Walk into an annual strategy meeting of any think tank anywhere in the world and you’ll observe a tension at the core of almost every discussion. It can be summed up in a single question: What is our audience?

Some think tanks have clearly defined ideologies. Others are issue-driven. Still others aim to be explicitly non-partisan and opportunistic in how they choose the issues they engage in. But what all think tanks have in common is the mission to bring about social change through 1) the analysis of the effects of public policies and 2) the advocacy of new policies and practices that better meet the needs of a group of users.

Which brings us back to the question of audience. Are think tanks most effective when they focus their efforts on influencing elite decision makers, or when they aim to shift public opinion? There is a temptation to say, “of course it’s both and not either/or,” but each strategy has distinct implications in terms of staffing, communication, and branding.

They Don’t Care as Much as You Think

Let me start with a few untested assumptions about society at large:

  • First, everyone values information that is directly relevant to their well-being. For example: How much will it cost to purchase a house in my city? What is the safety record of my car? What is the best hospital in my neighborhood? What movie should I see at the nearest movie theater? How much will I need to save for retirement?
  • Second, everyone is interested in a few select political issues that are directly relevant to their lives. Farmers are interested in farm subsidies, but most people aren’t. Environmentalists are passionate about industrial contamination disclosure. Factory workers are vested in policy discussions related to outsourcing. Immigrants are passionate about immigration reform.
  • Finally, there is a far smaller bucket of the population (less than 5% I’d venture) that is interested in just about every social issue, but also those root, underlying issues, such as campaign financing, lobbying regulations, asset declarations and public spending disclosure. That 5% of society tends to make up nearly 100% of those who work in think tanks, and they tend to vastly over-estimate the larger public’s interest in the issues that are of interest to them.

Sunlight Foundation, Aaron Swartz and Public Opinion

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Sunlight Foundation Co-Founder Ellen Miller

When Ellen Miller co-founded Sunlight Foundation in 2006 she wanted to break free from the closed circle of DC insiders and get the rest of America involved reforming Congress, and she wanted to do so by taking advantage of new technologies. This made all the sense in the world; it was a sea change in terms of how people were interacting with information in the United States. Ever since 2006, Americans have been spending less time with newspapers, television, and radio — and far more time with their computers, smart phones and tablets. Sunlight Foundation has always been clear about its audience. It doesn’t aim to influence the decision makers; rather, it aims to shift public opinion so that the decision makers feel pressured to change, or else be removed by voters.

Over the past seven years the Sunlight Foundation has developed truly innovative and sophisticated technological platforms. Try out Inbox Influence, which will automatically show you the political contributions of the people and organizations that are mentioned in emails you receive. Or, along similar lines, Checking Influence will examine your latest bank statement and show you the political contributions of the companies you support as a customer. Sunlight Foundation has developed beautiful tools that help you track the influence of foreign lobbyists, view deleted tweets by U.S. politicians, learn more about political fundraising, and subscribe to customized alerts as legislation is proposed.

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Over the past two weeks my indirect contributions (via my purchases) to Republicans and Democrats have been split even. eBay (which also happens to be the source of my salary) gives slightly more to Republicans while Apple and Netflix give more to Democrats.

Longtime employees of the Sunlight Foundation will be among the first to tell you that they have been disappointed by the overall number of users that their sophisticated tools have attracted. While so much nonprofit technology is hardly usable, Sunlight Foundation’s tools are beautifully designed, fully functional, and interesting. Yet they have only managed to attract a niche community of users.

This is something that Aaron Swartz (RIP) foresaw back in 2006 when he was invited to a Sunlight Foundation gathering in San Francisco:

As a Web 2.0 developer, it’s hard for me to see how even the best Web 2.0 site can have much of a positive impact on government. Genuinely promoting transparency requires the hard work of doing investigative research, publishing reports, and promoting them to the media. Bubble 2.0 hype aside, the fanciest pop-up windows and and Google Maps mashups won’t change that.

