By Brad Lichtenstein
Director, As Goes Janesville
Inspired by the Independent Lens film As Goes Janesville, the BizVizz app serves as the transmedia component of the documentary, enlightening users how specific companies behave when it comes to corporate and social responsibility.
There’s a scene in As Goes Janesville (airing tonight on Independent Lens), towards the end, where the city council votes to approve a $9 million incentive package for Shine Medical Technologies. Shine is a startup looking for a town in which to set up their medical isotope operation and, like many companies, it is compelling cities to compete with offers. Though Janesville is desperate for jobs after losing their GM plant, $9 million is 20% of their budget. This is the scene that inspired BizVizz, our corporate accountability app.
I was aghast when filming this scene. There was no public hearing prior to the vote. There was no public disclosure of a third party audit of Shine Medical. While the City Manager of Janesville expressed some reservations to me on camera, there was barely an opportunity, through the media or otherwise, for those reservations to be discussed by the taxpayers who were footing the bill. What galled me was not so much the gamble with public money, but how the democratic process was subverted. A selected handful of business leaders working behind closed doors with the city council were deciding what to do with the public’s money.
One brave guy stood up just before the city council vote and said “ I feel like a pair of brown shoes in a room full of tuxedos….nine million dollars…maybe 125 jobs…no guarantees.” That’s what I felt like with my camera, observing this unfold: a pair of brown shoes in a room full of tuxedos. I badgered my subjects with questions about why this deal was never put before the public but none of them felt that democracy required the public to know or engage more, beyond the role city council played.
What happened in Janesville happens everyday in America.
BizVizz is an attempt to give the public more access to corporate behavior. Corporations spend millions on their image and message so that we don’t question what they do. We figured people might like to know how much a company pays in taxes, if they receive government subsidies, and who they support with campaign contributions. All the information found on BizVizz is shareable on Facebook and Twitter, helping to put a little power back into the hands of ordinary people.
I’ve been involved in a lot of engagement work, but one aspect that’s different this time is that BizVizz doesn’t really drive a lot eyeballs to our movie. The fact is, As Goes Janesville is so character-driven that it’s not easy to pick out scenes to support the app.
No matter the form of engagement, partners make it work. From the vast amount of research behind the app’s data to sourcing content and taking advantage of potential reach, our partner’s have helped to further the message of As Goes Janesville, long after the October premiere.
But there’s a personal reason why I like our partners too. I felt it most keenly when I attended Tax Justice Network’s board meeting to ask for support for BizVizz. Everyone there was as Pollyannaish as me about how democracy ought to work. I didn’t feel like “a pair of brown shoes in a room full of tuxedos.” Nor should any citizen feel that way just because they want transparency and corporate accountability. That’s the purpose of BizVizz.