NickMastronardi

Nick Mastronardi, Polco's CEO, is an economist who formerly taught at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.

ERIK LORENZSONN

More so than your average for-profit startup, Polco is concerned about the state of your local government.

When Polco’s co-founders Nick Mastronardi and Alex Pedersen pitch their software company, they paint a “Parks and Recreation”-like vision of city hall. When there’s a council meeting, it’s the same half-dozen “squeaky wheels” who show up to voice their dissatisfaction.

“It seems like, it’s always the same few loud and angry voices that dominate town hall,” proclaims one of the company’s promotional videos. “Those are not the only people who have a say.”

Pedersen and Mastronardi claim to have a solution: An online platform where governments can collect public input online from the many, not just the few. The software has been deployed in cities from Austin, Texas (population 948,000) to Two Rivers, Wisconsin (population 11,800) — and later this month, the City of Madison will begin a pilot phase with the tool.

The two say it’s a private-sector approach to making local institutions more democratic.

Mastronardi met Pedersen while the two at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, where the two worked as faculty, Mastronardi in economics and Pedersen in political science. They quickly realized they shared a passion for technology and civics. After stints working at Silicon Valley companies — Mastronardi at Amazon, and Pedersen at Google — the two banded together to pursue their goal of using tech as a force for public good.

“We are extremely passionate about this mission, just as much as we ever were about our former military mission,” said Mastronardi, the company's CEO. “I’ve always felt a calling to work on things that I felt were beneficial for society.”

The product they arrived at was a simple platform that connects governments, or other local institutions like school districts or newspapers, with everyday voters in their area.

Polco functions like a social media platform: A policy maker creates a “post” — in other words, they ask a question — which can be embedded in a web article, shared on social media, or accessed via Polco’s website. Those policymakers can ask a one-off question, a range of questions on the same issues, or they can automate posts to ask the same question repeatedly over time to get longitudinal information.

Registered voters can respond by creating an account with the service, which validates their identity by referencing public voter databases.

in the Madison area who sign in to the platform today will be met with a small heap of posts from local early adopters, like the Dane County Board of Supervisors and the media outlet WisPolitics.

“Should the state suspend the Wisconsin Photo ID law until alterations can be made to ensure the access to the ballot for all Wisconsin citizens?” asks one question.

“Should Wisconsin give Foxconn up to $3 billion in incentives to create as many as 13,000 jobs in southeastern Wisconsin?” asks another.

Once a user submits a response, they can see real-time results. 65 percent of users think that the state should suspend its photo ID law, for example.

The tool, says Polco, is a way of soliciting the voice of the civically minded who can’t make it out to council meetings, like parents on school nights. It could also connect with those who aren't necessarily plugged into local public affairs in the first place.

“There’s such a focus on local. Eat local. Go buy local,” said Pedersen. “For some reason, there’s an aversion to interacting with government — and that extends to local government.”

Pedersen and Mastronardi stress that Polco can’t engage everyone, although they say that they set a target of connecting with 10 percent of a given constituency.

Pedersen also stressed it's not a substitute for town hall meetings.

“Still hold the public meetings, still bring people in face to face,” said Pedersen. “But this should be a cornerstone for real-time, easy feedback.”

Polco has already created a “regional showcase” for their tool in south-central Wisconsin, said Pedersen. The county, along with a network of small municipalities like Waunakee and Monona, are clients. 

And now Madison is entering the mix. By the end of October, City Council administrative assistant Lisa Veldran said said that a group of alders including Mark Clear, Samba Baldeh, Denise Demarb and council president Marsha Rummel will begin a pilot with the software, embedding questions into blog posts about the city budget.

Veldran said that various city agencies also plan to use Polco accounts for public polling. Mastronardi said it’s one of the first times that a client would use the tool in such a decentralized way. He also noted that the city plans on making all of its results transparent to the public, not just users who respond to questions.

Veldran said that city officials were impressed after the Polco team gave a demonstration of the software last year.

“They see it as an easy tool to use. The ability to embed in a blog site is a good way to reach people,” she said. “For me, personally, I like that they’re a local company.”

Polco is also preparing to roll out trial programs in Milwaukee County and Bar Harbor, Maine. Mastronardi said that all told, about 30 government institutions are using the platform.

Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.