By Julia Purdy
RUTLAND —There’s a new kid on the block—a free web application that takes participatory democracy to a new level. It’s NewGrassRoots and it’s the invention of Ben Brown, who grew up in Rutland and calls himself “a cross between an ornery farmer and the mad scientist in the basement.”
NewGrassRoots (NGR) belongs to the next generation of “private-sector solutions that bridge the gap” between the public and their representatives in government, Brown, founder and CEO, explained in a recent interview. The trend has other names: “civic engagement,” “civic tech,” “Gov 2.0.” It brings communication technology and tools together with people, enabling Jane or John Q. Public to engage directly with their lawmakers to improve performance and accountability.
What’s the root inspiration?
Brown is an “aspiring farmer” who has been raising chickens at Boardman Hill the last two years farming with his wife Abigail in Orwell. He and Abby and their baby daughter Maisie now live in Pittsford.
Brown followed the trajectory that many young Vermonters do, moving out of state for a time. (He attended Colorado State in Fort Collins, majoring in consumer and family sciences.) It was in Colorado, where he lived from 2001 to 2010, that he found work in the mortgage industry as the subprime mortgage debacle was emerging. He worked for a company that counseled homeowners facing foreclosure. In that capacity Brown interfaced with government programs and started paying attention to both banking practices and how policies are created, observing firsthand how money dictates policy.
Wanting to do something “socially important,” the documentary film “Food, Inc.” inspired him to take up farming, and the couple moved back to Vermont in 2010. Always a farmer at heart, Brown became an activist for small farm issues, building on his experience in foreclosure counseling. “Faulty business models assume that Earth’s resources are infinite. Policy determines winners and losers in agriculture and, really, all industries,” said Brown.
What is NewGrassRoots?
“NewGrassRoots seeks to achieve policy change via a mechanism to eliminate money dominance in politics, which has become an overarching issue, especially in the wake of the Citizens United decision,” Brown said.
Brown founded NewGrassRoots in early 2013 while he was the lead organizer for the Vermont chapter of a national movement lobbying to overturn the Citizens United decision and curtailing the ability of unlimited money to dictate policy. Vermont Joint Resolution 27, made Vermont the first state to call for such action.
The effort required generating calls to Vermont Legislators. “This is where I realized the problem that NewGrassRoots solves,” Brown said. The current protocol at the State House requires telephoning or stopping by the sergeant-at-arms office, where the message will be written out on a pink message pad and delivered by a page.
The drawbacks are obvious.
Such a system doesn’t distinguish between constituents and non-constituents. It works only when the Legislature is in session. “If you don’t get through, there is no direct way to contact the Legislators,” Brown said. In addition, there has been no way to measure the success of a phone call campaign to Legislators on a specific bill.
While working on JRS-27 in 2012, Brown researched Google’s use of innovative technology to help supporters contact Congress on the issue of restriction of access to the Internet. The technology included a voice messaging system. Brown said, “Google saw this and created a system that would divert people into a voice message system to leave a message for the legislator.”
Despite its politically-inspired beginnings, the use of NewGrassRoots is entirely nonpartisan and available to all, free of charge.
How does it work?
The NewGrassRoots app is user-friendly. No special skills are required, and it functions in the same way any secure website does, with a login, terms and conditions, and the ability to bookmark or save it as a favorite.
There are two options for joining: as an individual or as an organization. Individuals create an account using their full street address, which automatically identifies the appropriate county and voting district to which that person belongs—and therefore the legislative representatives. A working phone number is necessary to establish contact with the system.
Using an IVR (interactive voice response) system, the app calls the constituent’s telephone to gather a voice message for the Legislator; then the system emails the Legislator a link to the audio file, also summarizing the caller’s position on a specific bill. The Legislator may then click the audio link to listen to the voice message. Alternatively, callers can call the NGR phone number, sign in, and proceed using its touch-tone menu. The system then emails callers that the Legislator has heard their message. The system also tracks the number of calls to each Legislator on each bill.
While members accept full responsibility for all content posted or transmitted, NGR reserves the right to withhold messages that violate the terms that are clearly outlined on the website, such as libellous, discriminatory or abusive speech, promotions, criminal activities, intentionally deceptive or false statements, or attempts to use the site for a purpose other than it is intended.
An organization may also join to launch a campaign and can request its list of supporters to request to join. The organization will be able to see how many of their supporters have called each legislator, which will be valuable information when legislators are lobbied for votes on that issue.
Ben and Abby Brown launched the prototype with their own money. They liquidated their savings, and Abby’s full-time job has also supported the project, which was “fundamental to my ability to commit time and energy,” said Brown. The Browns hired web developer to construct the prototype. The app has taken two years to build. Developer Alex Beck has since come on board as co-founder and COO, and the website has attracted an angel investor, creating a stable foundation for the next step: expansion throughout the U.S.
“It’s crunch time,” Brown quipped just before the Feb. 9 launch date. It’s a catchphrase he says so often to Abby that now it’s a family joke. “It’s always crunch time.”
For more information visit newgrassroots.com.