On September the 11th 2001 I was a junior copywriter working for an ad-agency in central London. As the months passed following the tragedy and the reasons behind the attack and the political responses to it became clear, I found myself fascinated by American politics. Not only was I interested in the political process, quite different than that of the UK, but also the impact US foreign policy has on the remaining 95% of the world’s population (including myself).
I’ll leave the history and the commentary to how US politics today has come to be to people who are far better educated than me. But like many political systems around the world today the process of creating policy and passing them into law is massively complex. Actually, like many people I’ve spoken too, no matter how interested and conscientious I am I would never have the capacity to understand how it all actually works. As a result, I’m generally reliant on the media to tell me who is on my side. Possibly I’ve a couple of friends who are well-informed on particular subjects. But overall the information I consume or receive is at best a subjective point of view or at worst a one-sided proposition.
OK, so perhaps it was time to go directly to source. Rather than relying on my regular channels, I started to look at the legislation itself. It is, after all, publicly available to us all. Bills that are passed to either the House or the Senate themselves are substantial. These are 800+ page documents generally focused on a single issue/challenge/opportunity. However, more often than not they also feature many attachments and amendments – sometimes related and other times not. Just taking one bill and picking it apart is a time-consuming challenge in itself. And Googling individual bills provides little more clarity.
At this time, I was lucky enough to meet a former US Embassy Diplomat. He gave me a great deal of knowledge into both the process of American politics and particularly into American foreign policy. He inspired me to read both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Yet he, like me, was also perplexed as to why technology wasn’t being better utilised to help educate us all on the machine of politics – both in US and/or anywhere else.
So the idea was simple. Build an online community whose mission it would be to provide objective summaries of the politics of the day. A platform that would become a crowd-sourced, self-regulating point of reference to empower and inspire the individual to make political choices for themselves and provide clarity on what they need to do to make their vote count. And so MakeMineCount.com was born.
I started simply enough by creating a blog to unpick and give context to one bill. I engaged 4 people of varying backgrounds and political leaning in my network to read in detail the bill. Each committed to giving me their written view and then together we’d agree an impartial two-page summary. But which bill to pick? At the time (as always) there were hundreds of bills being passed to the House and the Senate. We looked at bills on Syria, immigration and trade policies, but to start out we tackled something less thorny, Bill H.R. 1406 The Working Families Flexibility Act. Today the bill as passed forms much of the legislation around the minimum wage and with 7Eleven in the cross-hairs it is a politicised issue, but back then we were comfortable that dispassion in the bill would make it perfect to allow us to develop our process.
The summary was well-received by the (admittedly six) people who read it and from this we started to develop more summaries. We continued to build the blog and created ten key areas of interest to guide our audience:
Environment + Infrastructure
Trade and Industry
We also built a state by state register of the senators and congressmen. The intent of this was to be able to directly connect the individual reader to their right representative. In doing so the reader could then petition via email which way they wanted the representative to vote on any given bill.
The five of us grew to eight and we continued to write summaries in our spare time. I was then asked (because of my copywriter background) to contribute to The Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the Library of Congress who provide official points of view on submitted bills. We also got interest from and meetings with a number of political bloggers, an investment group in New York, an Ivy League professor of politics and even a staffer on Obama’s communications team. Could it be that an Englishman living in Asia with a globally connected virtual group of self-appointed hobbyist researchers were going to help shift how Americans think about their own political process? It was starting to look promising.
And then it happened, our simple WordPress blog was apparently the victim of DoS… or a Denial of Service attack. We’ve never got to the bottom of who or really why we were attacked, though our most visited summary at the time was to a Senate bill S.744 on immigration policy, that was fairly contentious. And all the hard work, interest and momentum was gone.
So why didn’t we just pick it up again and relaunch it? Traffic! Sites, apps, services, business, whatever all rely on an audience that drives traffic. No traffic means there is no opportunity to monetise and no money would have meant that MakeMineCount.com would never be anything more than a hobby – a point made brutally clear to me in a series of meetings with the potential investor in NYC. While we had grown our audience from the initial six people who’d read the first summary – even substantial growth wasn’t going to give us a worthwhile business proposition.
Whatever it says about the human condition today that we’d rather read about Kim Kardashian than understand the laws that govern us, for me the exercise opened a whole load of different doors. It allowed me to move from the corporate world and stand on my own two-feet. I’ve developed apps, built my own brands, worked with other’s brands and innovators in Creative and Media, I’ve collaborated with amazing people across many other fields. Today, after wrestling back control of the domain MakeMineCount.com it is my own blog, a central point for all the things I get up to. While some might say it is less worthy and pure than the blog’s original focus, for me I’m happy at least that it sees many more visitors than it used to. I felt it was a good time to explain the name, for all those that ask. And, as we sail towards what will be an historic US election, post Obama, remind myself to ask – what are we actually voting for?