Sue Zoldak is a public relations expert with a fierce competitive streak. Her surname in Slovak, as she likes to point out, means “mercenary.” Her firm, the Zoldak Agency, uses targeted advertising and grassroots campaigning to help clients spur voters to press elected officials into voting yes or no on specific bills. While not strictly a lobbyist—she doesn’t communicate directly with lawmakers—Zoldak fits squarely into the influence-peddling milieu of Washington, DC, with 15 years’ experience on K Street, where lobbying firms are traditionally headquartered. Put simply, she’s a go-to person for companies and organizations determined to shape public policy.
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Lately Zoldak’s been getting help from a new source—a data intelligence platform called FiscalNote, founded by a 26-year-old political whiz, Tim Hwang. For a current client in the health-care industry—which Zoldak declines to name—she’s tracking states that want to amend their “certificate of need” laws. These obscure laws, which were mandated by Congress in 1974, require health-care companies to prove to state regulators that a community needs their new hospital, nursing home, or rehab clinic. The initial idea was that a local market could support only so many health facilities. If there were too many, and one ended up with empty beds, it would raise prices to cover its fixed costs, overcharging patients.
Unsurprisingly, the laws have occasioned a political power struggle. Lobbyists for upstart clinics and hospitals wine and dine state regulators to overturn them, while those working for established hospital groups lobby to keep them in place. The political jockeying has been so intense that Congress repealed the federal mandate in 1987. Since then, 14 states have jettisoned the laws, and more may follow suit.
Zoldak’s client, which she describes as a coalition of think tanks and “impacted parties,” is seeking to get certificate-of-need laws off the books and wants to know which statehouses are considering dumping or amending them. It’s a massive job. Zoldak needs to know how state lawmakers have voted on such laws in the past, which companies have tried to influence them, how successful that influence has been, and how every final vote has gone. She can then take the data to her client.
Clever as Zoldak might be, her agency is a boutique firm. She doesn’t have an army of staff to work the phones and comb through state records. Enter FiscalNote. One click and the platform shows the text of bills, along with their sponsors and cosponsors. Another click and it summarizes everything there is to know about the state legislators who could prop up or nix the rules: their voting histories, the frequency with which bills they sponsor become law, their effectiveness by topic (health, education, housing), their ideological views on different issues. After crunching the data, FiscalNote can predict how each one will vote. “That tells us whether or not we should be targeting specific districts with our message,” Zoldak says.
Zoldak has been so impressed with FiscalNote that she has invited Hwang to speak at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, where she’s an adjunct professor. “A lot of people say they’re going to disrupt lobbying. Tim is one of those people who actually has the potential to do that in the long run,” she says. “He’s the closest that we have to a Mark Zuckerberg walking around.”
Actually, the best analogy for FiscalNote may be not Facebook but Moneyball. Lobbying, like baseball, no longer belongs to old-timers and their seasoned intuition: it is now being refined by computer data and forecasts. There are other new digital players in town, including PopVox and Quorum. But FiscalNote—which has 1,300 clients and is backed by $50 million in venture funding from top investors like Mark Cuban, Steve Case, and Jerry Yang—is the marquee name.
“There is always going to be a personal touch in this business,” says John Runyan, a longtime DC lobbyist for corporations and the president of Runyan Public Affairs, an independent government relations firm. But, he says, lobbyists using techniques made by a platform like FiscalNote “can really bore in on exactly where they need to be focusing” to sway a legislator.
FiscalNote likes to say it represents a new force for democracy, putting the power of government data and analysis in the hands of the little guys: teachers’ unions, environmental groups, and nonprofits of many stripes. But DC analysts contend that it’s simultaneously helping entrenched lobbyists for candidates and multinational corporations to refine their targeted messages, potentially undercutting the will of the voters.
Weeding out the fakes
Hwang wears dark, rectangular glasses that echo his square face and possesses a self-assured demeanor that belies his age—though he does tend to punctuate sentences with a rhetorical-sounding “Right?” His ambitions, however, are nothing if not grown-up. “Our goal is to try and create a technology platform that aggregates every law and every regulation that governs all of humanity in every country on the planet,” he told me this spring.
Hwang’s fascination with technology in politics began in high school. He grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland, in a high-class suburb just across the line from DC, and volunteered for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign when he was 15 years old. One of his jobs was organizing busloads of canvassers from reliably Democratic Maryland to visit key battleground precincts in Virginia.
“The culture of the Obama campaign was very startup-oriented, very decentralized, and very metrics-driven,” he says. “We were thinking about how to leverage field data on a day-to-day basis in terms of aligning resources.”
After high school Hwang attended Princeton University, where he took courses in algorithms, statistics, and public policy. In his senior year, he built an automated script that aggregated the privacy policies of the top 1,000 websites as ranked by Amazon’s web analytics company, Alexa (not to be confused with its digital assistant). He found that most websites weren’t complying with privacy regulations. That discovery became the germ for FiscalNote, and in 2013, at age 21, he went west with three colleagues to try to bootstrap a company. Too poor to pay San Francisco rents, the four ended up sharing a $70-a-night Motel 6 room. “We honestly didn’t know what the hell we were doing,” he says. Today their office commands the sixth floor of an office building on Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House and the US Capitol.
With FiscalNote, Hwang wanted to make government data more useful by organizing it so that companies and organizations—and their lobbyists—could better predict what new laws and regulations would mean for them. As he told Politico in January, the company’s technology can “enable the top attorney at McDonald’s to immediately understand every single law and regulation pertaining to their industry.”
