Gregor Hackmack has created an impartial online platform that enables direct, public dialogue between individual citizens and their elected representatives, holds politicians accountable to the public, and gives citizens easy access to political information. With a rigorous commitment to transparency, Gregor brings value to politicians and voters alike and is overcoming the gap between them to enable a new form of democratic participation.
Die neue Idee
Working to counteract widespread political apathy, Gregor makes state and federal politics transparent and accessible to citizens. Through his two online gateways, Parliament Watch and Candidate Watch, Gregor enables direct dialogue between citizens and elected members of parliament or candidates for office. With the help of these online platforms, Gregor casts light on the often “hidden” business of parliamentary politics by allowing citizens to track politicians’ actions over time. Gregor’s websites record the politicians’ speeches and contributions to parliamentary debates, as well as their voting record in parliament.
Gregor’s platforms spark a new form of interaction between elected officials and their constituents, because they allow citizens to post public questions for their politicians, to which politicians may respond, thus starting a direct dialogue with the electorate. Gregor’s system accounts for the reality that it is people behind parties that shape politics, and he holds politicians accountable to the citizens who voted for them. Politicians realize simultaneously that Parliament Watch offers them an opportunity to strengthen their ties to their constituents and rally support for their ideas; it also prevents them from losing touch with their base. Others have found that they must follow suit or be left behind. Gregor creates win-win situations for both the electorate and elected alike, encouraging honesty and integrity.
Gregor’s system is not simply a third-party clearinghouse for political information, but rather a forum for public discourse shaped by citizens and politicians. It wins the trust from political parties because it adheres to the principle of strict political neutrality, employs neutral moderators, screens questions, and relies on a carefully selected ethics commission to prevent the platform from being manipulated or used for activist or lobby purposes. To increase social impact, Gregor uses the publicly available collective knowledge created through Parliament Watch and Candidate Watch to further strengthen public accountability of politicians and encourage citizen participation. He uses prominent media partners as effective distributors of the information created and works with newspapers and TV stations to set in motion an interactive movement of citizens who feel they have the ability to shape politics; multiplying into all parts of society. Gregor is spreading Parliament and Candidate Watch to the remaining German states and has taken concrete steps to take it next to the European Parliament and several other countries.
There is widespread and growing political apathy among German citizens, especially young voters. Citizens commonly feel that parliamentary politics is a distant and inscrutable affair, and that politicians are unresponsive to their needs. Voter alienation has several sources:
Public Mistrust. Due to lack of transparency in political decision making, citizens don’t trust the democratic system enough to participate wholeheartedly. The general thinking is that individual citizens cannot influence what happens in parliament because politics is conducted behind closed doors, informed by “experts” and corporate lobbyists or driven by politicians’ private interests. Politics seems like a black box, far removed from citizen influence. Citizens do not know what the politician they elected thinks, how he or she voted, or how hard he or she works. Only scandals are extensively covered in mass media. Unsurprisingly, surveys show that the political profession is held in low-esteem.
The Communications Divide. Citizens and politicians (especially those lower down in party hierarchies) have few available means of direct communication. Politicians who want feedback from their constituents or who wish to show what they have done for them have no easy means to communicate directly. Usually they reach out to citizens in costly, one-way public relations campaigns (like mass mailings) which do not give citizens the information they need or want. The same applies to citizens who want to communicate publicly with their representatives: There are no easily accessible channels. Citizens can exert influence only at the ballot box, or through private letters or emails that politicians can afford to ignore.
Lack of trustworthy sources of information. The mass media is an important source of political information, but reports on politicians selectively, usually not tracking their behavior consistently over time. While politicians receive a lot of media coverage just before elections, there is little coverage of their behavior over their entire parliamentary term. Many citizens do crave reliable political information, but are easily deterred if it is unavailable or difficult to obtain. They are typically unwilling to invest substantial time researching political questions. To make informed choices, voters need easy access to neutral, searchable, and comprehensive political information.
As political participation declines, politicians have less and less incentive to be responsive to the needs of all of their constituents, and can only afford to cater to well-organized factions. But declining government responsiveness is not the only consequence of voter alienation. While some frustrated voters are driven out of politics altogether, others find themselves drawn to extremist parties (on either end of the political spectrum). Germany has recently seen an upsurge in the fortunes of extremist parties, who seem to some voters to offer them the only real opportunity to voice their frustration and dissent. The dangers that lie down this road hardly need to be mentioned.
