Interview with TheChisel.com

In the age of group-think and deep political division nationwide that characterized the recent presidential election and its aftermath, any project aimed at finding common ground seems doomed. Yet what could be more important as the country faces critical domestic and foreign challenges going forward?

This call is being answered via an online platform, theChisel.com, which facilitates voter participation in crafting proposals, co-authored by experts from both sides of the political aisle.

Image of a square thought blurb with a chisel symbol in the middle. This is TheChisel's website logo.

TheChisel is an online tool to empower American voters by informing them about major issues and enabling them to engage with experts in developing bipartisan solutions.

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor last June, Michael Gerzon highlighted TheChisel.com as a leading innovator in Civic Tech 3.0’s “touchscreen democracy,” which “turns voters into policy makers.” As the author of The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide (published in February 2016),
Gerzon’s endorsement was significant. As he noted, TheChisel.com is not a mere
feel-good exercise in building “consensus-driven solutions” but works with
participating organizations to send proposals to Congress.

360 Review sat down recently with Deborah Devedjian, TheChisel’s Founder and
Chief Citizens’ Officer (her coinage), to explore this intriguing new direction in
healing the nation’s cultural and political divide in an angry era that the ancient
Greeks, who birthed democracy, would describe as choleric.

Devedjian is a graduate of Yale University who earned an MBA at Harvard University. She worked for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and
launched the Education & Training Investment Group at Warburg Pincus,
one of the world’s largest global private equity firms. Devedjian consulted for the Boston Consulting Group and founded Copernicus Learning Ventures. Also,
she served as president of the Marple Newtown (Pennsylvania) Board of
Education and as a Fellow at the U.S. Army War College.

360 Review: What is TheChisel and who is your audience?
DLD: TheChisel is an online tool to empower American voters by informing them about major issues and enabling them to engage with experts in developing bipartisan solutions. Our audience is everyone—all Americans.  We’re all in this together, from the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or to a homemaker with young children. Each proposal is accessible to everyone. 

360 Review: How does TheChisel work?
DLD: We find the most promising and innovative policy proposals from leading think tanks and research groups. All proposals go through a vetting process to ensure bipartisanship, credibility and rigorous analysis. We host proposals only from nonpartisan organizations or bipartisan coalitions of experts. TheChisel is about finding common solutions, not recreating the stuck debates on Capitol Hill.

Second, our skilled team presents the proposal on TheChisel.com in a fun and easy-to-understand way. All our proposals can be read in a few minutes. 

Then TheChisel’s groundbreaking technology allows unprecedented discussion and collaboration to refine these proposals. Citizens interact with each other but also with the proposal’s experts. The experts constantly review comments and modify the proposal as they see fit—but only if all experts agree to the change. Lastly, users vote on the proposal and if the majority votes ‘yes,’ TheChisel works to garner media attention for the proposal to get passed in Congress. 

360 Review: So, what kind of proposals are on TheChisel?
DLD: TheChisel launched with four very different proposals on corporate income tax, campaign finance, farm subsidies and redesigning the $10 bill. Upcoming proposals concern healthcare for veterans, infrastructure, student debt, guns, family leave, carbon tax and prisons. 

In the case of campaign finance, we introduced authors from Take Back our Republic (conservative) and U.S. PIRG (liberal). They created TheChisel’s first campaign finance proposal—tax credits for small donors.

Experts from the American Enterprise Institute (conservative) and Brookings/Urban Tax Policy Center (liberal) presented their joint corporate income tax reform proposal for public online discussion. The public feedback enabled them to improve the proposal, and version 2 is now posted on our website. 

360 Review: What other content does TheChisel offer?
DLD: A proposal on the desk of a lawmaker is an end goal, but informing voters is just as important. So we created ChiselBits—short, easy to understand infographics that chisel away the media frenzy and political poppycock to present information readers can trust. 

Our government does such a poor job communicating that most Americans don’t understand our own political system. During the presidential primaries, we released ChiselBits on “Superdelegates” and “Contested Conventions.” 

360 Review: How does technology influence democracy?
DLD: Before America was founded, the printing press allowed our Founding Fathers to spread free speech across America. Benjamin Franklin used The Pennsylvania Gazette to inform Americans, free of British propaganda. Franklin’s iconic “Join or Die” cartoon inspired the 13 states to work past their differences.

