Mark Zuckerberg's new political action group: More field organization than lobby shop
Today, the tech industry got another high-profile advocacy organization, this time reportedly backed by $20 million of Mark Zuckerberg’s money and a broad alliance of industry heavyweights, including Reid Hoffman, Eric Schmidt, Fred Wilson, John Doerr, Paul Graham, Reed Hastings, and Marissa Mayer. The group, called FWD.us and led by NationBuilder and Causes co-founder Joe Green, who is now entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz, has enlisted the help of Washington DC-based lobbyists and communications people on both sides of the aisle.
Savvy bi-partisanship, a net of money and influence, and a splashy media debut led by a Mark Zuckerberg op-ed in the Washington Post... Sounds pretty much like a straight-up lobby group, right?
Not quite. It has a chance of becoming something more important -- a field organization that actively enlists its constituents and keeps them engaged in a process that can influence policy at the highest level. The group’s first priority is getting a comprehensive immigration bill passed. Such a bill would make it easier for companies to recruit high-skilled immigrants and for foreigners to start companies in the country. Beyond that, however, FWD.us has said it will focus on education reform and supporting scientic research.
Initially, the new organization looks like it’s just elbowing its way into an already-crowded field, putting itself alongside TechNet, the Internet Association, and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, among others, all of whom strive to represent the tech industry’s viewpoints on Capitol Hill.
While veterans of the tech-political nexus, however, those groups have done little to encourage the active participation of the startup community in political organizing on issues that matter to the tech industry, such as immigration, education, patents, and privacy. A field organization is about knocking on doors, rallying supporters, stirring up votes, calling members of Congress – doing whatever it takes to move the needle on policy. It’s about creating a lasting and sustainable network of power and influence.
“Joe Green is building a field organization more like Organizing For America than a lobbying shop,” says Jason Putorti, creative director at Causes and previously a co-founder of Votizen. The group’s Facebook-connected website, Putorti says, is a reflection of that.
For Putorti, the likes of TechNet and the Internet Association have failed to engage the tech citizenry in a way that forces it to take action. “It doesn’t seem like they’re doing anything in terms of building a broad base of support,” he says. He believes that a field-organizing approach is sustainable and can have a greater impact, which is why he's at Causes today. The same holds for FWD.us. “We have the tools now with social media and the internet to get people mobilized quickly on issues that matter to them," says Putorti.
Craig Montuori, the founder of PolitiHacks, says initially the group is likely to do more traditional lobbying, including buying ads and building relationships with members of Congress. However, becoming a field organization could be its long-term vision. Such an organization, Montuori notes, is not something you can put together at the snap of your fingers. It requires money, patience, and confidence in that you’re not going to get a lot of returns early on, he says. No tech group has done that effectively, he notes, but it is a smart long-term play. “It is the exact right approach to go here.”
On closer inspection, it looks like FWD.us is trampling on ground already occupied by Engine Advocacy, and the Bloomberg Administration’s Partnership for a New American Economy, the latter of which is leading the March for Innovation. It’s not clear whether or not FWD.us will be involved with the March. Engine, meanwhile, has spent the last year building relationships in Washington DC and positioning itself as an engagement and advocacy brand for startups.
Michael McGeary, Engine’s political strategist, has only positive things to say about FWD.us. He says it’s great to have more voices in the immigration debate and anything that brings the issue more attention is good. “We’re thrilled to have these guys in as part of this,” McGeary says.“The number one goal here is getting a good bill on the President’s desk for him to sign.”
Although FWD.us has generally been greeted with enthusiam, there have been some dissenting voices. The group’s strong Facebook connection, in particular, has come up for early criticism. Earlier today, GigaOm founder Om Malik posted a Tweet asking why people can’t register to support FWD.us with a Google or Twitter account, and why Facebook was the only sign-up option other than an email. He also asked how we can be sure that FWD.us won’t become an advocacy group that acts merely in its founders’ self-interest, and how to ensure it doesn’t become a lobby front for privacy issues.
Such questions suggest that FWD.us will be subjected to as much scrutiny as criticism as the lawmakers themselves. It will need it. With big-money and big-name backing, this advocacy organization deserves the microscope just as much as it warrants encouragement.