The cleverness of his platform lies in the way it synthesizes myriad sources of data: hundreds of government websites, the text of reports published by the Congressional Budget Office and the Congressional Research Service, the rulings of regulatory agencies, lawmakers’ voting records, and much more. A 46-person research and development team—split among squads tasked with data ingestion, data management, web applications, development operations, quality assurance, and product management—is constantly scraping the web, grabbing data sets, organizing them, and structuring them to make the text searchable. The scale is daunting: contact information for more than 78,000 elected officials (and their staffs) worldwide, public policy documents from 22 countries, and every regulation from every US regulatory agency going back 110 years.
But simply gaining a consolidated source of information isn’t why groups from Toyota to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals pay anywhere from $10,000 to several hundred thousand dollars a year for access. FiscalNote can gauge a bill’s chances of becoming law. Its algorithms can also assess how effective individual legislators are, as measured by legislative accomplishments, the party makeup of the legislature, and whether the bills they’ve backed were aimed at changing laws or were merely resolutions, memorials, or commendations. “Anyone can get data. It’s really much more about connecting all of the disparate data that has traditionally existed and helping you derive insights from it,” says Gerald Kierce-Iturrioz, the company’s product marketing manager.
That kind of insight can make lobbyists better at their jobs, says Rebecca Mark, a former congressional staffer who was most recently head of public affairs and policy at Cruise Automation, a company developing autonomous vehicles. To convince policymakers to support a proposal, “you have to explain why it’s good for business, why it’s good for the American public, and why it’s good for the policymaker,” she says. But lobbyists don’t necessarily have access to hard data to back their claims. “That’s why a tool like FiscalNote will make it easier and more efficient to do that job,” Mark says.
FiscalNote showed off its data skills in 2017, when it analyzed each of the 22 million comments made on the Federal Communications Commission’s website about the agency’s proposed plan to repeal net neutrality. The company determined that 19 million commenters opposed the repeal. But it also discovered that hundreds of thousands of pro-repeal comments were written by bots using natural-language generation, an artificial-intelligence technique that simulates human language. Using its own tools for natural-language analysis, FiscalNote showed that each fraudulent comment consisted of 35 phrases arranged in the same order but varied by plugging in up to 25 interchangeable words and phrases, a system designed to make comments appear unique. It wasn’t just net neutrality’s opponents who relied on automation, though; FiscalNote also discovered thousands of pro-neutrality comments that turned out to be auto-generated letters, with slight variations, selected by visitors to a website created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights advocacy group. In a blog post, the company said the debate over net neutrality “serves as a prominent warning that, soon enough, the distinction between human- and computer-generated language may be nearly impossible to draw.” FiscalNote, Hwang says, was able to make that distinction almost instantaneously.
FiscalNote can also alert clients to laws or proposals that will affect them, Hwang says. This spring, analysts at Southwest Airlines, using the platform, learned of a legislative meeting in which the airport authority in the state of Rhode Island would argue for a bill to tax fuel bought at T. F. Green, the state’s largest airport. Southwest dispatched representatives to the state, where airlines and an airline advocacy association managed to beat back the bill.
Hwang says that a future version of FiscalNote can assimilate what clients have been doing on the platform and even recommend new political strategies. “I don’t think we’ve tapped into the true potential of the work we do just yet,” he says.
So does a service like FiscalNote make lobbying more egalitarian or less? It depends whom you ask.
Hwang portrays it as a way to level the playing field in politics. “Now, whether you’re a local union or a mega-corporation, you can get the same information around the ideology of lawmakers,” he says. “It’s a different world in which the tools and the information that used to only be available for the wealthiest, most connected lobbyists and politicians and organizations can now be distributed across the world.”
This view gets support from Christian Hoehner, the policy director of the Data Coalition, a K Street trade association that lobbies to make government data more readily available and transparent. Hoehner is a fan of FiscalNote, and uses it in his job. “It helps us figure out who the key players are, start tracking bills, and set up alerts,” Hoehner says. “If you didn’t use FiscalNote, you’d lose the ability to quickly find members of Congress and their staff representatives. At a very high level, FiscalNote helps democratize the government affairs function. It helps a small team be effective.”
Lorelei Kelly, however, is not quite as sanguine. She runs the Resilient Democracy Coalition at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center, where she studies how Congress can function better in the digital era. Even for small groups, she points out, FiscalNote costs several thousand dollars. “It optimizes certain information for people who can afford it,” she says. “But the cost for participating in democracy should be zero. So unless something like this is available to citizens, it’s not democratic.”
Tim LaPira, a political science professor at James Madison University, takes a similar view. A former researcher for the Center for Responsive Politics, where he created a database on lobbying now available on OpenSecrets.org, he argues that FiscalNote will help the strong get stronger: it puts a wealth of information in powerful hands, making it easier for lobbyists to zero in on targets and protect their clients’ preferred positions. The real work of lobbying, LaPira says, involves tireless efforts not to usher in new laws but to prevent old ones from changing. FiscalNote, he adds, is going to aid that kind of obstruction “more than it’s going to help the little guy get something to happen.”
The criticisms rankle Hwang. The business of Washington is always and inherently human, he says, and FiscalNote can’t replace that human work; it only provides data. How that data is used is up to his clients. “To be in Washington is to have an opinion, and a tool like FiscalNote is a pretty substantial weapon to advance your agenda,” he says. As more data goes digital, he adds, the machinations of how policy is made will become more transparent. In Hwang’s version of Washington, even the smallest voices will be able to be heard over the din of the political class. And when that happens, the desires of voters, not the forces of technology, will shape political outcomes. Right?
Andrew Zaleski is a writer based near Washington, DC, who covers science, technology, and business.
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June 11-12, 2019