by Sarah Hunt

Imagine if you could sit down with your political leaders and just say it like it is. What would you ask Ted Bailleu, Julia Gillard or even Ban Ki-moon over a coffee? 

For social entrepreneurs Eyal Halamish and Gautam Raju, representative democracy isn’t just some quaint Greco-Roman pastime. In 2010, they created OurSay with colleagues Linh Do and Matthew Gordon, an innovative website designed to engage younger audiences in our political process.  

Much like ABC’s QnA program, OurSay brings questions from the community to the people in power. The website allows users to post a question to politicians and vote up to seven times for other questions they would also like answered. The site then connects  the online communities with live events, bringing politicians and question makers together.

As part of a generation who are often categorized as politically disengaged, it seems that the OurSay crew are achieving the feat of making politics cool once more.

How did you come up with the original OurSay concept?

Gautam: In 2008, I was working in government and I was thinking that what they were doing wasn’t engaging young people.

Eyal: Also, we realised there was a clear gap between the places where decisions are made and where we as a generation organise ourselves on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, so we wanted to build something that would bridge that gap.

Tell us about the state and federal election OurSay forums.

E: During the 2010 federal election young people in Melbourne logged onto OurSay and voted for questions they cared about. The top three questions were answered by Greens candidate Adam Bandt and Labor candidate Cath Bowtell. We got about 800 active users and over 5000 people viewing the site.

For the state election we focused on the seat of Brunswick and we brought the candidate for the Labor party, the Greens and the Independent to answer their top three questions at the Penny Black pub.

There wasn’t a Liberal party member present on either of the those two OurSays. Why was that?

E: We actively pursued the Liberal candidate both times and we felt it was quite critical to our platform success. It’s our goal in future seats to ensure that the Liberal party is present, but if they choose not to it’s not something we can control.

Do you think political leaders might be suspicious of a platform like OurSay?

E: We are now living an era of hyper transparency and engagement. Some politicians are uncomfortable with that new reality and they aren’t sure what that means for their reputation.

This platform is about making the process of engagement easy, so we can direct issues at politicians and they can respond in person. We believe this is the way politicians need to interact with their constituents in the future.

Are either of you a members of a political party?

G&E: No.

Why do you think there is a shift away from ‘on the streets’ political participation for young people?

G: We meet a lot of brilliant young people, it’s just that times have changed and we need to move to platforms where people are already engaged. Bring them the space and young people will engage.

How do you fund OurSay?

E: Initially, we crowd sourced funding and we also had an angel investor to help us build the site. We think we can make our social enterprise sustainable and we are looking to innovate to do that.

G: Also, we have committed hours and hours to this process and it’s on a volunteer basis.

Only the questions with the highest votes go to the candidates. Is this populist approach always best?

E: I think the game behind the site is really important. People are interested in the competitive spirit behind politics and we want users not just be keyboard activists, but own the issues they care about.

What kind of outcomes have you seen as a result of what you have done?

E: Because the OurSays have been during the elections, we think they would affect people’s choices in the polling booths.

Also, the integration of social and traditional media really enables us to draw attention to issues on OurSay and vice versa. So people on the radio, for example, would ask us what is the number one issue on OurSay and all of a sudden you see an issue being put on the national [broadcast] agenda as a result of OurSay.

Recently we’ve seen the power of social media in countries like Iran and Egypt to mobilize large groups of people around political issues. Do you envisage OurSay could have that kind of impact?

E: Definitely. We’d like to drive this in Australia right now, but our vision is to go global. We would like people anywhere in the world to jump onto OurSay, write a question about something they care about and have their question targeted at a decision maker.

G: At the moment we are focusing on Brunswick and Melbourne because that is where we live. Eventually we would love to have every state seat on OurSay and have the community driving it.

Finally, if you were asking your own OurSay questions what would you be asking about?

G: I care about asylum seekers and mental health.

E: I care about a lot of environmental, education and Middle Eastern policy issues.

OurSay can be reached at  www.oursay.org. The next OurSay forum will begin in April.