By Ryder Todd Smith, co-owner and co-founder of Tripepi Smith
*Please note that Tripepi Smith owns and operates PublicCEO
My work at Tripepi Smith has allowed me to wander exhibit halls at local government conferences and find new and innovative companies that are trying to solve problems for local government. From the big venture capital-backed glitzy booths to the more humble tabletops, there is a huge diversity of companies and entrepreneurs trying to solve problems at the local level.
Working with more than 60 public agencies has also given me an inside view of the challenges and political pressures faced by local governments: I hear the concerns of elected officials. I listen to the strategies devised by agency staff. I witness how much effort (and precious resources) goes into addressing the concerns of one voice raised at public comment during a council meeting.
Armed with these experiences, and a small bit of capital, I made my first early-stage investment in a company called FlashVote. Here is why.
FlashVote helps cities make better decisions with better data, offering a new approach to ongoing community input. Its technology creates a panel of representative residents who participate in monthly professional polls to generate statistically-valid data from the community on whatever issues the agency wishes to poll about. The results are usually generated within 48 hours, and the information that is generated can better inform agency staff and the elected officials who lead the agency on where the community stands and why.
Traditional polling has its place, but it is both expensive and becoming more and more challenging as people ditch landlines. Plus, the turnaround from engaging a pollster to generating results can be several weeks or months. FlashVote, once set up, is literally days. And in local government, speed matters. The localized questions and issues that warrant broader community feedback come up twice a month. Having some data to help the decision-making process can be crucial to advancing a project or reaching consensus.
FlashVote also helps break past a challenge I hear often: STP. STP stands for “same ten people” and it is the insider reference to the fact that a few well-placed or consistent outspoken voices can drive an entire community’s response to an issue. Public comment can be helpful, but nearly everyone agrees it is not always reflective of overall community sentiment, but rather, reflective of the most passionate sentiments–or the most self-interested.
Mind you, we elect officials to have a representative democracy. This is not a direct democracy where we simply bow to the 50 percent plus one. Rather, the goal of governance is to elect rational, thoughtful, principled peers who seek good outcomes and also provide oversight of the agencies they govern. That does not mean they abdicate decision making to the majority or to the poll number. Sometimes the majority is wrong or poorly informed. But scientifically-structured data from your community can always provide helpful decision support for elected officials. It can also measure the outcomes of public outreach and education initiatives, or identify the biggest concerns and needs of the community to inform governing body goal-setting efforts. I’ve seen the data from a single FlashVote survey provide a huge return on investment for cities by helping them avoid a politically untenable project.
We are in a particularly volatile time for local government agencies and the elected board members charged with governing them. Fiscal constraints, fundamental questions of civil liberties, policing services and general economic discord are pummelling elected officials and agency staff. Staying in tune with community sentiments, listening to a broad swath of voices from your community, and measuring the outcomes of public information efforts will become particularly helpful.
I readily admit that investing in FlashVote was first a reflection of my desire to make a shrewd investment. But it was also an investment in an approach to public engagement and community viewpoint measurement that I view as critical to local governance and public engagement. It was truly a case of putting my money where my mouth is.