Changing Democracy From the Ground Up
29 March 2017 at 8:20 am
An online platform is working to bridge the gap between government and people passionate about the issues that politicians get to make decisions about.
Matthew Gordon, chief of operations and one of the founders of OurSay, came up with the concept at the Centre for Sustainability Leadership, a typical leadership program full of young, emerging leaders from all walks of life.
Gordon’s story begins eight years ago: “We were hearing from the former state minister for the environment and he asked the question of the 25 emerging leaders: ‘How many of you are a member of a political party?’ and zero hands go up, so he goes: ‘Well how many of you aspire to be a politician?’ and again zero hands go up, and then he asks: ‘Well, ok,’ and he’s a bit embarrassed at this point, ‘How many of you would like to see a politician take action on something that you’re really passionate about?’ and of course all hands go up at this point.
“The places where decisions are being made, particularly in government, and the places where people are connecting to and are passionate about issues are two different places.”
Gordon and his co-founder CEO Eyal Halamish set out to bridge this gap.
“We decided to get together and develop a place where leaders and members of the community can come together around decision making,” Gordon says.
He describes OurSay as a 21st century platform for democracy.
“It has a range of discussion forum tools which allow leaders in government to share questions or issues that they would like to collectively resolve with the community,” he says.
“And it allows the community to register ideas, share those ideas on social media, and then vote on and prioritise what one they would like to see actioned. And it allows leaders to then respond to those priorities.”
The self-service platform helps local, state, federal government departments host their own forums and promote them to their target audience.
OurSay took off quickly, and in 2012, three years after launching, Gordon and Halamish quit their jobs to focus on the social enterprise full time.
“We just got so busy with requests to do projects that there was just not enough time after work to do it,” Gordon says.
“So that’s kind of an indication of what happened immediately. The response is that it just took off.
“And since then we’ve been growing pretty steadily. We now have 10 staff and we’ve serviced 60 to 70 governments around the country, and other organisations including water authorities, community banking, universities, media, and we’ve reached over two million Australians and we’ve had over 100,000 Australians make a submission in that time.”
He says their “breakthrough” was using OurSay to help local governments to engage their constituents.
“It’s not flash, but what we realised was that decisions made at the local level have the biggest impact on communities,” he says.
“In particular around quality of life areas, like at the end of the day local governments are responsible for making sure rubbish goes away, making sure the roads are adequately serviced, make sure there’s local community-based health organisations, making sure older people are looked after… through aged care services. It’s kind of a cradle to grave level of government.
“In 2013 we ran a project with one of the smallest local governments you could find, Hepburn Shire, and [it was] the first time that we ran a project where the top 10 ideas, no matter what they were, directly, almost unfiltered, informed a government plan.”
OurSay experienced an unprecedented level of engagement on the Hepburn project.
“We had more than 10 per cent of the community engaged in this plan, which is a thousand times more than you expect, so lots and lots of people,” Gordon says.
“And what happened was when they used the community’s insights they could then make decisions around what to prioritise for the next four years.
“When they measured the community satisfaction and the quality of the decision making, it skyrocketed, it jumped by 20 to 30 per cent in that period of time.
“What it shows is that good governance is as much about good engagement as it is making good decisions. In fact, good governance is about making decisions with good engagement. And from then on, we’ve just gone ok let’s scale out local government, and I think we’ve worked with about 50 local governments.”
Despite its growth, Gordon says one of the first and biggest challenges for OurSay was securing government grants.
“The OurSay model was seen to be risky, it was about driving the accountability and transparency back at government and funding bodies in government or even outside of government didn’t want to touch that,” he says.
“So we established ourselves, and using this B Corp accreditation process, to build a for-profit model social enterprise, and that way we were also able to also secure funding from private investors that have a social orientation with their investment fund.”
“So one of the things that we found working through a social enterprise was the funding issue, and how do you get the balance right between private equity and public good. That was the main challenge.”
OurSay has since experimented with several different funding models, including a sponsorship model, before finding the right one.
“Then we realised… governments need to engage with their community anyway, they’re already spending money in this space, why don’t they spend a little bit on this, and maybe we can show them that they can get a better result, which we have,” Gordon says.
“And so now we are strictly providing OurSay on a subscription-only basis to these public institutions.”
Gordon says the other challenge was keeping staff morale up and “being able to build a team of people committed to something without seeing any immediate return on it”.
“Just trying to keep the lights burning the whole time is always a challenge.
“Over the last three or four years though Eyal and I have worked very closely together and we feel that we’re in this together now and it’s not going to go away and we’re highly committed to keep driving it.
“My only advice to anyone who’s a budding young social entrepreneur: don’t do it alone.”
With the business well established, Gordon is hoping to broaden its social impact by using revenue from governments to support the not-for-profit sector.
“We think there’s an interesting opportunity to work with NGOs and the broader third sector to help them engage communities, and to help them raise money for their projects through the OurSay process as well,” he says.
“And so this is a little bit under wraps but the idea is we can actually develop an economy for democracy where NGOs and the third sector can not only engage communities through our technology, but also raise money to drive the advocacy and to have government effectively fund the whole process.”
Gordon and Halamish are also looking to expand the model overseas.
“Australia’s been a really good place to prove the model and to show that it can have a wide application across different types of projects,” Gordon says.
“We’re now really interested in looking at growing our market to the United States, and potentially the UK and Europe.
“After the Trump election we got two or three organic phone calls from US congressmen in rust belt states going: ‘We need a new strategy for engagement, that needs to be bottom up.’”
He says every year OurSay is becoming more and more relevant.
“We’re seeing a radicalist political movement grow because of a deep dissatisfaction with the functional institutions of our democracy, and they’re getting no more better exemplified than Trump ascendancy,” he says.
“And so we think it’s more important than ever to be using these sorts of technologies and approaches to increase community satisfaction in the way we make decisions at the highest level, increase trust in the institutions that are charged with delivering outcomes for the community, and targeting our focus around the institutions and organisations that require a heightened social licence to operate.
“But to do that requires awesome engagement that makes people feel that they’re being heard, that their voices are being valued and understood by their political leaders, and our goal is to continue driving that as hard as we can.”