Polco’s Tools Help Governments Coax Citizens Out of Echo Chambers

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its polling results are certifiable, with the startup using cities’ own verification lists, which are often local voter files, property owner lists, or utility customer lists.

Polco is also trying to set itself apart with a mix of customizable features.

With Polco’s help, government agencies and others can design questions for constituents and “own the narrative and provide the background information,” explains Mastronardi—something that can be difficult on social platforms such as Facebook.

In an example of narrative control, he says a city could ask residents for their thoughts on multi-family affordable housing, define what that means, describe what it would look like, and present a specific policy question for a vote.

Mastronardi says the Madison Chamber of Commerce used Polco’s online tools to gather input on replacing Air Force F-16 jets with potentially louder F-35s at the National Guard’s Truax Field on the city’s east side. Some neighborhood residents oppose the move, but he says community-wide results showed a “pretty compelling testament of support.”

In another example, the city of Oshkosh, WI, used Polco to gather opinions on the best use for a portion of a former golf course, the majority of which was purchased by vehicle manufacturer Oshkosh Corp. (NYSE: OSK) for new facilities.

Many golfers were adamant that the remaining 70 acres should be developed as a short course, Mastronardi says. But poll results showed that 72 percent of roughly 1,000 survey respondents wanted the land developed as a park.

Clients use a variety of tactics to encourage constituents to participate in polling, such as embedding polls on their websites, sending them to people on their electronic mailing lists, running public service notices on radio stations, or advertising links to the polls on newspaper websites.

“It’s their outreach that drives the results,” he says of clients. “There are tons of ways to communicate. We help them do all of the above.”

Polco also has worked with Wispolitics.com, a Wisconsin political news website, to conduct polling on issues. During the runup to last fall’s state elections, for example, Wispolitics.com subscribers were asked if they believed the state should give Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn up to $3 billion in tax incentives to create as many as 13,000 jobs in southeastern Wisconsin. The poll results were 74 percent “no” and 26 percent “yes,” Mastronardi says.

In the company’s early days, Mastronardi says Polco’s questions focused on agenda items or late-stage policy proposals that were up for debate.

“Now, though, we let officials pose any question they want,” Mastronardi says. “We’re seeing a variety of question types, such as, ‘How satisfied are you with snow and ice removal?’ Polling often shows that while the majority are content, certain neighborhoods might feel neglected. If so, officials can ask for ideas and see if respondents would support certain solutions.”

He says that approach “helps create a healthy, sustainable dialogue, rather than inducing cynicism because people were only being asked questions at the end stages.”

Mastronardi says Polco’s surveys also are helping dilute the sway of squeaky wheels.

“They’ve long had a disproportionate amount of influence,” he says. “Before, cities might have asked, ‘Why do I want more input? Because it’s already pretty noisy.’”

“But I think what we show,” he continues, “is that when you open the door for quality input, there are a lot of reasonable people out there who couldn’t come to the council meeting on a Tuesday night. They end up balancing out the squeaky wheels.”

Mastronardi says Polco wanted to buy NRC because it was the “gold standard” for traditional government surveys and has worked with more than 500 cities.

“It’s been a great fit,” he says. “We are mostly tech folks, with a few team members who are former city officials leading the outreach. NRC has been more project-oriented, so we’re planning to keep everyone.”

Now, the goal is to accelerate Polco’s growth.

“With something like 100,000 local government entities out there, from school districts to cities to counties, we see lots of green fields,” Mastronardi says.

[Photo by Brian E. Clark.]

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