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Project of Week – Open Forum Foundation

I met Wayne at Gov 2.0 Barcamp on one Sunday morning as a group of volunteers were planning the eventual conference. I was impressed with his ideas and thought processes and was wondering what he was up to.

That day and at the actual Gov 2.0 Barcamp he told me about his group “Open Forum Foundation” and I was quite impressed. I wanted to learn more so here’s my interview with Wayne.

Tell me about your background

My background is pretty diverse – the result of my ongoing quest to enjoy everything I do while contributing in some meaningful way. This is a blessing and a curse, of course. It would have been much easier to take my grandfather’s advice and just stick with a good company, but I digress…

I grew up on a farm in Michigan, got my engineering degree from the University of Michigan, and returned to the family business for several years. When I realized my interest was more in ‘people’ than ‘things,’ I left that to see what else was out there. During that time, I traveled extensively throughout the US; lived in New York, Los Angeles, and Santa Fe; and worked in a lot of different fields, including IT consulting, hypnotherapy, and electoral reform. My involvement in the grassroots organizing efforts that resulted in New Mexico returning to all-paper ballots was something of an epiphany for me. I awoke from that apathetic fog that so many in my generation grew up in and realized that it actually was possible to have an impact on the world around me.

That led me to pursue a master’s degree in international relations from New York University with the intention of working on UN reform. I realized during the course of that however, that you don’t change the UN from New York, you change it from Washington. So I moved to our nation’s capitol to learn about foreign policy formation first hand.

What drew you to the idea of the Open Forum Foundation

Well, the thing I didn’t mention before is that I’ve always had an easy time starting organizations. Entrepreneurship seems to run in the family, and I find it so much easier to do things than to convince others to hire me to do them.

Anyway, just over a year ago I got an email from the United Nations Association, asking me to send a message to my members of Congress telling them to pay the $2billion we owe the UN. The thought occurred to me that while it would only take 35 seconds to click through and send that message, I had no faith that it was worth the time or effort. I had met a couple of people on the Hill, and the number one complaint I had heard was about the volume of constituent communications – horror stories about sorting massive volumes of emails in Outlook and trying to determine what each one was trying to say. So I ran through the list of ways I could communicate this message – email, phone call, fax, personal visit – I had no confidence in any of them and never had! I figured the only way my voice could be heard on the Hill was if I wanted to commit a month or more of my life solely to that task — learning the culture, meeting the right people, and then sharing my views with them. I wasn’t that committed, and neither are 99% of the rest of the population of the country.

So I started thinking, with all this fancy new internet technology, there ought to be an easy solution. I came up with something, ran it by some Hill staffers and a pessimistic lobbyist, and they all said, “Why doesn’t it work that way now?” I figured someone was working on it, but significant internet research turned up nothing, so I decided I’d better get it done.

What do you hope to achieve with the Open Forum Foundation

Short term or long term? It’s a complex project. The short term goals are, relatively speaking, pragmatic and simple. The long term goals are idealistic and visionary. It’ll be interesting to see how it turns out.

Short term, I want to provide a solution to the frustrations that are plaguing communication between citizens and their Congressional representatives. For citizens, I want to provide a reliable way for them to have their voices heard by their elected officials while lowering the barriers to civic engagement. For members of Congress, I want to free up staff time so they can focus on the work of lawmaking by providing them with automatic aggregation of incoming opinions and constituency verification. On top of that, the solution has to appeal to advocacy groups, who drive a lot of the communication that reaches the Hill. The goal is to provide immediate benefits to all three groups.

Long term, I intend to establish this platform as a freely available communication channel that enables citizens and governments all over the world to engage in meaningful political dialogue. I envision this as infrastructure akin to the mail or phone systems, except that this is specifically tailored to the complexities of one representative communicating with millions of constituents.

Tell us about your first project – Project One

Ha! It’s funny. I’m redesigning my website right now because when my board became active, they said two things: 1) no one will read your website, it’s ugly (I guess my engineering design skills do not carry over well to graphic design), and 2) differentiating between the Open Forum Foundation and Project One is too complicated at this stage: get rid of the second name. But of course, the name is still on the current site…

So, that said, the platform that we’re developing has fairly simple core functionality. When a citizen creates an account on the main website, they are encouraged to connect the account to their voter registration data. They may then express their opinions and tag them with issue areas, all free-form as we’ve come to expect on the web. They can also register agreement or disagreement with any other opinions posted on the site. All of this data can then be automatically aggregated by issue area and electoral district, to be presented to the representative in a snazzy dashboard. The representatives can get a quick overview of the number of constituents for/against an issue area or they can click through to read the full text of all the individual opinions.

The representatives then have two options for responding. First, they may respond to individual opinions, and thus engage in a one-to-many conversation that enables nuanced discussion. And secondly, they can make general statements by issue area that will serve to inform their constituents of their viewpoints and recent accomplishments within that area.

Of course, there is a great deal more to it, but that’s the foundation for everything else. The other critical component of the basic design is that it’s a platform, not just a website. Like Twitter, the full functionality of this platform should be available from a diversity of clients, apps, and widgets that run on the desktop, smart phones, and inside of other websites. Political discussion is already happening all over the web. We’re looking to reach those conversations where they’re happening. Like Facebook, anyone will be able to develop apps that extend the functionality of the site, mashup the data, or enhance it in other ways. And at the same time, we are looking to work with the e-advocacy vendors that traffic so much of the incoming communication and the CRM vendors that provide software on the Hill for aggregating everything that is received.

In short, we’re looking to provide a free system that provides useful functionality to everyone that is, or wants to be, involved in politicial discussion.

