m really old. [laughs]

I feel like I’m going to struggle in the trenches for a really long time. There will be some point far down the road where who I am and what I do is cool, but right now, I just work hard.

I look at Betty White and her career, and how she worked with everyone. She was a pioneer in a lot of ways. She did a lot of fantastic work in comedy and acting, but it wasn’t until she was in her 80s that what she had been doing for a very long time started to be widely recognized.

Michele: Beyond being the Betty White of Gov 2.0, you’ve also described yourself as a political entrepreneur who uses technology to solve complex social problems. Could you share some of the ways that you’ve effectively used technology to solve complex social problems?

Sarah: In 2010, I was working with the Seattle mayor’s office as their open government advisor and was occasionally invited by the Department of Information Technology on various things. We just hosted the first Open Gov West Conference at the city of Seattle.

The city was going through a major budget cutback, just like virtually every city in the United States in 2010, but they recognized that they needed to be able to better serve city residents online. They saw it as an efficiency issue, as well as a quality and access issue for city residents.

The city hadn’t redesigned its website since 1996, and it had one of the oldest municipal websites in the United States. They knew they needed to do a redesign, but they had just laid off over 40 staff members, and they had no budget to do a usability study.

With a budget of $500 from the city, we pulled together a perfect storm of resources, tools, and donations from corporations, and we produced an 80-page usability study. We did live usability testing that changed the culture within city government.

It opened the employees’ eyes to the challenges individuals were having, such as small businesses that wanted to register in the City of Seattle but couldn’t figure out how to do that online. This was during an economic decline, when every city was scrambling for businesses to register with them.

Michele: How was the study received?

Sarah: The usability study produced a set of recommendations for the city, which they implemented. They received an award as the best municipal website in the U.S. for 2011, a new website design influenced by a $500 usability study. I think it’s interesting to see how testing that technology has led to technology improvements.

As another example, I was doing research within Congress in 2006 related to how communication happened among members of Congress, their staffs, and their constituents, and what types of communication yielded the greatest influence.

As a result of that effort, Knowledge As Power launched KAPcitizen, with an eye toward fostering communication tools to allow for easier communications management with lawmakers. We also worked to allow constituents to tell their personal stories, which we had found to be the most effective form of communication.

It had been hard to aggregate personal stories, so we created a standard format to simplify aggregating and managing the emails on the legislator’s end.

Dozens of governments have called me and said, “We don’t have a budget right now, but we need somebody to figure out what to do about X.” I’ve put together dozens of plans for governments, often pro bono, on how to leverage technology to address a social problem that they’ve seen emerge in their community.

Michele: Probably a month ago, you tweeted that @codeforamerica doesn’t get government technology challenges, and that startups can’t fix things like antiquated processes and legacy systems. What led to that tweet?

Sarah: I think Code for America’s heart is really in the right place, but their model doesn’t necessarily match up with the major challenges that are going on in government right now.

The governments that I’ve talked to and worked with have shown me that they are struggling with legacy systems that they purchased as far back in some cases as the 1970s. They’re struggling to take these legacy systems and find cost-effective ways to modernize how they input and share their information. Not just data, but also documents and processes.

Representatives from one government at Open Gov West last year told me that their property tax system was so antiquated that only one guy in city government could run the numbers in and out of the ancient database. He unexpectedly passed away, and now, nobody knows how to get into their property tax system. They think it’s going to cost them millions of dollars to unwind this legacy system.

Apps aren’t necessarily going to fix that problem. Governments need to increase the skill levels of their internal staff who have often had their training budgets dramatically slashed, because those skills that they come in the door with are the skills that they leave with. So they’re often resistant to modernizing their technology.

This predicament means greater cost down the road for governments. Saying that we just need more startups to sell things to government I think misses the point that there are a lot of people trying to sell things to government right now. Government really needs more full-time internal staff working to address their challenges and are given the latitude to make changes and improvements.