The Internet is a continuation of the printing press. Politicians spend billions of dollars on ad campaigns to assert their version of the truth, but the Internet allows everyday Americans to come together for virtual town hall meetings to find collective solutions to our country’s issues. 

360 Review: How does TheChisel function as a leader in “Civic Tech 3.0”—whatever that is?
DLD: Civic tech is about harnessing the power of technology to allow citizens to rule themselves. Civic Tech 1.0 gathered citizens in large numbers, with things like teleconferencing. Civic Tech 2.0 allowed citizens to interact with policy makers on platforms such as “PopVox.” Civic Tech 3.0 turns voters into policy makers. That’s what TheChisel is at its core. 

360 Review: How did you come up with the name for your company?
DLD: TheChisel is a tool. It metaphorically cuts away the media and politicians’ noise, jargon, yapping, confusing or purposefully misleading information, and weak analysis. The chisel sculpts a proposal down to its core with different people chiseling away, polishing it from different perspectives. 

360 Review: For a topic like firearms, how do you “chisel” all agendas away to find objective information? Is it even possible?
DLD: Creating ChiselBits requires loads of time, energy and scrutiny. We scour every primary source from every angle of the debate, using a series of methods to determine their bias. With a topic like guns, it’s almost impossible to find neutral sources. But two sources with diametrically opposed agendas can have very similar information underlying them.

The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence ranks states by how “smart” their gun laws are. Gunsandammo.com ranks the best states for gun owners. Both are unabashedly one-sided, but their rankings are almost the exact same—just in reverse order. Our analysis found their methodologies to be virtually identical, and both very credible. It’s about keeping a strict balance between both sides.  

360 Review: How do bipartisan proposals developed on TheChisel get to Congress or to state legislatures?
DLD: We work with think tanks whose experts might already have relationships with members of Congress or legislators. Other times, our vast network of advisors, experts, media and other civic leaders have connections. The media is increasingly picking up on our work—and media coverage draws attention from lawmakers.  

360 Review: What made you start TheChisel?
DLD: Many people view the world as a zero-sum game. Whether it’s family squabbles or international diplomacy, there are always groups with different perspectives. But there’s usually a unifying goal. The trick is fusing the best ideas from each group into a consensus-driven solution.

360 Review: Easier said than done.
DLD: Yes, it’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle and not knowing what the picture is. Our nation can’t wait for people in power to do the right thing. Congressional incumbents get reelected 90 percent of the time, even though Congress has a 14-percent approval rate. I wanted to empower voters to transcend our broken political system and have a direct say in policymaking.

Take the recent presidential debates. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, the League of Women voters hosted the debates. In 1988, the two major parties took control of the questions. Since then, it’s been usurped by the “Commission on Presidential Debates” controlled entirely by the Democratic and Republican parties. Every question is carefully selected to avoid embarrassing either party. It’s a complete dog and pony show.

360 Review: When both sides present completely incompatible information, what then?
DLD: We evaluate their methodologies. Then the experts from both sides review the material to make sure we haven’t missed something. Let’s take unemployment. One organization says unemployment is at 5 percent, while another says it’s 18 percent. TheChisel establishes a common ground of definitions and assumptions so that our users can engage in meaningful discussions.

360 Review: Have you rejected any proposals?
DLD: Yes, sometimes an organization says, “It’s my way or the highway.” That attitude violates the spirit of open-mindedness and critical thinking. Most of the proposals that we turn down are too vague.

360 Review: Ben Franklin is your “Chief Inspiration Officer.” Why is that?
DLD: Benjamin Franklin is the consummate American: entrepreneur, international statesman, inventor, scientist and publisher.  He founded the University of Pennsylvania and our postal service. Franklin was also the only Founding Father to sign each of our country’s four founding documents.

We want to “be like Ben” who brought people together from opposing perspectives, such as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Franklin wasn’t pushing a political agenda, nor are we pushing one. He optimized consensus decision-making, which made economic and moral sense, to forge a prosperous, equitable and secure democracy. Franklin was a catalyst and facilitator—exactly what we aspire to be.