‘The Lobby’ – crowdfunding platform to democratize politics

Crowdfunding is typically employed to raise money for products, services or arts/culture initiatives. Digital designer Nick Meehan takes a new direction with it. His recent project ‘The Lobby’ is about using the crowdfunding model for democratizing politics and the process of lobbying. This idea raises quick interest and further inquiries, which is why I proposed an interview to the project’s initiator.

Nick Meehan is a digital designer. He was born in Los Angeles, US and moved to the Netherlands 4 and ½ years ago to study here. He just graduated from the Eindhoven Design Academy, BA program ‘Man and Communication’.

What is the project ‘The Lobby’ about?

Nick: ‘The Lobby’ is one of my two thesis projects. In a nutshell, ‘The Lobby’ is, at this stage, a tool for crowdfunding a lobbyist for legal purposes. In a broader sense, you can see it as a tool for crowdfunding politics.

What role does a lobbyist play in politics?

I will speak primarily from my knowledge of the US model. Lobbying itself might have been inspired by the United States Constitution, First Amendment: The right to petition government for redress of grievances. In this sense, lobbyists should act as intermediaries between private and public interests and their elected representatives. Politicians are decision makers. They choose to pass or reject proposed bills. The problem is that there are more bills being proposed and laws passed than one can be fully aware of, and most of the people who are in government don’t have time to learn about them. Lobbyists’ role is thus to write, interpret and inform decision makers of these bills from different points, typically from their constituents’ perspectives. Constituents are not always big corporations, albeit lobbying is often perceived as evil because of this association. Constituencies can also be a wide range of associations that represent the civil interests. Their requests or causes can reach politicians in the form of bills. Lobbyists are very well informed about which senator and congressmen can be approached with a specific request or cause. It is the lobbyists’ role to influence them towards a particular legislative outcome. All in all, the lobbyist’s job is to understand the laws and know who to talk to. They can be incredibly influential, not only in the US but also in Europe. Many times, lobbyists are former lawyers or workers in a Senate office and even former senators and congressmen.

How does lobbying normally work?

Lobbyists are hired by a lobbying firm and can be contacted by any interest group. I’ll just take the example I use in the online mockup, where a group of people decide they need more dog parks in a city. One way to make the legislation pass and get the money to build the dog parks is that a dog owners’ association hires a lobbyist. The Lobbyist knows the right people in the local government and is able to talk to them about why dog parks are important, where the money could come from (i.e. federal government) to be able to build them, etc. Lobbyists further influence these decision makers towards a favorable outcome for the dog owners’ association. On a darker side of lobbying, there can also be fundraisers for politicians that are meant to influence them in a direction of voting. In an extreme case, the dog owners’ association would hold the fundraiser for this politician that they’re trying to influence for re-election or create a Pac. This move would also be organized by a lobbyist.

How does The Lobby change the traditional lobbying model then? What issues of the latter does it tackle?

Lobbying right now is not being done by small associations. There’s a disproportionately small number of lobbyists who represent the general interest of the public. At the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of money that goes into lobbying for corporations and for the wealthiest few people of the country. As a result, there’s currently legislation being passed that is clearly disconnected from what’s the best interest for most of the country. One example is gun control policy which was the example I used in the video. In that scenario, what people could do with a tool like ‘The Lobby’ is raise money to counteract the money that comes from gun companies (in US, that is the NRA). Thus, the idea of ‘The Lobby’ is to look at key issues and raise money for them, thus leveling the field of interests. Its aim is to democratize this whole process.

Can ‘The Lobby’ be a tool for any cause?

For some it can. It is not entirely new to use crowdfunding for political causes. Take the example of the SOPA bill. Production companies were the initiators of the bill because they wanted to control content and copyrights. For them it was beneficial to send a lobbyist and talk to congressmen and pass this bill, while the people against it needed to raise their own money to lobby for the opposite cause. A group of protesters set up a website to raise funds and used them for targeted advertising campaigns. I believe they also hired a lobbyists for the cause. In any case, crowdfunding and lobbying worked in that case partially because congressman did not fully understand what the bill was about. Hence the role of a lobbyist to better explain the implications of voting for it, as well as organizing public outreach. Similar instances like the SOPA bill could be efficiently addressed by ‘The Lobby’.

Apart from raising the funds, how will ‘The Lobby’ be managed? (i.e. Who supervises the work of the hired lobbyists? How and by whom is action coordinated?)

I have investigated intensely on how to answer these details but cannot provide definitive answers. In terms of functionality, there are different extents to which people can be engaged – perhaps they can rate lobbyists based on their performance. In any case, it should be an open platform where lobbyists would bid and pitch themselves for a specific job and then people could choose the most suited lobbyist for their cause. For now, communicating this project as a crowdfunding for lobbying is the easiest way to make people understand the purpose. Yet it could be easier to make ‘The Lobby’ website function as a lobbyist itself, with no go-between anymore. The website would set up a fund for specific causes. When there is a campaign that serves those causes, money can be automatically released to selected politicians. It’s like a carrot and stick policy: “If the government does this, we’re going to give you money for a campaign”.

Have you pitched the idea to actual lobbyists? Would they get involved in it?

Yes, I have reached out to a few in order to have their input on whether this model is viable, how the process could be monitored and regulated etc. And so far they would be interested to get involved in such a project. First, because it is an opportunity to represent the public interest, not just the private one. Second, because it is an alternative revenue source for them, one that is a little more “democratic”.

What challenges do you see for ‘The Lobby’ next? 

At this stage, ‘The Lobby’ is an idea. For now, it’s all about getting enough interest – I have already been contacted by researchers, developers and social entrepreneurs (US and NL) who want to discuss about it. The specialties required at the next step of the project are help from lawyers, lobbyists and front / back / web developers. The legal aspect is the biggest hurdle for the time being.

The Lobby website: www.thelob.by
Nick Meehan’s website: www.unsalted.nu