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Cutting edge: Easy to speak up

Shannon Zimmerman

A first-year state lawmaker says what matters most is "the voice of my constituents."

Rep. Shannon Zimmerman (R-River Falls, 30th District), has put that priority into action by developing a new online interactive system.

Called "Zimmerman Connect," the web link is meant to regularly gauge District 30 public opinion on key, emerging topics — from roads and public education to the economy and environment.

Zimmerman said the real-time, interactive link is the first of its kind in Wisconsin politics.

"It's not about me taking a position," Zimmerman said. "It's about taking the pulse of what the people in our district are feeling about an issue."

Succeeding Dean Knudson, Zimmerman was elected assemblyman last fall. This year is his first as a politician. He said both political parties can do better at "engaging their constituents."

Zimmerman can't help but relate politics to business.

His political background is nil, but he co-founded River Falls-based Sajan in 1997, a global translation service provider. He's the company's CEO.

"Too often business owners feel passionately about 'their' product, service or solution," Zimmerman said. "The real test comes when consumers weigh in with their wallet. Do they buy?

"A best practice that I've found over time involves conducting 'voice of market, voice of customer' surveys. This provides the business with valuable input that they may not have been considering.

"I do not pretend to possess all life experiences, so input or perspective from others is vital. Business, by their desire to survive and thrive, must be nimble and efficient. Why can't government take a page from that book?

"That's what I'm trying to do here as a legislator with a direct, interactive line to constituents."

Zimmerman put in perspective the influence Zimmerman Connect polling results will have.

"If it were to have no impact, I'd save myself and all the constituents the time to do this," he said. "My ability to better understand what our neighbors want is very important to me.

"I am a Republican, which means that I do share a specific set of views. However, I am also an American and so too are all those in our community. I am a father, neighbor, business owner and person that I feel possesses common sense. If it is right, it is right, period.

"The surveys are one part of the evaluation process, but a very important one."

Zimmerman said approaching each online topic will vary.

"I care hugely about education," he said. "Is my motivation the same as everyone else? Maybe. I care about education because it is intrinsically tied to employment. Employment is good and based on workforce projections, critically needed to support Wisconsin going forward.

"Will I disagree with some? Sure. However, often constructive disagreement can be good and with this new approach, all will be heard, which may be something that has not historically been possible."

Zimmerman said his new interactive polling may even ease the polarized political atmosphere.

"For some, it has become more about the 'party' or 'team' versus what may be right," he said. "We all need to listen more than we speak. It is simple human psychology, if we put someone on the defensive they will not only not respect those who disagree, but any chance of constructive debate is completely lost.

"Therefore, I am taking this new approach so I can sincerely 'hear' from all. I'll use this to be the best state representative I can be."

"We have such smart, highly intelligent people who care about our assembly district. This isn't about partisan politics. It's about being heard. I will always be open to that."

Zimmerman Connect will highlight timely, often controversial topics, perhaps one a month or as they arise.

As part of the process, Zimmerman will post a short, nonpartisan video explaining the pros and cons of each topic.

After the video, constituents take an online survey and weigh in. Video and survey are accessible from any Internet-connected device.

District 30 constituents will be notified in three ways when a new Zimmerman Connect video and survey appear — through Zimmerman's legislative website, social media and local newspapers.

"I really don't know what to expect with this," Zimmerman said. "We may start out with only 30-50 or maybe 100 people responding. But maybe nine months from now, it grows to 4,000 respondents on a particular issue. That's my hope, anyway."

Each Zimmerman Connect respondent will be asked to provide a valid address. The online system will inspect for duplicates and work to block and remove anyone trying to 'game' the system.

Past survey results will remain posted so that Zimmerman "can continue to recruit constituent input."

Zimmerman, whose company Sajan focuses on cutting-edge technology, says the new online link might be the communicative wave of the future.

"This could be the most effective way to engage citizens," he said. "Other politicians may follow. If that happens we can say we led the way.

"There's a leadership component to this kind of innovation. We can leverage that here...Something like, 'Doggone it, Madison. Pay attention to us in this part of the state.'"

Zimmerman says the new polling technology means there's no excuse for not participating.

"No longer can someone say they were not heard or that they cannot make a difference," he said. "It doesn't get any easier than sitting back on your living room couch, in your shorts, with your hand-held device or laptop, and making an impact on government affairs."

Zimmerman's legislative website, legis.wisconsin.gov/assembly/30/zimmerman/press-releases/, has a link to Zimmerman Connect.

Phil Pfuehler
Phil Pfuehler has been editor of the River Falls Journal since 1991.
(715) 426-1050
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