Now technologically, this is a fairly simple problem. Politically and culturally however, it is much more complex. Because of this, I have yet to develop software. Instead, I have focused my efforts on establishing a sustainable nonprofit, meeting all the right people, and determining the right features and a viable plan developing and implementing the platform.

Following on the launch of our new website in the next couple of weeks, I’m excited to start fundraising!!

What have been your biggest challenges in starting up a new foundation

Oh my goodness! Starting a nonprofit is, umm.. let’s call it a headache. In business, you basically pay your $150 and start selling your product. With a nonprofit, I was actively working for six months before we were even incorporated. Now, part of that is because it was my first time, but part of it is the fact that if you want to be sustainable and live up to the trust of the people that you’re looking to serve, there are a lot of administrative hurdles to get over. The IRS does not just pass these things out, and as I mentioned before I’m working on a long term goal with international reach. In addition, it’s a realistic possibility that once I start development of the actual platform, we will go from being a small nonprofit that no one has ever heard of to having 10 million users on the platform in as little as 8 months. I don’t take that possibility lightly. I know that the most dangerous time for any organization is during a growth period, and we’re looking at potentially huge growth in a very short period of time.

Those are my biggest challenges.

What made you choose to start a foundation versus as a corporation/business?

As I alluded to above, I would have preferred to run this as a for-profit, but I couldn’t figure out a sustainable business model. The nature of the product is such that competition distributes and thus lessens, the value of the aggregated data, which complicates things for elected officials. In addition, there was no good income source that didn’t come with potential conflicts of interest. The current popular solution on the web – the advertising model – seemed a little uncertain to me, especially knowing that Wikipedia has tried to introduce advertising a number of times, only to have it shot down by the community that maintains the site.

At the end of the day, my solution was to use the same model that Wikipedia and NPR survive on: small donations from individual users of the site. The added bonus is that this closes the loop between the population that we’re looking to serve and our funding source. If we’re not doing a good job for citizens, we will have a very hard time surviving ourselves — and that is as it should be.

What has been the reaction from government and citizens?

Very positive. The few times that people have been critical of it resulted in a flurry of challenging questions, most of which I’ve already taken into consideration. At the end of the discussion, they offer to help or wish me the best of luck. At the end of the day, I’m focused on solving problems and not on pushing a specific agenda or solution. I think this supportive stance makes it really easy for people to see the benefits of what I’m proposing, and then share their particular insight – which I’m always happy to learn from.

Tell us about the upcoming website relaunch

Well, it’s been a while in coming, but it’s really exciting. We’ve spent a lot of time determining who we are, who the audience is, what we’re trying to express, and how to put it across — and it’s almost finished. Sometime in the next couple of weeks it’ll go live and it looks great!

Everything that we’re working on is up on the current website, and after the re-launch we’ll be re-opening comments. I’m always looking for input and clarification on what we’re doing and would love to work with anyone who wants to get involved.

“How do you see the next few years unfolding for Open Government and Gov 2.0?”

It’s a bit of a turbulent time, isn’t it? I think the reality is that government will become more open, but it’s going to be a mess for at least a decade, maybe two, and that’s just the nature of the beast. Our government, in part by design and in part by the nature of bureaucracy changes slowly. Technology today changes incredibly quickly – what will be the hot thing in six months? Some parts of government will keep up, others will not. Some have service-motivated reasons to do so, some have inspired employees, others are quite the opposite.

I think the important thing is that everyone keep experimenting. No one knows how to use these new tools for government purposes, but there are some great things being done with them. No one even knows which of the tools will still be available in 3 years! It’s going to continue to be chaotic until the technology stabilizes, and then for a couple more years after that. In the meantime, kudos to those that thrive in chaos, and sympathy for those that don’t.

When did you join GovLoop? How has it been helpful for you? What ideas do you have to make GovLoop even better?”

Ah ha! This was the whole point of the interview, wasn’t it? It’s all about GovLoop with you…

I joined GovLoop at the end of January. I was a little uncertain at the time – not being an actual government employee, so I laid low at first, not certain how active I should be. Of course, there are so many social networks out there these days and there is a time commitment to really get involved in any single one. During the build up to Gov20Camp, I realized that it was really taking off and I finally made the commitment to be involved in it. It has been wonderful in terms of maintaining the connections that I’ve made with the wonderfully geeky government crowd that I seem to have fallen in with.

It was also really helpful when we were organizing eDemocracyCamp to reach out to a constituency that is otherwise dispersed and hard to get to.

As far as how to make it better, that’s an excellent question. There’s not much that I think I have to add to that conversation. I mean you just doubled your user base to 10,000 in about 2 months! I think you’re doing fabulous. The only thing I would say is that the interface is a little clunky. I’m not intimately familiar with Ning, but I don’t think there’s anything you can do about it either. But just as an example, if I want to go to one of my groups, I have to click on ‘groups’ in the top bar, then on ‘my groups’ on the page that loads, and then I can select the group that I’m looking for. It’s a great platform, but the user interface could still use some cleaning up. I would just say keep your eyes open in that direction.

Oh! However, I do love the new header image – it’s beautiful. Very hip and governmental all at the same time. Very cool.

Are you on Twitter? What’s your handle? Favorite person or hashtag to follow?

Am I on Twitter? We met organizing for Gov20Camp. Do you really think I would have been allowed to hang out with that crowd without a twitter account? Seriously, at the first meeting, they didn’t even ask for people’s email addresses, just twitter name. I’m @wmburke, but I will be honest – I’m not very prolific.

And ya’ know, I’m not much of a follower, either. I mean in the strict sense. I like to browse through and see what’s going on. I tend to follow people that tweet about subjects I’m interested in and use them to send the cool stuff my way. Consequently, I stay on top of nonprofit new media and fundraising use, government new media use, android development, and, increasingly, news.

These are certainly interesting times we’re living in.

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