Conversation with Jason Putorti

I met and worked with Jason Putorti several years ago when he had co-founded Votizen. Since then, I have watched his career grow. As an executive at Brigade Media, Jason is one of the thought leaders in “citizen engagement.” I am honored to post his thoughts on Connected Government.

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Zain: As a former executive of Votizen and someone intimately involved with other companies, like Brigade, what trends do you see in this space? How do you see these companies evolving in 2016?

Jason: There’s certainly a lot of players that are getting into the campaign, civic, and government spaces and trying to tackle inefficiencies they see. Probably the best opportunities are in government given the dollars involved. The best example of this I think is OpenGov, as they’ve raised $47M so far. The trends they’re capitalizing are better outlined in this article in TechCrunch. The space I’m most interested in though are technologies that empower individuals: a space I call community action. I wrote an article on six problems I see in our democracy here in America and talk about the companies that are attacking different points of the experience. All these companies are going to need to figure out how to engage consumers and meet them where they are, which has been the problem with every political startup ever made. They aren’t breaking out of the small community, which I myself am I part, of political junkies and crazies. I call this Binetti’s Law after my friend David who started Votizen. We never broke through, much like Ruck.us, Popvox, and everyone else to date. Maybe it’s Brigade’s approach of social polls, maybe a crowd-funding or groups tool like Crowdpac is working on, or maybe its a new media property of some kind. Media, like cable news, Politico, etc., has been the most successful play to date in terms of audience and building a sustainable business of engaging citizens, but it’s still very small. Huffington Post built itself on the back of the 2008 election, so arguably did Youtube with the Tina Fey impression of Sarah Palin. Every four years entrepreneurs think, “this will be the year,” so I’m not confident 2016 will be it, unless someone really makes an exponential jump in growth / engagement between now and November

Zain: How will the upcoming elections impact these businesses and/or how will these businesses impact the elections?

Jason:  Interest in the election will drive news consumption, as it always has, but this year we’re seeing something different. I think the Donald Trump effect has been huge. This is a reality performer and showman who knows exactly how to manipulate the media, and he’s been masterful at it. It’s maddening to turn on the news and see the news media talk about Donald Trump while simultaneously lamenting that they’re talking about Donald Trump. It reminds me of Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom where the fictional nightly news anchor Will McAvoy is forced to dissect the Casey Anthony case just to get the ratings high enough to host a political debate. Donald Trump, is in essence, meeting Americans where we are: watching the Kardashians on the E! channel, watching The Real Housewives on Bravo, and buying People magazine every week. The media is unfortunately propelling the Trump candidacy because we can’t stop watching it. It’s a cycle that pundits no longer know will be broken.

Top-down campaign technology, meaning tools that presidential campaigns and independent expenditure groups are using, continue to get more advanced every cycle. Persuasion has become much less important than it used to be in years past in the general election, now it’s about the precise targeting of your likely voters, and getting them to the polls. Text messaging will be huge this year and begin to supplant email, advertising will move increasingly online to Facebook, Youtube pre-roll ads, and television targeting will get even more precise to the point where individual households can be targeted.

I lament this narrowcasting as its all serving to drive us further apart as a society. The town square is dying in America. But no matter what side you’re on, you have little choice but to play the game and remind yourself that the ends, officials governing America that reflect your values, justify the means.

Zain: How can government (city/state/federal) potentially benefit from companies like Brigade (others)?

Jason: The most interesting company I’ve seen so far is called Conteneo. It’s a software product that’s designed to engage citizens and experts alike in deciding optimal budgets for cities. People are broken into manageable sized smaller groups of about 7-8 that can discuss budget tradeoffs, much like playing a game of SimCity. Human decisions are lumped in with data and other factors to come up with public policy. People seem to really enjoy engaging with their government in this way and the results have been great. San Jose, the nation’s 10th largest city, is set to experiment with this soon. Just about any platform where citizens are engaging with their local and state officials in some way is a good thing. Apathy and lack of engagement is a huge problem that allows money and advertising to dominate politics. Local and state government is where people can believe again because it’s reasonable to have a relationship with your officials, and the technology helps those relationships scale for the officials. The Mayor of San José, Sam Liccardo, sent a letter to residents with his cell phone number on it. I can literally call him whenever I want. He’s going to get my vote probably as long as he wants it because a personal relationship, and empathy, almost always beats ideology. Not every official is going to do this, but by engaging with citizens and being responsive on social platforms, we’ve solved a part of the problem: a responsive government. Now we need more citizens to get involved and feel empowered again.

About Jason Putorti

Jason is Bessemer’s resident designer and is available to advise portfolio companies on product and user experience design, having previously been the lead designer at Mint.com, Votizen, Causes, and Brigade from 2007 to 2015. “For me, design is the business. For any producJPt or service I will look at how research and design thinking is informing the entire business, from identifying user needs, aligning revenue with user goals, and ensuring companies have a feedback mechanism to inform iterations and know where the problems are. The most successful companies are those that leverage design in this way, not only the visual feel of the product and brand.” This is Jason’s second stint as Designer-in-Residence, having served BVP companies in 2010 including Cornerstone-on-Demand, LinkedIn, Reputation.com, Billguard, Knewton, Intacct, and others. He’s a regular speaker on the subject of design in startups having delivered over a dozen talks at conferences in the past five years in Silicon Valley, Austin, Las Vegas, Vienna; and for companies including Mindflash and Rapleaf. Jason’s design work helped Mint.com win several Webby awards, the TechCrunch 40, the World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer award and many others. He was a Forbes 30 Under 30 award winner in Social and Mobile in 2011.

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