Democracy 2.0

Social change pioneer Sarah Schacht helps citizens and government talk. No mass protest messages, please.

By Valerie Schloredt March 18, 2009 Published in the April 2009 issue of Seattle Met

Politics have fascinated Sarah Schacht since she was a little girl growing up on Whidbey Island. Her favorite Sunday-morning TV shows were Scooby Doo and Meet the Press. At Central Washington University she became student vice president for political affairs, advocating student causes before the state legislature. There she saw how sluggishly the wheels of government turn. One day Schacht, an avid skier, was checking snow and slope conditions online when inspiration struck: “I thought, If the market can offer immediate information like this to customers, why can’t government do it for citizens?”

Nearly a decade later, Schacht, who’s just 29, has found an answer to that question—one that has propelled her to the forefront of a generation of Seattle social-change entrepreneurs dedicated to using new technology to help citizens participate in government. Her nonprofit, Knowledge As Power, offers a solution: a Web site and email management tool designed, as she puts it, “to make tracking legislation on any issue a citizen cares about as easy as finding an antique on eBay.” invites citizens to subscribe to updates on their choice of issues. KAP then sends email alerts at each stage of the legislative process, complete with links to pertinent video clips on TVW, Washington State’s answer to C-SPAN—at a cost of about 18 cents each for a projected 1.5 million users.

To pull this off, Schacht drew on experiences in technology, government, and grassroots organizing that belie her fresh-faced appearance. (Breezing into a meeting with her sunny smile and backpack, she could still pass for a student.) In 2003, primed by classes in Internet studies at the University of Washington, she became a charter member of “Generation Dean,” the tech-savvy young activists drawn to Howard Dean’s pioneering Internet-based presidential bid. Campaigning took her to New Hampshire, Vermont, Iowa, and finally the Democratic National Convention, where she had a ringside seat for the famous speech that launched Barack Obama’s national career.

Schacht then went to Washington, DC, to intern for Washington State Representative Jay Inslee and study Congress’s communications systems. Harried staffers told her one of their biggest headaches was the tidal wave of identical emails they received about proposed legislation. “Activists think they are accomplishing something by urging their members to inundate Congress with a huge volume of email protest,” Schacht explains. “I found that form emails might be counted, but that’s about it. The most effective way to communicate with your congressperson or senator is to write an original message about how this issue affects you personally.” A staffer might actually be moved enough to bring it to the boss.

Schacht set out to make it easier for citizens to do just that, with an online template for sending specific, targeted messages. On the receiving end, KAP’s text-analysis tools neatly categorize constituents’ emails by bill number and location, so legislators can monitor the breadth of concerns while sorting out the bulk messages. Schacht’s beta version so impressed the DC-based Sunlight Foundation that it funded a pilot for the Washington State Legislature. A grant from the civic action group will bring KAP to the King County Council.

Schacht dreams of offering KAP to cities, counties, and states around the nation. She’s on the road much of the time, networking and promoting political engagement. Her efforts recently earned a $75,000 Progressive States Network partnership grant through the Ford Foundation—and interest from unexpected quarters. When she visited London, a friend alerted the Prime Minister’s office. Four hours later she was sipping tea at 10 Downing Street. It seems Prime Minister Gordon Brown had inherited an unmanageable email system, and Number 10 had stopped accepting messages from the general public. “I told them honestly, ‘You can’t shut down that system—that is your tool for communicating directly to voters.’ They hadn’t really thought of it that way before, that this communication can go both ways.”

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