From Political Apathy to Engagement with German Fellow Gregor Hackmack

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Source: Ashoka

Have you ever felt your politicians don’t actually answer to you? That their rhetoric doesn’t match their behavior and no one holds them accountable? That the sound bites on TV and the form letters don’t get to the substance of the issues?

In 2004, Ashoka Fellow Gregor Hackmack recognized that growing political alienation and apathy among German citizens, especially young voters, was a problem—one compounded by a new and unmet need for information about individual candidates created after Germany changed its electoral system to allow voters to vote for individual candidates rather than whole parties. Gregor recognized this deficiency in the electorate process and the wider problem of alienation.

With partner Boris Hekele, Gregor developed the online platforms Parliament Watch and Candidate Watch to reduce voter alienation by making politics transparent and politicians more accountable. They provide impartial profiles of candidates and incumbents (including voting record, committee memberships, and extra sources of income), and more importantly, a place where people can ask public questions of their politicians. Questions can be voted up by others, creating pressure on a politician to answer and answers are permanently saved—holding them accountable to past promises.

Their solution is working. Parliament Watch has over 90% participation by MPs at the federal level with more than 120,000 questions posted and more than 100,000 answers between the federal parliament, the European parliament, eight state parliaments and 20 parliaments on the communal level.

Parliament Watch has also partnered with more than 20 media organizations, including Der Spiegel—one of Germany’s largest media outlets. Gregor has worked proactively to open source the system and to make it easily replicable in other locations and the project has already been replicated by local parties in Ireland, Austria, and Luxemburg.

Parliament Watch, like almost anything else, wasn’t an instant success. However, when one of Germany’s leading politicians used it to answer a question, it got a significant amount of media attention and soon politicians started realizing that using Parliament Watch benefited them by allowing them to stay in touch with their constituents. In fact, they would face a comparative disadvantage if they chose not to use it.

Gregor’s solution has created a new form of political participation, making politicians accountable to the public throughout their terms and not just during election years. Before Parliament Watch, the public had to rely on TV sound bites or form letters (assuming they even knew how to contact their MP) to hold politicians accountable and make themselves heard. Now, constituents can hold politicians accountable directly and, because MPs can’t post an answer or statement until they are asked a question, users are the ones to set the agenda. This means politicians must respond to what the public cares about, not what the media decides to ask or what politicos would rather talk about. The system provides value to politicians as well, who value the opportunity to have a neutral platform to present their views without space constraints or editing.

Gregor Hackmack saw a problem, responded with an innovative solution to address that problem, and, using connections from the Ashoka network, is now working with others to expand the scope and scale of his solution.

However, the path wasn’t always so obvious. In recounting his story, Gregor reflects that at one point it was unclear whether Parliament Watch would go anywhere and whether what he was doing was crazy; his election as an Ashoka fellow gave him an identity as a social entrepreneur, validated his work, and proved he wasn’t crazy.

Watch Gregor talk about the problem he saw and how he’s addressing it.