How A Social Entrepreneur Created A Sustainable Business In Keeping Politicians Accountable

BONN, Germany – With the federal election season in full swing in Germany, social entrepreneur and Ashoka Fellow Gregor Hackmack is busy preparing his online portal, ParliamentWatch, to host a variety of special online forums with German media partners and to connect citizen’s questions to candidates.

“It’s all about bridging the gap between citizens and politicians,” Hackmack said at the recent Ashoka Globalizer event in Bonn, which the Ashoka Germany office organized to piggy-back on the larger Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum. “We need to build that bridge.”

Hackmack and his team. who are based in Hamburg, have built a sustainable model for their ParliamentWatch (“abgeordnetenwatch” in German). The site has grown into a fixture of the German political and media scene. It’s a forum where citizens can ask direct questions of political candidates and elected officials in Germany and for Germany’s delegation to the European Union.

Roughly 95% of federal parliament members participate with the site, answering 80% of the 150,000 questions that have poured in from voters. The questions are stored in archives as a public record, which voters can use to later hold politicians accountable. The site can also sort and slice data and responses. For example, it shows, graphically, how responsive each of the major parties in Germany is to questions.

“We try to provide as much transparency as possible,” Hackmack said. “It’s one thing what people say they will do and another thing to see how they vote.”

The forum has proved popular, generating 350,000 unique visitors per month. It has partnerships running with several media including Süddeutsche Zeitung, broadcaster NDR, Spiegel Online (see Spiegel’s profile of Hackmack here) and more than 40 other local newspapers, which help draw questions from voters to the site and use some of the answers and data in news reports.

Because of the site’s popularity, lawmakers are essentially forced to answer the questions and maintain a basic profile on the site. Those who want a premium profile with a picture and integrating the platform into Twitter or Facebook FB -0.88% must pay €179 (€149 for signing up early).

“That’s how we get politicians to contribute to the project,” Hackmack shared. “If there is competition before the election, there is a clear incentive to buy the premium profile.” The rest of the finances come from donors and partnerships. And of the 50,000 people who subscribe to ParliamentWatch’s newsletter, 1,500 donate on a monthly basis.

Hackmack and his team have made the platform open source on Drupal and work with entrepreneurs and organizations in other countries who want to replicate ParliamentWatch, inviting them to pay a minimal membership fee to Hackmack’s team to help with technical support, site upgrades and consulting.

So far, partner sites have started in Luxembourg, Ireland, Austria, Tunisia and, most recently, France. Hackmack is in touch with people who want to start versions of the platform in Greece and in Pakistan as well.

Antonis Schwarz is busy at work to launch the site in Greece. “The severe economic crisis in Greece has compounded the distrust that many Greek citizens hold opposite the current political class,’’ he says in a statement on his website. He believes a breakdown in communication, a lack of transparency and one-dimensional media coverage (focusing on political decisions rather than the process) is causing a growing divide between politicians and citizens in the financially-troubled country. “In Greece, the birthplace of democracy, the involvement in party politics is decreasing, severing the limited tradition/culture of civic participation in politics and creating a detached democracy.”

Another Ashoka Fellow, Klaas Glenewinkel, helped Hackmack find funding and media training to open the site in Tunisia, which Hackmack and his team help support more fully. Otherwise, Hackmack says he doesn’t strive to find donors, partners and expansion countries. Rather, he lets the motivation bubble up in the right places and helps people once they are ready.

“If we don’t care who is running or who is representing us, why should we be surprised if they fail?” he said. “These are the world’s most important jobs! We should be investigating who is taking them.”

Editor's Note: This post was written by Paul Glader - a journalist, professor and entrepreneur - and originally appeared on Forbes.

Photo courtesy of Marzena Zukowska (@MarzenaZukowska)