Republican lawmakers are facing growing anger over the deadliest mass shooting at an American school in nearly a decade yesterday, with many of their constituents expressing frustration over their repeated votes against even modest gun control reforms.
Social media can't solve the problem. Indigov, a three-year-old, 70-person Washington-based startup, can't solve it either, but the outfit, a service platform for public officials, can likely help. Its entire raison d'être is giving lawmakers and others a way to communicate with those who voted them into office, as well as provide more assurance to these constituents that their voices are heard -- and that their emails and tweets and letters are being read by an actual human.
How does it work? We talked with Indigov's founder, Alex Kouts, last week, ahead of yesterday's tragedy, and he explained Indigov's software-as-a-service offering as a kind of multichannel communication platform with three components, all of which work together to better empower public officials to "ingest, triage, and resolve any type of request or opinion or message that comes into their office."
First, Indigov builds websites that Kouts says are far more responsive to voters than many you might find when looking up a public servant. The company declines to name its customers publicly, though we were pointed to a New York congressman's website that immediately pushes a menu to visitors, asking if they'd like to request a meeting or sign up for a newsletter or help their community, among other options.
A second, behind-the scenes piece of Indigov's offering is a workflow management system that receives inbound messages from email, websites, social media and phone calls to which the company applies exact text-string matching in scouring their content, Kouts says.
Kouts -- who worked briefly at Brigade, a since-shuttered civic tech startup co-founded by famed founder Sean Parker -- claims the tech is more accurate than natural language processing or machine learning, where error rates can range from 2% to 5%, which is just enough to be hugely problematic. "It could mean a constituent could receive a response that's not appropriate and gets screenshotted and posted on Twitter and becomes a scandal," says Kouts, adding of text-string matching that it has an error rate of "basically zero." (He also maintains that by dramatically improving the ability for staffers to process inbound content that they can respond to constituents in "a matter of hours" and not months.)
The third piece, according to Indigov, is simply better management of a public servant's list of constituents so that she or he can more proactively communicate with them.
As with any young startup, how much traction Indigov can gain remains a question mark. The young company, by our estimate, currently has hundreds of customers based on its claim that "190 million Americans are supported" through its technology.
In the meantime, larger CRM vendors, including Salesforce, see the same opportunity that Indigov does to replace the janky legacy systems that are saddling the efforts of many public servants.
Naturally, Kouts believes Indigov is a better fit given its growing expertise with government officials and voters. "A decent amount of large vendors are out there trying to get into space, but our customers need an enormous number of hyper-specific features, and whereas CRM systems are designed to push a customer toward buying something, the government fundamentally doesn't do that."
Kouts further argues that the market Indigov is chasing is enormous -- and still wide open. He points specifically to FedRAMP, the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program created in 2011 as a way to ensure the security of cloud services used by the U.S. government, saying: "I don't think venture capitalists or most people understand that the government, [through initiatives like FedRamp], is just now beginning to embrace cloud-based SaaS for the first time … there's a window that's just open for companies like us that are completely rewriting the script of what govtech is."
It's a persuasive pitch. It seems to have worked, too. Today, Indigov is announcing it has garnered $25 million in Series B funding from Tusk Venture Partners, Wicklow Capital, Valor Equity Partners and earlier backer 8VC. The round brings the company's total funding to more than $38.3 million to date.
Asked why drew him to the deal, Bradley Tusk of Tusk Ventures notes that he previously spent over a decade working in local, state and federal government before becoming a political adviser and investor and seen a lot of companies promise to fix government. Indigov, he insists, is the "only platform I have seen that is actually providing a solution to a massive problem facing elected officials" and that "allows them to spend more time addressing individual needs of constituents.”
They may need it more than ever after yesterday's school shooting in Texas. Today, on social media and elsewhere, many Republican lawmakers are being taken to task, including for accepting contributions from the National Rifle Association. Among them is Senator Mitt Romney, who yesterday tweeted his "prayer and condolence" in the aftermath of the school rampage.
Critics, including Jemele Hill, a contributor to The Atlantic, noted in response to the tweet that Romney has previously accepted more than $13 million in contributions from the NRA, according to data compiled by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
A spokesperson for the senator said in a statement afterward that, “No one owns Senator Romney’s vote, as evidenced by his record of independence in the Senate."
But the statement and many others were soon overwhelmed by anguished Americans who joined millions of others online to ask when the shootings will stop. Among them: NBA Coach Steve Kerr, whose own father died after being shot decades ago and whose open aggravation with pro-gun senators, during a pre-game interview, quickly went viral.