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

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

[Updated 6/11/19, 7:31 am CT. See below.] Nick Mastronardi is finding success in countering the negative trend of endless partisan bickering by helping local governments gather public sentiments through online polling.

Mastronardi (pictured above) is co-founder and CEO of Polco, a company based in Madison, WI, that he says is growing thanks to its ability to offer cities, counties, and other organizations a way around the polarizing arguing that can overwhelm the efforts of officials to make productive decisions.

There are myriad reasons for today’s often-toxic political discourse, but Mastronardi thinks a significant issue is governments haven’t come up with sensible ways to hear from constituents. Information too often reaches residents, he says, through a “fractured set of channels” that fails to help a community arrive at reasoned conclusions. Instead, people fall into echo-chamber-like silos that promote insults instead of solutions.

Mastronardi, 38, started Polco in 2015 with fellow U.S. Air Force veteran Alex Pedersen, 33. They moved it from the Austin, TX, suburb of Bryan to Madison the following year.

Since then, they’ve won several regional business awards and in March raised $4 million, half through a bank loan and half from angel investors. They used the money to buy Boulder, CO-based National Research Center (NRC), a 25-year-old polling and survey research firm. Combined, the joint operation has 24 employees. The sale was completed in April, Mastronardi says.

To date, Polco has garnered more than $7.5 million in outside capital, much of it from angel investor groups founded by alumni of military academies, Mastronardi says. Pedersen, the startup’s chief technology officer, graduated from the Air Force Academy, and he and Mastronardi both taught there. [Added Pedersen’s title.—Eds.]

Mastronardi says Polco was endorsed as a “preferred solution for civic engagement” by the National League of Cities in October, allowing cities to get a discount on Polco’s services. As a result, he says, Polco’s customer base soon jumped from around 35 clients to 75 customers in 23 states. He declined to reveal sales figures, but says the company is generating enough revenue to make it close to profitable.

Mastronardi says cities continue to make decisions influenced by “listening to the squeaky wheels” at public meetings, referring to people—often the same gadflies—who show up regularly to complain about what they perceive as problems.

Likewise, those same complaints can manifest in arguments on online forums and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. But government officials can have trouble deciding whether to prioritize those complaints because they might not know who those people are, if they live in their community, or—if an agency is using an online polling system that allows it—whether individuals have voted multiple times to try and skew the results.

“What we do is provide clients an online platform to host an informed and referenceable dialogue,” Mastronardi says. “But we never share an individual person’s data, we only verify and aggregate the information that officials will see by precinct, gender, or age group.”

Mastronardi says he and Pedersen started Polco—which stands for Policy Confluence—after they left jobs at Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) and Alphabet subsidiary Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL), respectively, because they are tech geeks interested in how policy decisions are made.

During much of his time in the military, Mastronardi—who earned his doctorate in economics from the University of Texas at Austin, while serving in the Air Force—says he was often curious how his superiors developed the policies he was tasked with implementing.

Then he read a book called “The Wisdom of Crowds,” by James Surowiecki, about how public policy is an ideal venue to get “decentralized input so you can potentially have better outcomes when more people are involved in the process,” he says.

That sentiment struck a chord with him. Mastronardi also figured he could sell the concept to cities and make some money, too.

Polco clients are typically charged several thousand dollars annually and can ask constituents as many questions as they want, Mastronardi says. The company’s pitch seems to be resonating: Polco has a customer retention rate of 70 percent, he says.

Polco isn’t the only option available for governments to gather feedback from citizens online. There are other survey providers, such as SurveyMonkey (NASDAQ: SVMK), as well as companies offering online polling tools specifically for government customers, such as Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI). Mastronardi says Polco sometimes partners with ESRI, displaying its maps that show residents’ sentiments.

There is also Zencity, an Israeli startup that provides information on residents’ opinions. That company says it uses artificial intelligence-enabled software to aggregate and analyze feedback from multiple sources, including social networks, local news websites, and municipal hotlines.

But part of what makes Polco different, Mastronardi claims, is that 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.]