Brains Behind A Brand: Alice Kahrmann Interviews Jon Mark Walls of GovFaces

If anyone missed the news, there’s an election headed for the UK. Yes, the parties are mobilising troops, emails have converted to frantic texts procuring help for imminent action days in swing constituencies. The UK, highly politicised at the best of times, is on high grade alert. So it’s with interest I come across a new professional network for politicians soon to launch in the UK (three weeks and counting), one already rolled out across Europe to maximum effect, a platform with quite the mission statement, to encourage debate; yes, to link politicians to each other but most of all to open up a channel of communication between MPs and their constituents, a kind of Linkedin with an onus on transparency, ease of communication and (ahem) professionalism. Badly needed methinks. And it’s all headed up by the Jon Mark Walls, originally from Tennessee, a serious orator, vernacular peppered with entrepereurial rhetoric (no surprise he’s just done a TED talk, in Athens no less, more of that later) and also he used to work in the Director General’s Office of the UN in Geneva and as well as for former President Jimmy Carter at the Cater Center.

"Having gone through the full range of markets the UK provided a really good point of entry,", he says of the timely decision to launch here. "We’re still working our butts off to try and get in contact with MPs, anyone involved in politics or who has any interest in politics."

Going further back, the journey started at The St Gallen Symposium in 2012, where Walls ran into a Mexican biofuels entrepreneur, named Daniel Gomez, a day before the conference, 'over a hamburger.' "He was young, he was also invited to the conference, he was actually named in Forbes' Top 30 Under 30. Having launched govfaces.com in 2011, he was looking for someone to take the mantle, "it had kind of came to the point where it had gone past their expertise and the energy that they had because a lot of them were really busy guys so we discussed it and it was right up my alley," says Walls. "I have done political communications at the higher levels," as acertained. "That was my background and I picked up on it and I immediately saw the need and that there was not a social media network on the order of Linkedin, in the political space and especially one that was scalable, that had the potential to be a global brand."

Primarily Walls and his team focused on "nailing down the one thing that could transfer across markets and cultures and political systems, in the same way that the CV for Linkedin was a starting point. The mechanism we identified was an upvote, down vote moderated community, a discussion board with a politician behind it, making that mechanism and functionality the same for every one onboard, whether it’s a citizen, an NGO, or David Cameron, and then around that very simple mechanism creating a very specialised architecture to capture the business value that that mechanism can hopefully produce."

Quite the manifesto. "One of my favourite quotes was by the founder of Airbnb - 'How do you solve the chicken and egg problem?'" Walls says. "You solve it by creating a farm." And create a farm they did, but the process is not without its challenges. "More broadly making it live up to its potential, this is not just a Candy Crush app knock off. Because it’s such a delicate space, because you’re talking money and power and influence, the entrenched interests are so deep, you’re looking at creating something that would have impact, so when we look at any small change of behaviour on a scale, you need to maintain the integrity of your brand. To define your brand, to know who you are, to know how you spin it - that’s critical because especially when you’re talking politics, it really gets really tricky."

So now to the upcoming election in the UK... How does govfaces.com hope to make its mark? "We’re taking a very humble approach." Walls says, "We’ve seen a lot of startups fail in our arena because they’ve got too top heavy; they’ve shot for meteoric growth from day one and then they realise the ecosystem and the building blocks around their network were not balanced. Yes, of course there’s a reason why we’re in the UK now and we’re excited, but for us it’s more of an opportunity to get some air under the wings, and to really jump into a time slot when people are talking about this stuff." Of course there’s also long term strategy to consider, he continues, "We’re thinking just as much about after the elections, because there’s a lot of flash, a lot of flair and a lot of excitement. In the UK especially there’s a lot of talk about politics on a daily basis whether you’re in a General Election or not."

Having been so immersed in the political sphere for so long, what advice can Walls offer to politicians looking to overhaul their public image? I mention the Youtube video Ed Miliband repeats himself, if you haven’t seen it here’s the link.

"This is how you know you’re way too deep into what you’re doing and you need to get a hobby. I had a dream about pitching this to Ed Miliband," Wall laughs. "Politicians are people, they are not super human and they do not have seventy-two hours in a day. They have families and kids and aside from their political opinions, most of them are just sincere really nice folks, and when you talk about problems that they have, what might need to be changed and why people are so angry, I really think it centres on perception. Just feeling the disconnection, a feeling of stratification of society, people don’t like feeling left out. If it’s a policy or a law or an act, it can be interpreted in countless ways and there’s just no way to please everyone. At those levels, any decision you make is going to be controversial. Politicians want to do the right thing, and so what we’re saying is 'You know, look, either you make a decision, make a statement, do something - may be there’s a big controversy; one option is to leave it open.' One option is to let the social media population just go crazy, and it’s just going to kind of fester, or you can give yourself a podium because Twitter and Facebook are not podiums for engagement, what they amount to are basically 21st century megaphones. And you can stand behind our podium and you can receive what amount to a cleanly packaged set of reverse tweets; simple, but direct, very targeted messages. We call them community conversations. And you can receive that, you can deal with it. I think once people see politicians answering in a sincere way, directly looking them in the eye, little by little, there’s no panacea but little by little they can start to build trust."

And how easily are politicians taking to the platform? "Whether it takes two minutes or twenty minutes to explain the added value of what we’re doing, they usually come away recognising two things; they come in knowing that they have a really bad efficiency problem, in terms of how they manage their verbal communications with constituents and people they’re supposed to interact with. But their currency is influence, votes and their level of power so to speak. So we go to them and we say, 'Hey look, we know you have an efficiency problem, we know that you would much rather have your question upvoted 300 hundred times rather than 300 questions sent to you directly, which is impossible and we know too that an impersonal copy pasted response is just not what people want to get. They can read through it. So we’re giving you the opportunity to touch people very graciously.' At the end when you walk out the sell and the added value, it's pretty clear, it just depends on the politicians’ willingness and desire to do it. But it’s all pretty positive."

And last but certainly not least, back to that TED talk, a moment Walls cites as amongst the most rewarding thus far. "I was standing with a couple of people from that TED talk, two Greek American people. One was an architect and one was an investor, I was sitting there explaining the platform to these people and they had some minor political activity there and I found myself explaining what I see as this new tool. A tool that could help make a shift in the way thing are done. Explaining this to them in the middle of the ancient Agora, in the Acropolis, was really cool because I had just given this TED talk about why 'Twitter Can Spark a Revolution but Not Build a Country' and you had that and then the day after, I’m sitting there in the middle of the place where democracy started, talking with people whose ancestors invented the idea of a government for the people by the people about a tool that really does have the potential to add a footnote to that history. That was one really cool moment, and it was just last week. Six months ago I was in India, the world's largest democracy, doing another TED talk and I spent eight days, speaking with everyone, including journalists, politicians, civil society and business organizations about what a tool like GovFaces could do for political engagement in a country as complex and unique as theirs. It was equally rewarding and, if it all stopped now, those would be two pretty cool moments pitching to the world's first and the world's largest markets for democracy."

No doubt others are surely soon to follow. For Jon Mark Walls is well on his way. Thank the Lord - just in time for the General Election.

Interview by Alice Kahrmann, January 2015
2013