With OurSay, Australian voters question politicians directly

MELBOURNE -- As Australians express a lack of confidence in their government, a new digital platform crowdsources questions from citizens and puts politicians in the hot seat.
Written by Lieu Thi Pham, Contributor

MELBOURNE -- Back in 2009, Eyal Halamish was attending a class at the Center for Sustainable Leadership in Melbourne. A guest speaker -- an Australian member of parliament -- asked the 25 young leaders, "How many of you belong to a political party?" Nobody in the room raised their hands. Then he asked, "How many people have an issue they would like to raise?" All hands went up.

"I realized then that there was a gap between the places where big decisions are made in political offices and the people outside them," Halamish, an American-born Melburnian, said, reflecting on that pivotal moment that eventually led him to form the non-profit online platform OurSay, a Melbourne-based initiative that crowdsources political questions from the public and makes the leaders in government answer them.

Halamish, along with Matthew Gordon, Gautam Raju, Linh Do and Luke Giuliani formed the independent social enterprise which was launched during the 2010 Australian federal election. The organization received an initial financial contribution from these founding partners as well as an investment from social entrepreneur Nic Frances.

The organization has a set process: It locks in a politician or community leader who has agreed to answer the top-rated question(s), and partners with a media organization which guarantees coverage of the issue. People post questions and then vote up to seven times on other questions they think should be asked. At the end of the month, the most pertinent questions (as voted by the people) are answered in a live off-line "forum" that is video-recorded and made accessible online.

In the past the then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard and other government ministers have been put on the spot. Founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks Julian Assange, who is currently running for the Australian senate, is in this month's hot seat.

Today OurSay is run by an Executive Management and Leadership Team and supported by a group of interns. To make money, the group sells OurSay as an engagement tool to government, businesses and organizations interested in engaging the public and key stakeholders online and allows brands to sponsor events.

As a collective, they hold the belief that when leaders, media and citizens are involved, better decisions are made.

The OurSay team is conscious of maintaining objectivity: If they select a candidate with a leaning to the left of politics, the next time, they'll choose someone on the right-end, working in ideological binaries to achieve a degree of political neutrality.

"Every time we [OurSay team] run a forum we look at the topics at hand," Halamish said. "We map who the key stakeholders are and ensure they are invited to participate. Our aim is to curate a conversation with a spectrum of voices."

An example of OurSay's approach is its recent partnership with youth media group VICE in raising a drug-related question to the Australian Parliament. VICE Australian editor Royce Akers, who was approached by OurSay to lead the initiative, saw it as an opportunity to have a meaningful discussion about an issue that affects many young people.

"Being able to have a question asked in parliament is obviously a real selling point," Akers said. "But the overarching issue with politics and youth is that people should already expect this level of interaction with their elected officials."

The OurSay model is a response to a chronically disengaged and somewhat cynical Australian public. Voting is compulsory in Australia, but, according to the Australian Electoral Commission, there are currently almost 1.4 million eligible Australians missing from the electoral roll of which half a million are aged 18-24 years.

An independent national poll released in May 2013 and commissioned by the University of Melbourne, revealed that 57 percent of those polled were disappointed by the "tone" of political debate, while 70 percent had "little or no confidence" in the Australian Government. With these attitudes, there are concerns that there will be a rise in invalid and "donkey votes," a term to describe the practice of numbering the candidates on the ballot paper in the order in which they appear rather than based on a party preference.

"I think there is a perception in Australia, and in other countries, that the media and the political leaders are in bed with each other -- whether or not this is true, the media are seen to be "insiders" reporting on what the leaders are saying, rather than the issues that concern the public," Halamish said.

With the upcoming Australian Federal Election recently announced for September 7,  Halamish and his team will continue to run campaigns to engage various voices in the community. Currently the majority of OurSay's over 60,000 users are aged between 18 and 35, but the youngest on the platform is 13 and the oldest person is 92.

"The birth of the internet means that now every citizen can read up and be fully informed about big issues at hand, and that means they can also speak at the same level as decision makers," Halamish said. "We have a decentralized focus so that people can create their own front page -- that's their Facebook page, they can create their own mouthpiece ... that's Twitter, and they can create their own call to action ... that's OurSay," he said.

Last May, OurSay in conjunction with the University of Melbourne, launched the Citizens' Agenda, a nation-wide campaign that will use the platform to give citizens in 10 key electorates a chance to influence the media and political agenda in the upcoming election.

The OurSay team will evaluate the impact on political engagement by doing qualitative surveys before and after the launch of the campaign. "We're going to see if the issues change, if the people become more engaged because they have this opportunity, and if the reporting shifts. For instance, do the media start focusing on what the citizens want rather than what the politicians are talking about?" he said.

OurSay claims that the model is working in Australia and could function in the U.S. and the U.K. They go so far as to say that it would also work in non-democracies, with leaders adopting it as an information and opinion gathering tool.

Recently OurSay launched their first overseas test study in India. As there is a significant number of mobile phones users in the developing nation (as reported by the Internet and Mobile Association of India), OurSay has adapted the technology to the cultural context, enabling people to place their votes for questions by calling in.

The OurSay founder sees the platform as part of the new media economy which underpins movements like Occupy and the Arab Spring. But Halamish makes it clear that OurSay isn't about creating mayhem. He makes this pitch to our world leaders: "We're not about anarchy or taking something over, we're actually saying we need to build mechanisms in places so that the public can inform government about how we can build tools to make decision making effective and efficient. What leaders choose to do with that information is entirely up to them."

Photos: Eyal Halamish talking at the Centre for Advancing Journalism (credit: Jessica Francis), and a screen shot of OurSay's "Ask Assange" forum.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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