A lot of the projects that I’ve seen come out of Code for America essentially use ScraperWiki to scrape government websites for government data coming out of antiquated systems. The projects then represent the data in an app or a website. The code under that website isn’t necessarily something that anyone within the government knows and can maintain.

Really fantastic projects come out from Code for America, but are these governments able to maintain them? Do they address the underlying issues that government has instead of putting a Band Aid over legacy systems that aren’t working so well?

I think it would be a much better model to bring in computer science graduate students, hire them on for two years, and give them latitude to innovate. They could spread their new knowledge across the city staff, rather than just producing an app and leaving.

Michele: Another tweet that caught my eye recently was one about Jim Harper’s comments that data tends to evolve depending on need. How do you see government data streams evolving over the next five or 10 years?

Sarah: We’re seeing a real struggle within governments to release data. The majority of data we’ve seen is transactional information or location information. That’s non-controversial. The most controversial stuff may be crime data, although we’ve seen certain places where crime data has been released.

I’m hoping we’ll see progress. Actually, Jim’s comment came from a UN and congressional summit that both he and I were asked to attend by the UN. It was on releasing legislative documents in machine-readable XML format.

I think the trend we’ll see in the next five to 10 years is not just data as we typically define it, but information that works as data. Documents that begin working as data. Documents that are in, say, formats like Akoma Ntoso, which is the most commonly used legislative data standard in the world.

I think we’ll see documents start to be posted on data.gov sites, in machine-readable formats, and this will fundamentally change how we interact with our governments and our documents. Because they’re in a data-like format, we will start to be able to interact with them in more effective ways.

If you go to a government document today, you’ll typically open up a PDF or HTML page, and it’s not going to be linked to other relevant information, for the most part.

My hope is that, in the next five years, when you open up a legislative document on parks funding, for example, every time a park is mentioned, you can automatically click on that name and link to a map of that park, the resources in it, and the budget.

Suddenly, we won’t have to be experts to read the information of government. We’ll become experts by reading the information of government.

Michele: Moving away from Twitter for a moment, Open Gov West has run a conference a few times now in the US, but there’s also an open government conference up in British Colombia. Given the obvious differences between local governments for each conference, how does that affect the topics covered, the issues raised, and the overall tone of each conference?

Sarah: The location of Open Gov West does change the tone of the conference a little bit, particularly when we were in Canada. Most Americans don’t seem to think about it, but Canada is really quite a different government culture, which comes from a parliamentary commonwealth perspective, where open government is defined, sometimes, in opposition to privacy.

That changes things considerably, although I find some real commonalities across all the governments we bring to the conferences, wherever we are. They’re all struggling with their legacy systems, and they’re all struggling with being more accessible to citizens. They all need to deal with the fact that those topics can be scary, in terms of feeling more exposed and even of having impact on one’s job.

We see citizens who are excited about new opportunities to engage in meaningful ways with their governments, to make it more transparent and efficient. We see technology companies that are thrilled to be a part of this process and excited to help drive new improvements.

It’s a great economic opportunity for them to work with these governments, but it’s also thrilling to know that you’re a part of something big, something that’s changing lives, not just at the local level but across our nation, across the globe.

Those are some of the commonalities I see. Our next conference will be in San Diego, California, November 14th, 15th, and part of the 16th. I think it’s going to be an interesting shift. California state and local governments have been in the throes of a recession for a lot longer than some other parts of the United States and Canada, and they’re just starting to come out of all of their fiscal austerity measures.

I think there is a new hope in California that they may be able to do more. That ambition to do better, now that they have a little bit more opportunity to do so, is really exciting.

Michele: At Ignite Seattle, you mentioned that individuals do not need to be part of a large organization to drive political change. In particular, you mentioned that individuals need the right type of firepower to take on a piece of government legislation. How much of that firepower is technology related?

