When was the last time you checked the stand of your local representative on an issue? Or even checked your own stand on issues that don’t catch the media frenzy? Or the last time you read the fine print of a new proposed bill? How often have you wondered if choosing your representative was your only civic engagement and whether it was enough?
Well, everyone has busy lives and other responsibilities. Everyone also doesn’t necessarily understand politics as well. So how does one really participate in democracy? How does one ensure that their opinion is being heard. How does one decide what their stand is?
Today, on OK, Intrnt, we speak to Sanjaya Punyasena, co-founder of Simpolfy, a platform that wants to make civic engagement as easy as possible by asking you your opinion on various issues that are important to you and helping you take a stand. Simpolfy alerts the concerned representatives of the opinion of the local citizens on various issues. Right before elections, it shows you if your candidate has done a satisfactory job or not.
Could you tell us a little bit about Simpolfy?
We’re making politics as easy as possible and basically you can tell us where you stand on any issue – Federal, State or Local and we tell your appropriate representatives about it every time there’s legislation about the issue. We tell you what politicians have done about the issue and come election time, we show you if your candidates have done a satisfactory job or not. So it’s an easy way for you to hold you representative accountable.
How did you come up with the idea and why did you feel there was a need for something like this?
This idea actually came about after the Sandy Hook tragedy (link). 85% of the country wanted some gun-reforms but it didn’t lead to anything. We’re so busy in our day-to-day lives, it gets hard to stay on top of our politicians. We elect these people to take care of the issues that we face but more often than not they’re not doing what we need them to do.
Part of it is our fault, because we do not do a good job at voting. Many Americans vote based on the color of the party – blue or red. We want people to tell politicians how they feel about issues and provide an easy way for people to hold their representatives accountable.
What have been your top campaigns so far and what has been the impact?
We’ve been working on the product – it’s still a work in progress and which is why it is still in beta mode. But the first organization to use our campaigns was the democrats at San Francisco State University. They were trying to rally people around a discounted transit pass for university students. They were able to rally over 500 people in the first 24 hours. It was a very easy way for them to push out their campaign and a very low cost call-to-action to their supporters – which was basically “click this button”. We were able to use that to get the attention of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and one of their directors has already responded and he’s made it a priority.
Are you operational in all of the United States?
Yes, anyone can create an issue at the Federal, State or Local level. You just have specify the jurisdiction and our system is able to match it with the appropriate representatives.
How do you work on breaking down bills to make them comprehensible while being neutral on the issues?
We’ve changed a little bit since the time we started out. The way it’s going to work now is – you as an individual can add people and groups you trust in your circle of trust. They’re the ones who are going through the bills and going through the actions of politicians and because you trust them on these issues, they determine whether a bill or an action by a politician is good or bad and that determines the ratings of the politicians. It allows us to stay completely non-partisan.
How do you go about building trust?
We created a way for users to take very little amount of time to tell their politicians where they stand on an issue and we in-turn pass on that message for them. Instead of taking their time to call their representatives, they now just have to either click or connect their facebook/twitter accounts and post online. They can add their phone number and send a text message too. We only communicate between the users and their representatives.
Do legislators also sign-up and participate actively?
That’s the hope. Right now we’re sending reports to them. What we want to do is provide a platform for them so that they and their staffers to log in, see their aggregate data, break it down and get the popular opinion. One of the challenges they face right now is when there’s ever a drive for people to call their representatives, it’s hard for them to get a sense of how important of an issue it is for the person calling in and whether the person calling in is an actual constituent or someone halfway across the country. So we’re trying to solve that problem for them and hopefully provide value to them as well.
When it is challenging and scrutinizing people in these administrative positions, it’s sort of difficult to get them on board. What do you think about this – is it a challenge?
It really depends on them. It’s definitely going to vary – some politicians are going to see the benefit to it and others aren’t. We’re hoping that as more politicians see value, they’re going to sign up and see how it can be useful them – to gauge how the constituency feels on issues, relay messages to their constituents and ultimately help them stay in office.
There would have to be a few forward-thinking leaders who take the initiative. Are you getting in touch with such people directly?
Yeah, and we’ve already seen a few who have shown interest. We basically send the message to them so we’re hoping they see the value in seeing a one-page report rather than getting a million emails.
Do you see more and more transparency in the future? Because you also have very strong lobbying and campaigning against these “new” “transparent” forces.
I think it’s going to be two competing forces where you have the campaigns and lobbies pushing their interests. The question is whether technology can be created to get people to participate enough to counter this. There have been many players trying to enter the civic tech-space but nothing has really shown enough promise or results. For the large part, money rules. But if people did a better job with their votes and had more information in front of them before the decision, we’re hoping that it would lead to the change that this country needs.
Do you think this can be scaled up and adapted to more different political scenarios around the world?
Part of the technology we’re relying on are the open data sources. As more countries start adopting and creating open data sources, we can build the platform. It doesn’t take that much if the data is available. It could even be third party sources that make the data available – it doesn’t have to be states.
I’m hoping we can get to a stage where we can help other countries and expand but right now with the limited resources and 2016 elections coming up, we’re focusing on the United States. Once we’re up and running and get some initial fundraising – we’d definitely love to expand!
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As part of OK, Intrnt’s efforts to connect people, we asked Sanjaya if he would like to speak to some of our readers directly and he happily agreed! Write to us and we will get back to you and tell you how you can reach him!
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