Get With the Program

Jason Fellman, president of FG Squared
Jason Fellman, president of FG Squared

Even though Jason Fellman, president of FG Squared, is a huge fan of Kirk Watson, he did not vote for the mayor. That's because he's never voted in the seven years he's been an Austinite. "Everything passes me by," he says. "The traditional way of being involved in government is very difficult for people with our lifestyle, because of time and the pace we're living and the different set of tools we use. It's not that I don't care, but I shouldn't go vote if I don't know what the issues are, and how do I become informed about the issues? And I think a lot of people fall into this lifestyle category, young and old, and it's why voter turnout is low."

Fellman, along with the mayor's former aide Larry Warshaw and Catapult Systems CEO Sam Goodner, are tackling this problem in typical New Economy fashion: They created a startup. -- accessible on the Web at that very address -- is a site dedicated to providing information about what's going on in public life, on topics like transportation, education, and Smart Growth, to infoworkers who can only be reached via the Internet. And, just as importantly, GetHeard provides a forum wherein its members -- registration is free -- can discuss the issues and talk back to the policymakers.

Right now, the site is definitely in demo mode, with more robust services and features to follow, now that Richard Arellano, soon-to-be former aide to Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, is coming on board as its executive director.

Get With the Program

"What we really needed to show is that we're serious, because we have to raise money to make this fly," says Fellman. "We have to show we have some skin in the game here, and that's been done. Tons of people have come to us to get involved from all over the place; it's the kind of thing that people really get excited about."

So how is GetHeard different from, say, reading this or another newspaper online, or viewing the same source material on the city's own Web site? "Something like GetHeard can only work over the Internet, but the goal of the organization is to not solely be an Internet site," says Fellman. "It's just one step in getting people involved into the community. We've talked, for example, about taking money raised by GetHeard (which is a non-profit) to help people get online and get over the digital divide. That's a bigger issue than GetHeard can solve, but I have to think that someday everyone can get online and access will be no more expensive than a phone line."

Like any good startup, GetHeard has both strategic objectives and long-term visions for growth. The project's stated objective is to raise voter turnout in Austin by 1 or 2%, which, considering that turnout has been under 10% in both the March primary and the recent city election, is a big goal. "Who knows what people really think when you only have single-digit voter turnout?" asks Fellman. "That's definitely not an accurate sampling. GetHeard doesn't vote or have opinions, but if I have a trusted source that I can go to and get both sides of a story, I think my informed decisions will increase. And if I have the ability to interact with policymakers, then I can feel some ownership on the issue. Once you've acted, you feel empowered and engaged. And we hope that gets people to vote."

But in the long term, it's possible that direct-connection tools like GetHeard could replace the traditional channels through which power and information flow. "I've had people tell me there will be a true democracy, where everyone is asked to vote on every issue, in our lifetime," Fellman says. "Crazier things have happened. But we want GetHeard to be a tool that's just as good for policymakers as for the public, because they are the public. We shouldn't forget that, when they're done, they'll be back where we are. I used to blame politicians for everything. But they're people too. Unless you're involved in policy decision-making, you can't really have an informed opinion. Go in there and try to make those decisions, and you'll find it's not so simple."

Even in its cradle, GetHeard has already added one name to the voter rolls -- Fellman's. "I'm registered to vote now," he says. "I definitely didn't want to miss this last election."

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