Statistics rolling in from midterm election early voting shows that, if there’s anything this contentious political era has produced, it’s heightened civic engagement. Americans have turned out to vote in record numbers across the country, with the Washington Post reporting that votes in at least 17 states have already surpassed total early and absentee votes in 2014.
But, after the midterms are over, the question will remain: will the engagement last? While organizations such as vote.org and Rock the Vote are using technology successfully to reach voters, a report from the Knight Foundation found that startups in the civic tech space —technology that is used to inform, engage and connect residents with government — find particular challenges in engaging users, landing funding, or scaling their services.
Civic tech entrepreneur Damola Ogundipe echoes those challenges. As co-founder and CEO of Civic Eagle, a platform that allows users to track specific legislation and proposed bills, Ogundipe and his team started the platform as a B2C play, aimed towards citizens that wanted to stay informed.
Unfortunately, they just didn’t see the engagement they expected.
“When you talk to most people, they will say that they want to be civically-engaged, that if they were able to access information, it would be easier to be more civically-engaged,” Ogundipe tells Hypepotamus. “But, in application, that just isn’t the case. Voter turnout at the local level is 15-18 percent, for state races 35 percent, in midterm elections, we’re lucky to get to 45.”
“So in the one key metric that highlights civic engagement, we don’t even see a lot of engagement.”
The Civic Eagle team had put together all the right pieces to solve the puzzle. Ogundipe has a degree in business and a background in African American Studies and social issues. Co-founder and Chief Product Officer Yemi Adewunmi formerly served as a senior policy analyst for the New York State Assembly, one of the biggest state legislatures in the U.S., and is an award-winning designer.
“She is literally the most qualified person to design a product for policy,” says Ogundipe. But no matter the quality of the product, changing a consumer’s behavior is never easy. And Ogundipe believes that, when you examine U.S. citizens’ historically low voter participation and lack of civic engagement, “there’s a deeply-rooted cultural basis for why we’re not as civically-engaged as we purport ourselves to be.”
So, the team had to refine their model. They were getting a lot of inbound requests from policy-minded organizations — both for-profit lobbying firms and non-profit advocacy organizations. These organizations have to stay on top of every piece of proposed legislation related to their specific issues; their jobs depend on it.
“We leaned into it to try to still make an impact from a civic standpoint,” says Ogundipe.
This year, they built a similar platform with the same general mission, but tailored features geared towards lobbying and advocacy groups. They have customers ranging from small non-profits to large enterprises, and are tracking issues at the federal and state level, from racial equity and criminal justice reform to grocery store plastic bag usage to fiber optic implementation.
Right now, the team is relying on outside capital to build out the platform fully and scale customer acquisition. They’re hoping to raise an additional $400,000-$600,000 by end of this year to augment the $400,000 they’ve already taken in.
Once they get the B2B business running at a good pace, Ogundipe does want to go back to figuring out that B2C piece of the puzzle. He hopes to make good on their stated mission that “everyone deserves an educated point of view on democracy.”
“We think its better for us to be successful as a B2B company so we’re not reliant on venture capital money and on their metrics for success,” he explains. “But we fully intend to go back and create products and tools for the citizens and residents of America.”
Ogundipe is hopeful that, by the time they get back on that playing field, consumer attitudes will have started to shift. He says he sees it already in the midterm elections.
“I think that as tech becomes more and more ubiquitous around general civic and political engagement, we’ll see a higher level of civic and political engagement from constituents as well.”
“I think that as people start to understand the power they yield to influence lawmakers, to influence society, and not only being reactive but being proactive, I think we’ll start to see a change,” he says.