Em Burnett (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
advertisementSmiley face

The 30-year-old strategist behind Kate Snyder’s successful campaign for mayor – a self-described civic technology evangelist who can sometimes be seen sporting “Zoning Laws are Sexy” temporary tattoos – has a broad vision of open government and lots of ideas for ways to improve citizen engagement. 

“I would say political campaigns have kind of a cookie-cutter playbook,” Em Burnett said. “That’s raise as much money as possible, get all your high profile endorsements, get up on TV, send a bunch of mail. We didn’t do it that way.” 

At their bright 4th-floor office on the corner of Congress and High streets, Burnett (who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns) spoke about the campaign, civic tech and what comes next.

Burnett has said the Snyder campaign was among the most gratifying professional experiences of their life. As a digital engagement consultant, they often work on small pieces of projects – social media messaging, for example – but the Snyder campaign was a chance to develop strategy and make decisions about spending, and to provide input with the team into the vision and direction of the whole project.

There were several things that made the campaign unique, Burnett said. Since digital is their element, it was front and center in the campaign. Burnett designed Snyder’s website and composed every piece of online communication.

“I am really good at writing in Kate’s voice right now,” they said. 

Em Burnett: “The real problem I see isn’t necessarily that there are all these bad actors out there that want to sabotage the city, but the problem is that only a few people know how to engage in the process.” (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Burnett said they also concentrated most of their spending within Portland. They used a local designer and a local print shop, and Burnett, as campaign manager, was the only paid staffer. 

Working briefly for a political marketing firm in California and witnessing its unscrupulous gathering and sharing of personal contact information informed Burnett’s ethics around political technology. They developed a privacy policy for the campaign and said it was the only mayoral campaign to do so. 

As fulfilling as the Snyder campaign was, Burnett said their passion is nonpartisan citizen engagement, but politics pays the bills. 

Burnett grew up in the village of Springvale in Sanford and attended Sanford High School. They studied international development at McGill University in Montreal, and in 2012 helped get the late state Rep. Bill Noon, D-Sanford, elected by 19 votes. Burnett worked on six campaigns that year, and considered it their “crowning achievement” until Snyder’s win.

A turning point came shortly after those elections when Burnett interviewed for a job as a legislative clerk. Having had several jobs as a tech-literate, social-media guru, Burnett understood that they don’t do well working within a system that is set up poorly without the ability to change it. They asked the interviewer if they would be able to, perhaps, take over the social media pages for the House Democrats, or to reform the online system of tracking legislative bills because it is so complicated for a lay person to understand.

Burnett was told they would likely not thrive in the position if that was what they wanted to do.

Burnett went home and Googled “government innovation.” A TED talk came up by Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, an organization that enlists coders and designers to help improve citizen engagement in government.

In her talk, Pahlka highlighted apps their coders developed that help crowdsource government tasks that were neglected due to lack of resources — for example, shoveling out fire hydrants in Boston after snow storms. The apps were successful and spread organically because they connected citizens to each other and involved game-like elements.

“Government should work more like the Internet itself, and that means permissionless, it means open and it means generative,” Pahlka said in her talk. “(These apps represent) how a new generation is tackling government, not as a problem of an ossified institution but as a problem of collective action, and we are very good at collective action with digital technology.”

Burnett was hooked. 

At 23, they gave an impassioned talk about the need for open data to the Biddeford City Council. One councilor said TV corrupted us and the Internet is going to do the same. Burnett didn’t argue with him, but knew he had a misconception of how the technology worked. 

They applied to found a local chapter of Code for America, and started Open Maine, one of the first 10 chapters of the organization. They also joined the National Advisory Council, a role Burnett still holds. 

Open Maine, consisting of volunteers who meet monthly in Portland and Augusta, has been working to improve citizen engagement in local government. This is the first step to addressing bigger problems in municipalities, Burnett said. 

“The real problem I see isn’t necessarily that there are all these bad actors out there that want to sabotage the city, but the problem is that only a few people know how to engage in the process,” Burnett said. “We have a housing crisis, but the only people who go to zoning meetings are older homeowners who don’t want to see their neighborhoods change, but they don’t reflect the city.” 

At a civic design fest the group organized in 2017, one of the ideas to emerge was a new layout for the City Council Chambers to make the experience of speaking there less intimidating for residents who are new to the process. Open Maine also created a “journey map” listing every step to applying for a permit or license from the city. This could help someone understand where to begin if, for example, they wanted to transform their garage into an in-law apartment. 

“Developers know this,” Burnett said. “It’s like a whole reason why certain fields exist is because they’re able to understand building codes and the permitting process.” 

Open Maine is now developing a system to visualize Portland’s municipal campaign finance information, which can be seen at openmaine.org/campaign/information.html.

Burnett also wants to make access to data on the city’s website more user friendly. 

“If you’re doing your taxes and want to access information … or if you want to see how (Councilor) Pious Ali voted on a proposal three years ago, you have to go 50 pages deep into Word docs in Portland’s government website,” they said.

Part of the problem is the procurement process for government software. 

State or municipal requests for proposals often list extensive experience designing, building and implementing similar complete systems in other states or municipalities as a required qualification. This narrows the pool of companies that can submit proposals to a few large players. Code for America advocates for a modular procurement model, where projects are broken down into smaller components and contracts awarded for individual pieces. 

Burnett noted that Texas-based Tyler Technologies, which designed much of Portland’s business software, including its citizen access portal, has been involved in lawsuits over problems in the “Odyssey” software it designed for California courts that led in some cases to the wrong person being arrested. 

“That’s some of the reason why we have such crappy civic engagement in Portland,” Burnett said. “They’re locked into a contract.” 

Ultimately, Burnett said, Open Maine would need a university or government partner for its projects to be fully realized. In the meantime, Burnett is working on improving civic tech and citizen engagement tangentially by electing good public servants, and through their digital consulting business, Sylvan Strategies.

“My door is open if a government or a public agency would like me to come help them,” Burnett said. “That’s what I’m here for.”