Sarah: I think it’s 50/50 between technology and skills. Individuals need skills to be effective voices in the legislative process. They need to know how to write an effective email, how to make an effective phone call, what times within the legislative session are best to do a one-on-one meeting or a small group meeting with their lawmakers.

Part of it is skill, although a growing part concerns the technology used. Whether you’re using a legislative website tracker like KAPcitizen or using your government’s website to track legislative information, that technology is really important. The improvement of that technology is very important for individuals to be effective.

Various communication tools are also important, ranging from basic email and phone calls to using social media as a listening device to get a better feel for your legislator’s point of view and what they’re working on, as well as to occasionally communicate with them through social media.

More and more tools rolling out give individuals a bigger voice. They don’t necessarily have to be a part of a big-money PAC to make an impact. Rather, they just need to leverage the networks that they’ve got already and bring people in. They can act as catalysts and organizers who bring groups of friends, neighbors, or businesses associates together.

Michele: I know you’ve been engaged with various governments and inter-government organizations. As you look across all those government bodies at the city, state, and federal levels, what entities do you see doing a great job at effectively connecting civic discourse with technology? And conversely, which ones do you think could be doing a lot more?

Sarah: A couple of organizations are standout, civic participation all-stars. One great example is the New York State Senate, particularly driven by the work that Andrew Hoppin kicked off as CIO, which has been taken over by Ryan Blair of the New York State Senate.

They’ve done a really good job of rapidly increasing transparency in the New York State Senate, and allowing for more ways for citizens to engage with their state senators.

On the flip side, the New York State Assembly could improve. They could open up legislative information more broadly, and they could cut a department Legislative Research Service, I believe it’s called, where they charge $2,500 a year to access full legislative information from the New York State Legislature.

Unless you’ve got $2,500 to throw around, you’re just not going to know everything that’s going on related to a particular topic that you care about in the State Legislature. I think that’s very challenging.

Portland, Oregon has done a great job. Their police department, I believe, was the first to emblazon Twitter handles on their cop cars, as part of a pioneering effort to have their police department engage with the public on Twitter.

They’ve used that in very effective ways, and they have been good at setting up dialogue in the real world and online, through social media and their website. I think that they’ve shown, under Mayor Sam Adams’ tenure with the city, that they are open and welcoming to conversation with their citizens. That effort has helped make Portland an even more attractive place to live and for businesses to come to.

The White House has also done some interesting work with We the People and their Google Hangouts. One critique I would offer to the White House is that perhaps they shouldn’t have corporate CEOs moderating their discussions. Perhaps other citizens or staff from the White House should moderate discussions, even if they’re using a corporate tool like Twitter or Google Hangout to facilitate their discussions with the public.

My biggest critique right now, in terms of engagement, is for the US Senate, where there’s two bills being held up that would allow for far greater transparency in legislative information and budget in Congress. I think that would enable a lot more citizen engagement and transparency within Congress, and unfortunately, it’s held up right now.

Michele: We’re running out of time, so is there anything else that you would like to share before we wrap up?

Sarah: I would just like to pitch that we’ll be announcing opportunities to participate and speak at Open Gov West at the end of June and re-launching our site then.

Folks interested in being a part of Open Gov West as sponsors, speakers, or attendees should look for information to launch on June 30.

Michele: Thanks very much for finding time to talk to us this afternoon.

Sarah: Thank you.

Have a comment or opinion on this post? Let me know @Microsoft_Gov. Have a question for the author? Please e-mail us at ongovernment@microsoft.com.

Michele Bedford Thistle
Business Manager, Government, National Security, and International Organizations, Worldwide Public Sector

About the Author

Michele Bedford Thistle | Business Manager, Government, National Security, and International Organizations, Worldwide Public Sector

Michele is focused on sharing stories from government customers creating real impact for citizens, employees, economies, and students. She joined the worldwide team from Microsoft Canada, where she was also marketing lead for several technology start-ups.