Gregor’s perception of a widening gap between politicians and citizens led him to build two neutral online platforms where both sides could directly connect: Parliament Watch and Candidate Watch. Their “faces” are linked but distinct: One features candidates during election cycles (Candidate Watch) and the other features representatives after their election (Parliament Watch). Visitors to the websites can find a profile for every delegate and representative, which shows how he/she voted on important public policies, and what he/she said in key speeches. They can also post questions for the politicians and the answers are published and viewable by other visitors. Parliament Watch makes it easy to sort politicians’ statements by party or topic (for example: What does everybody think about nuclear power plants?) and see all relevant questions and answers. With its searchable database of past statements and responses, Parliament Watch functions as a form of collective political memory, through which citizens can hold politicians accountable for their decisions over time.
To reach out to citizens and build a democratic movement, Gregor is creative in building networks with media: He builds partnerships with media who have an interest in the information on his site and want to offer service to their readers, so that citizens’ first contact with Parliament Watch or Candidate Watch will most likely happen when reading articles about current events in large newspapers such as Der Spiegel (which reaches 3 million readers), Der Stern, or browsing through large internet portals such as T-Mobile or watching popular political talk shows on TV. Here, they find increasingly frequent references to Parliament Watch as a neutral, trustworthy source of political information. Gregor uses the public interest in hot political topics like taxes, violent youth, politicians’ salaries, and upcoming elections to attract citizens’ attention. His many media partners—including Spiegel Online, the number one website in Germany regarding daily clicks—feature his logo prominently on their websites, and when readers enter their zip code, they are immediately routed to their local representative’s page on Parliament Watch, or if during an election on Candidate Watch, where they can get information on the person and participate in the dialogue with the representative from their district. Gregor has found that citizens have a need and are in fact quite curious to find out what their politicians have done and what they think, stated in their own words. Citizens’ political interest was evidenced during the last parliamentary state election, when 2.5 million users referred to Parliament Watch and Candidate Watch for information and asked a total of 12,000 questions (though Gregor launched the platform at the federal level only six weeks before). They received over 8,000 answers from their candidates.
In order to not have too many people ask the same question, to prevent coordinated lobby attacks, and to ensure the online platform remains neutral and questions and answers are not manipulated for partisan purposes, Gregor and his team adhere to a strict code of ethics and rules. To not overwhelm politicians with questions, the platform only allows citizens to communicate with representatives or candidates from their districts. Also, each question posed must be new (there is a search function that allows users to first screen whether the same question has already been asked, and if so, they can join the list of signees), cannot exceed a certain number of words, and must be coherent. For this to work, the moderators are critical. Gregor employs a team of paid moderators to screen questions for groundless or ad hominem accusations (making it a safer environment for politicians and giving them further incentive to participate). They filter out insults, questions about politicians’ personal lives, racist or threatening comments, and other inappropriate material. The moderators have a clearing function and screen questions before forwarding them to politicians based on the strict code of ethics that is transparent on the website. They are also automatically alerted when many people pose the same or similar question, so they can easily investigate the case. Gregor’s team never edits any politician’s response. His moderators are carefully selected graduate students, all of whom begin their tenure with Parliament Watch as interns in the office, where Gregor is able to train them and assess their integrity. If they succeed there, they are offered positions as part-time moderators and are paid a modest stipend to ensure that they do the work.
A detailed electronic record is kept of all of the moderators’ decisions, and this record is surveyed periodically by their peers. It is also surveyed by a carefully selected independent ethics commission, which represents a cross-section of German society (and includes federal court judges, academics, renowned journalists, CEOs, and political analysts). The ethics commission is in place to decide in critical cases and further guarantee the clear commitment to a transparent and public code of conduct.
Politicians were initially skeptical, even felt threatened, by Gregor’s online platform. He therefore began small, by persuading vulnerable Social Democrats in a state election in Hamburg to use his online tools to present themselves to the electorate. Once the Social Democrats began, other parties followed suit: First the Greens, then the Conservative party. Participating politicians discovered that Parliament Watch and Candidate Watch could be useful tools to market themselves to the public, solicit feedback from the electorate, and communicate with constituents.
Since 2005, both platforms work at the federal level, with Gregor again securing the buy-in of crucial party decision makers. Today, 100 percent of the federal parliament is represented on Parliament Watch and an astonishing 93 percent of MPs have answered questions posted by their constituents. The transparency made possible by Parliament Watch leads to both positive and negative public pressure: Politicians who answer the most questions and attend party meetings and floor votes are presented as models of best practice; those who do not are publicly criticized. One German MP who never appeared in Parliament became known as “Germany’s laziest politician,” based on the information collected by Parliament Watch, and was forced to resign. Gregor and his team, though, never themselves criticize politicians or exert direct pressure on them; rather, they use their growing publicity to showcase best practices.
It is also important that Gregor grants all candidates access to the website as long as their parties are not unconstitutional. He strongly believes that is a much more effective means to counter-act right or left wing extremist tendencies is to expose the politicians that represent these views to public scrutiny and make their actions transparent.