The attendees seemed to begin to recognize this … We decided our saviors would be the “Paul Reveres” — the people who care enough about politics to slog through the data and then mass email their friends when they find something good (we concluded that going after newspaper reporters was too Web 1.0). They would save us from having to write reports or take positions; all we had to do was make the data available and let them do the rest.

I’m sure there are a handful of people who actually do this, but it seems like we’re spending an awful lot to build a site just for them. And even then, what impact will they have? Even if our Paul Revere finds the smokingest of smoking guns and posts it on their extremely popular blog, without a larger political platform it will only fuel the cynicism that [Sunlight Foundation co-founder] Klein claims he’s trying to combat. (“There they go again,” the reader thinks, and hits the back button.)

Three years later, in a controversial essay titled “Against Transparency” for the New Republic, Lawrence Lessig built on Swartz’s thesis, arguing that many Sunlight Foundation projects do little more than generate public outrage over relatively small acts of malfeasance at the expense of working with decision makers to bring about major structural reforms, such as publicly financed elections.

There’s that same tension again. Should advocates that want a more functional, accountable US Congress work closely with the powerful decision makers, or should they aim to sway public opinion? Is it possible to do both at the same time?

Sitegeist and Human-Centered Design

In 2010 Sunlight Foundation received a grant from the Knight Foundation to develop a series of “National Data Apps” to help US residents “easily use federal data to better understand everything from local pollution and medical care to personal financial services.” The first app, Sunlight Health, was released in 2011 to relatively little fanfare. So far it hasn’t received any ratings in the iPhone app store, only one comment, and hasn’t been updated since 2011. The next app in the series, Upwardly Mobile, was released in early 2012 to allow users to compare indicators based salary, living and employment data in order to choose where they want to live. I’m not sure how many monthly visitors the site has (compete.com says it’s too low to track), but a search on backtweets.com shows that there have been no recent Twitter mentions of the site.

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Then, for the third app in the series, Knight Foundation partnered Sunlight Foundation with the design firm IDEO to create an application that truly meets the information needs of its users. The result is Sitegeist, a beautiful, intuitive application for iOS and Android that automatically detects your location and then provides you with a wealth of relevant information including age distribution, weather history, average rent, average commute times, and housing statistics. Sitegeist is a departure from other Sunlight Foundation applications. Rather than seeking accountability in Congress, it aims to provide users with information that is relevant to their lives. The results have been impressive. Within the first week the app was downloaded 20,000 times and brought about 300,000 page views. It has been featured in the Washington Post, Boing Boing, Gizmodo, Fast Company, Good, and GigaOm.

It is paradoxical that Sitegeist’s success has depended in large part on Sunlight Foundation putting its own objectives to the side in order to focus on the needs and interests of its users. There is a term for this, human-centered design. (Or user-centered design, or “design thinking,” depending on who you’re speaking with.) Rather than starting with an objective, one begins by observing how target users interact with the world around them and how design can alter those interactions to lead toward a desired social change.

The human-centered design approach began with a focus on product and interface design, though a few innovative individuals are bringing the principles of human-centered design to the development of public services and public policies. At the risk of what surely comes across as mutually self-assured flattery, I highly recommend the work of Reboot, a design agency focused on international development. Later this year Stanford’s Design School will launch the Governance Collaboratory, a class that will explore human-centered design as it relates to governance.

Sitegeist as a Civic Entry Drug

The great untested hypothesis is whether an application like Sitegeist that provides its users with information that is of direct relevance to their lives can also lead them down a path toward demanding greater accountability from their government. It is a crucial question for my own work. Can, for example, IMCO develop a Yelp-like website that provides parents with the relevant information they are seeking about their children’s schools while also seeking greater accountability in the public education sector? Is it possible for an application to both inform users about their public transportation options while also nudging them to become involved in the advocacy for more sustainable, inclusive transportation policies?

My hunch is that, without focusing on the needs of users of these applications, no civic application will reach scale. On the other hand, I’m not yet convinced that those applications that have managed to attract significant attention are able to nudge their users to demand more of their governments.