This case was submitted as part of the Call for Innovations, an annual partnership initiative between OPSI and the UAE Mohammed Bin Rashid Center for Government Innovation (MBRCGI)
LawMaker is a lobby for the lobbyless – a free advocacy tool for those of us who don’t have a professional working for them to influence our governments. LawMaker allows Americans to (1) crowdsource ideas for new laws, (2) build voter coalitions, and (3) engage politicians to advocate for change. Our mission is to democratize democracies by empowering the creation of new laws that originate from real people at the grassroots, instead of from lobbyists and wealthy special interests.
LawMaker was created to address a troubling downward trend in citizen confidence in democratic institutions. This has resulted in a cynical, frustrated, and volatile electorate, as well as polarizing politicians who campaign on cultural division instead of concrete policy. LawMaker was designed to benefit both voters and elected officials by addressing the root causes of civic frustration.
A 2014 Princeton University study found, “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact, upon public policy.” It is thus no coincidence that trust in the US government is at an all-time low. According to the Pew Research Center:
• 76% of Americans say their government “is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves.” (2018)
• 61% say it is “unlikely their elected officials would help them address a problem if contacted.” (2018)
• 74% believe that most elected officials put their own interests first. (2015)
• Only 18% say they can trust the government to do what is right. (2018)
Dissatisfaction with the U.S. government is at 77% after a steady incline from 29% in 2002. In the same period, voter communications to politicians have increased by 400%. Voters are looking for ways to be heard by their representatives, and feel a growing discontent toward a government that isn’t listening.
In light of the 2016 US Presidential Election and the subsequent increase in political engagement, LawMaker has been able to provide a productive tool for the burgeoning numbers of concerned and active citizens. In the past two years, civic engagement numbers have spiked dramatically. According to Pew, 2017 saw a 19% increase in policy-focused action compared to 2016. Popular event organizing site, Eventbrite, saw a 30% increase in political events in 2017 with a mammoth 93% increase in participation. The LawMaker team is utilizing this opportunity to provide voters a new way to engage that allows them to propose and build support for their own ideas for legislation, rather than solely put their energy into supporting the platforms of parties, lobbies, and special interest groups.
LawMaker’s objective is to create a more active and informed citizenry by empowering policy ideation and collaboration that sparks real civic change from the grassroots. The platform gives voters a tangible way to engage their elected officials and advocate for specific policy changes for their communities. LawMaker's user experience is summarized with the following steps:
Step 1. Propose a Policy: Users propose an idea to improve their city, state, or nation. There is no need for complex legal language – just a problem statement and how the user thinks government can address it. Authors can use text or video.
Step 2. Share the Idea: Authentic shares have great power online. Users share their ideas on their social networks to earn support among people who see the same problem and envision similar solutions. All supporters are verified to be real people with confirmed addresses, so their support can be quantified and conveyed to the appropriate elected officials.
Step 3. Crowdsource Amendments: Users can improve their proposal with like-minded people using LawMaker’s “amendment” tool. Other users propose amendments to a policy idea, and the author chooses the ones that best complete her/his vision, thus adding “co-authors” to their proposal to help spread awareness.
Step 4. Advocate for Change: Once an idea has earned a foundation of support, LawMaker helps users engage their elected officials in a public online dialogue to advocate for change.
Step 5. Political Accountability: Before each election, LawMaker will send users a rundown of how each of their elected officials and candidates responded to or voted on the LawMaker policies the user supported and opposed, allowing users to make better voting decisions than ever before.
As with all civic movements, as our numbers grow, so will our impact. LawMaker aims to earn 50,000 users in California before expanding to New York, Florida, Illinois, and Texas. Exposure in these influential states will ease expansion into the remainder of the country. LawMaker also has strategic plans to expand into Canada, Mexico, England, and India.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
LawMaker innovates on the three main ways people engage with their government between elections:
1-PUBLIC HEARINGS are largely held during working hours, a challenge for people with jobs, stay-at-home parents, and youth. LawMaker simulates public hearings on any policy topic. Content is public, permanent, and always open for comment.
2-CALLING/EMAILING POLITICIANS often results in no response. Additionally, callers have no idea if their message was one of 10 on that topic, or one of 10,000. With LawMaker, users can communicate collectively, and the platform incentivizes a response from politicians.
3-SIGNING PETITIONS may feel good, but rarely results in political change. Petitions lack an accountability loop in which signatories are notified how/if elected officials respond. Through LawMaker, each politician’s reply (or lack thereof) is conveyed to users before the next election, empowering more informed voter behavior and incentivizing officials to respond to constituents.
What is the current status of your innovation?
LawMaker launched our California beta in 2018 to cover city, county, state, and federal government officials. Thus far, over 500 policy drafts have been initiated or submitted.
From the bottom-up, LawMaker reaches out to civic groups, grassroots advocacy organizations, and local councils to inform them of the opportunity to propose policy ideas & develop larger civic coalitions.
From the top-down, we partner with elected officials to issue LawMaker Challenges. Politicians use the platform to offer a 60-day opportunity for their constituents to propose policy ideas on specific topics. The elected officials commit to use the policy with the most support as inspiration for their next piece of legislation.
