Meet the startup that wants to make it easier to be an informed citizen

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Seasoned U.S. voters who have spent election after election furiously Googling candidates while standing in line at the polls might be the first people to tell you that it’s not exactly easy — or pleasant — to feel like a prepared, informed, and engaged citizen.

The barrier to entry is even more difficult for folks who are new to voting, aren’t citizens, or have just moved to a different city. 

What do words like ‘jurisdiction’ mean? What does a school board even do? Who do I call about this pothole in my neighborhood? Why should I vote for this guy with all the signs up around town?

Enter: Citizenly, an Oregon-based startup making those questions a whole lot easier to answer.

The Citizenly platform provides a “complete, accurate, and continuously updated database of every politician in the country, from the president, down to every small city council, local school board, and rural special district,” which, up until now, simply has not existed.

Upon making a free account on the platform, a user can input their address and will quickly be presented with a list of all of the elected offices that represent them — as well as who occupies those offices, how to contact them, how long is left in their term, their party affiliation, and much more. 

A person types on a computer, displaying the Citizenly dashboard
Photo courtesy of Citizenly

All information is presented in the same format, with an emphasis on “standardizing public data,” as Citizenly’s director of analyst operations, Evan Kersten, said.

“This is public data, and it must be delivered in a way that engenders public trust,” he told Good Good Good.

After having their identities confirmed, elected officials and candidates are able to add minimal personalized details to better address their constituents, such as changing their profile photo, adding a bio, and listing their priorities. 

A paid version of the platform is also available to advocacy groups and businesses looking to engage more directly with elected officials.

“I want this to be as useful for the governor of my state as it is to my mom,” Kersten said. “I want there to be value across so many different types of engagement with these systems.” 

The platform aims to make it easier for candidates to get their names in front of communities without paying gobs of money, and for community members to feel empowered to communicate with elected officials — especially in hyper-local settings.

“Our public tagline of ‘improving the experience of being a citizen,’ that’s a semicircle. And the other half of this is improving the experience of governing,” Kersten said. “You need both. And I think we are really making a concerted effort to address both parts of that circle.”

Right now, Citizenly is in beta mode for Oregon residents, though thousands of data sets are available for other parts of the country. Kersten said that the goal is to ensure that 99% of all data available on Citizenly is accurate. With hundreds of thousands of elected offices across the country, this is no easy feat.

That being said, the platform is continuing to expand successfully with larger national data sets, and users outside of Oregon are still welcome to make an account, check out what’s available, and anticipate even more information leading up to the 2024 election. 

Users can also keep an eye on the status of Citizenly’s accuracy rate, which is available to view as a notice on the bottom corner of a user’s page.

While upcoming elections are a major catalyst for civic engagement, Kerston said he ultimately views Citizenly as a path to autonomous, accessible education. 

He reflected on his own experience, obtaining a graduate degree in public administration, spending his career in policy and government affairs — and still being confused and overwhelmed by these systems.

Three people stand at a booth promoting Citizenly
Citizenly team members introduce the platform at the Association of Oregon Counties Conference in the fall of 2023. Kersten is on the right. Photo courtesy of Citizenly

“My goal is for Citizenly to make a measurable impact on people’s ability to be an informed constituent, so that they feel they can understand the functions of some of these government entities and don’t feel scared off by some of the terminology,” he said. 

“It’s about how you can engage with those concepts in a way that actually matters for your day-to-day.”

With an individualized approach and a straightforward delivery of information, Kersten hopes that Citizenly can be the missing puzzle piece that creates a more full, nuanced picture of civic engagement.

“Everybody deserves a shot at knowing this stuff, and it’s really hard to know sometimes,” he said. 

“I’m hopeful that we can do a lot better with getting information in front of people in a way that makes sense — and relates to their sense of place, and their sense of personal responsibility to that place. There’s a need for that, and I think it’s possible to do it.”

A version of this article was originally published in The Civic Engagement Edition of the Goodnewspaper.

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April 3, 2024 8:00 AM
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