Having started with the city of Hamburg in 2004, then featuring a national election in 2005 and all following state elections, Gregor has rapidly picked up speed. Using fourteen daily newspapers as a lever, Gregor now attracts 300,000 visitors every month to his online platform, using each of them as multipliers. He is featured on political talk shows as the best resource for objective information on political behavior.
Gregor’s next step will be to spread his platform to include all state politicians, in all sixteen states in Germany, and cover all state parliaments. He has begun to work closely with a team in Austria, which launched its own Parliament Watch franchise in August 2008. The Austrian group pays him for the use of his program and for his advice and oversight, and will agree contractually to adhere strictly to the rules and the principles of neutrality embodied in its German counterpart. Gregor feels that Austria is the natural first step for expansion: Because of the shared language, the site needs very little modification to fit the Austrian political scene. He has also held more speculative talks with interested groups in India and Brazil and has a student group at the renowned University of St. Gallen working on a feasibility study and a social franchise strategy, but plans to pursue these options only after he has successfully overseen the Austria expansion. While consolidating his work in Germany, Gregor has also started to reach out to the European Parliament. Parliament Watch now monitors the 99 German members, but Gregor dreams of a Europe-wide accountability platform for EU officials, from whom the European electorate feels especially distant and disconnected.
To secure neutrality, Parliament Watch and Candidate Watch do not accept any institutional public funding but try to generate a substantial fraction of their operating budgets through micro-fees and micro-donations. Parliament Watch and Candidate Watch are currently financed through a few large social investors and a growing support network of almost 550 small investors who give from €5/month (US$6.60) and in return, gain access to extended search and newsletter functions. Gregor also offers paying members a “citizen hotline,” where they get hands-on advice about how to participate in policy decisions that matter to them. Through his aggressive media outreach, Gregor is working to substantially increase the number paying members. He also uses the wealth of knowledge created on his platform to offer premium functions—for a price—to interest groups that would otherwise conduct very expensive market research, like media partners, think tanks, citizen organizations (COs), and political advocacy groups. Subscribers receive access to his archives and a daily digest of “top politicians’ statements” or hits by topic. Transparency International is the first large international CO to pay for these services for use on their website.
Gregor was born in 1977 and grew up in a small village in the most rural part of Western Germany; it was anything but peaceful: When he was thirteen, the German government decided that this area would be the home of a large nuclear waste disposal site. There were massive anti-nuclear protests, and Gregor got engaged and even convinced his apolitical parents to demonstrate with him. In his last year of school, the national police announced that it would quarter anti-protest troops in his high school gym. Gregor became one of the organizers of a student protest that occupied the gym for days and drew national media attention. He and his co-protesters were expelled from school but used the media attention not only to make the police back down and sign a contract promising not to use public premises such as schools, but also to strike a deal with the school allowing them all to be reinstated.
Since this incident, Gregor has been fascinated by the media and its power to help ordinary citizens pursue political change. In high school, he founded the student newspaper, making sure it was financed by external sources and printed outside the school to secure neutrality. In college he worked in the Phillips press office, and also part time for the newspaper Die Welt.
Before beginning his studies, he spent a year in Scotland doing his civil service with youth that had learning disabilities. Being responsible for two kids aged 16 and 17 he had to lay out a clearly structured day and rules for them. This changed his attitude towards accepting authority as something useful if lived out in a collegial manner, and ultimately helped him mature.
After studying at the LSE in London, Gregor returned to the city state of Hamburg in Germany. He became involved in a student movement to keep public universities without fees and open to all students. His interest was in facilitating citizen action: Working with a close friend, who is an accomplished programmer, he set up a website to allow students to more closely coordinate their movement to keep them abreast of developments as they happened; at the same time, he enabled the university to continue giving lectures throughout a student strike. The site was a success.
Immediately thereafter, he began adapting the tool for use in a major local referendum on electoral reform. The aim was to make electoral law more person-focused by giving the voter the right to elect persons and not just parties. Gregor was elected to the board of the CO More Democracy which helped citizen advocates for reform gather information and coordinate their efforts. The referendum was a success, and Gregor actually contributed to the introduction of a new law in the city state of Hamburg, leading to a direct voting system in seventeen constituencies.
The success of the referendum came as a surprise to everyone, but while his colleagues were celebrating, Gregor knew that this would only be a sustainable victory if he found a way to make politicians and voters feel the positive impact of the reform. At the same time, he observed that citizens where overwhelmed by the opportunity to elect persons, because they did not know most candidates, so they told Gregor they tended to blindly vote for the delegate on top of the party voting list. Thus, in 2004, the idea for Parliament Watch and Candidate Watch was born.