When democracy gets digital

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) was asked recently by a graduate — overwhelmed by loan debt, searching for work in a scarce job market — what she was doing to ensure that students can compete successfully in the global marketplace.

This was far from unusual for a member of Congress; lawmakers are bombarded daily by questions from constituents on a wide range of issues. What was different about this request was where it originated — and Sanchez’s response.

Posted to the new social media platform TellDC, this grad’s question was virtually supported by more than 50 fellow constituents. Shortly after, Sanchez posted a video directly answering the query, describing initiatives she promotes to assist students in her district.

“TellDC provides me an open, constant and evolving line of communication between the people I represent and me,” the congresswoman wrote in an email. “This innovative service allows me to get my message out to a broad community very quickly.”

Sanchez is one of roughly 40 congressional lawmakers so far to adopt the new social media and video platform, billed as a hybrid of Facebook and YouTube. Roughly 600,000 users from around the country can pose questions to politicians on the site.

If enough of them “agree” with a question and meet set thresholds — 50 for House members, 100 for senators and 250 for the executive branch — a notice is sent to the lawmaker or government official notifying him or her that a response is requested.

The lawmaker can then choose to respond in writing to the question or post a video to the site, weighing in on the issue.

For founder and chief executive officer Tim Yale, the core concept evolved several years ago, when town-hall meetings became “so aggressive.”

“You saw all this pent-up anger and frustration,” he said. “Everyone’s talking about politics. Because the government has so much influence on everyone’s life in every way, the disconnect between people and the government seemed to be getting wider and wider.”

Previously involved in Web development and direct marketing, Yale saw a natural fit in using social media to reach politicos.

“Our objective is to connect the general public with the elected officials and start a new channel of dialogue between those two,” he said. “Whether it’s a mobile device or computer, engaging in a social network, that’s where everyone is now.”

To that end, Yale created TellDC last year, self-funding the venture. Currently operating with 24 full-time employees, the site also employs many consultants and volunteers as well as a national database of freelance camera crews to film lawmakers both in Washington and in their home districts.

Lawmakers already using the site are a diverse group, spanning age and political party. But they are typically early adopters of new media, according to Ernest Baynard, consultant for TellDC and president of Meridian Hill Strategies Inc.

“I think that the real currency of the political realm right now in Congress is to try and get traction in the social media space,” Baynard said. “A lot of the staffers are very attuned to this and really, I think, it’s the members that want to be aggressive and first movers on using this new technology.”

And while many lawmaker comments on the site are sparked by constituent queries, politicians can also use TellDC as a tool to distribute material and have constituents respond to it.

“The platform is used both ways,” Baynard said. “As some of this messaging intensifies over these top issues — whether they be the debt ceiling or Medicaid — whatever any member wants to communicate about, you’ll see members using the platform to make sure they’re getting their message out, and that will spark a discussion as well.”

Lawmakers have been making an increasing effort of late to adopt technology to better communicate with voters. Just last week, the House enabled its networks to allow members the use of Skype video conferencing, and many members utilize social media sites Facebook and Twitter to reach the public.

“Social media allows members of Congress to have a real-time, up-to-the-minute pulse of our constituents,” Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) wrote in an email. TellDC and other social media sites are “another avenue of communication and discussion — both of which are desperately needed right now.”

“Whether through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TellDC, blogs, e-newsletters or other mediums, social media is a constant reminder and source of feedback directly from the people we came to Washington, D.C., to serve,” he said.

Predicting that social media will eventually be as widely used as smartphones in Congress, Baynard said, “The evolution is clearly toward connectivity and engagement.

“There’s a huge premium being placed on engagement in the social media space.”

As Yale looks to roll out an updated version of TellDC in the coming weeks, he is convinced that not just his site, but all social media, are here to stay for lawmakers.

“Any evolution of government officials moving toward endorsing new and modern technology is a move in the right direction,” he said. “That’s only going to get more and more popular … digital democracy is the future.”