We have conducted two LawMaker Challenges with US Congresswoman Julia Brownley and LA City Councilman David Ryu. Brownley’s legislation is pending. Ryu has already introduced his winning policy before the LA City Council, where it is currently undergoing legislative review.
Collaborations & Partnerships
After completing the first LawMaker prototype, we interviewed 100 voters and surveyed nearly 5,000 citizens on the platform’s features, experience, and design. We used this detailed input to modify LawMaker into the micro-lobbying platform that it is today.
Since our launch, we have partnered with two government officials, Councilman David Ryu and Representative Julia Brownley, to launch LawMaker Challenges, and have Challenges with four new elected officials pending for early 2019.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
LawMaker has two beneficiaries—voters and elected officials.
Voters propose policy ideas they would like to see their politicians introduce. Thus far, one such proposal has been written into an ordinance that is under review in Los Angeles. Another pends before a US Congresswoman.
Officials that issue LawMaker Challenges are also beneficiaries. Through their participation, they get a unique public outreach opportunity to collaborate with voters who feel ignored by their elected officials.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
Approximately 20,000 Californians have signed up for LawMaker and over 500 policies have been initiated or published on the platform.
Of those policies, two have been officially recognized by elected officials. Congresswoman Julia Brownley is currently considering her policy action on a LawMaker proposal on campaign finance reform. Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu has issued an ordinance before the LA City Council (http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2018/18-0045_mot_01-16-2018.pdf), which uses the words of LawMaker users to propose a change to public hearing regulations. The ordinance is currently in legislative review. Because of the awareness around the unique way this ordinance was created, nearly 40 civic organizations and local councils have written to the City in support of the policy.
LawMaker will launch four LawMaker Challenges in 2019 that will result in new civilian-inspired legislation being introduced by four members of the California State Assembly and Senate.
Challenges and Failures
LawMaker’s long-standing challenge, one that is faced by nearly every civic action organization, is public awareness. Voters are generally loath to participate in civic engagement unless they have significant experience with or recognition of the method they are choosing. Protests and phone call campaigns get so much participation because voters are familiar with such engagement. New forms of political action, like LawMaker, require strategic awareness campaigns to familiarize voters with a new avenue for action.
Fortunately, we have not experienced any failures due to this obstacle. We face this challenge by finding new, cost-effective ways to increase awareness, usage, and sharing. Earned media has been a huge success, and media articles about LawMaker have resulted in nearly 50% of all users. Participation at civic events also sees a high rate of return. We are also currently putting funds into social media marketing that has resulted in nearly 25% of all new users.
Conditions for Success
LawMaker is currently built to accommodate users from all 50 states in the US. We narrowed our early launch to California to strategically target financial resources for marketing and awareness. Additionally, the platform relies on the purchase of specialized data that connects each user, based on their address, to a full list of their elected officials (from city to federal level). This data costs approximately $2,000 per state each year, or approximately $98,000 a year for an additional 49 states.
Our first condition for success in California will be earning 50,000 users in California. Once we hit that milestone, we aim to raise the funds necessary, through public grants and small/medium private investors, to purchase the data and wage awareness campaigns in four additional states. Once LawMaker is active in five major states, awareness and user acquisition in other parts of the US becomes considerably cheaper and more effective.
As LawMaker is an ongoing endeavor, it is always available and continually being improved. Thus we have not needed to “replicate” the model. That being said, once the platform is refined based on the usage of 50,000 Californians, there is significant potential for expansion into all 50 states, as well as into democracies around the world.
Outside groups have yet to simulate their own micro-lobbying platforms based on our success, but we will soon be offering use of the platform to grassroots groups for them to use as a hub for their members’ policy ideas, discussions, and formal proposals.
We learned a considerable amount prior to LawMaker’s launch, during our prototyping and iteration process. We found that voters did not want to be educated about civic issues in isolation. They preferred to be given an opportunity to participate and contribute to the policymaking process, and were then motivated to educate themselves on civic issues to increase the efficacy of their efforts. This learning led to a strategic pivot that resulted in the LawMaker platform as it exists today.
Since launch, we have learned that third-party validation is of considerable importance to convince voters to spend time and energy on a new civic engagement opportunity. Users that hear about LawMaker through media mentions or from their elected officials are significantly more likely to sign up and begin using the platform. This informs our ongoing marketing and awareness-building efforts.
LawMaker has developed plans for a 14-month Homelessness Policy Dialogue. This effort aims to solve the problem of public resistance to homeless services in Los Angeles County, where 58,000 people go unsheltered each day.
Los Angeles residents oppose many government plans to tackle this crisis due to inaccurate information about homelessness and lack of participation in the policymaking process. LawMaker aims to solve these problems with a multi-stage facilitated dialogue that starts with a countywide open call for problem statements, and ends with 15 detailed policy proposals to combat homelessness.
This project is not yet a foregone conclusion, but we are confident that we can realize its potential. LawMaker is currently building partnerships with other organizations, raising the necessary funds, and forming the Leadership Board that will guide this dialogue (made up of 16 elected officials and civic leaders). Additional information can be found uploaded as a supporting file.