Web-based Software in the Political World

Originally posted on CompleteCampaigns.com and written by Benjamin A. Katz

Since the early days of professional campaign management, political operatives have been interested in data management — tracking voters, donors and opinion leaders have been key to a successful campaign.  Early data management technology generally consisted of an alphabetized set of index cards.  Over the past 10 years, the tools available to campaigns have dramatically improved in utility, easy of use and accessibility.  Most recently, the rise of web-based software has revolutionized the campaign world, creating a fundamental shift in the way entire campaigns are run. No longer does each field office have to be its own island. We can connect volunteers, consultants, campaign headquarters and district offices in a way that allows all of us to work together. To use one of the new catch-phrases of the Internet, software has become a service.

Welcome to Web 2.0

First used by O’Reilly Media in 2004, the term Web 2.0 refers to the growth of web-applications, especially those focused on collaboration and user-generated content.  While political campaigns are often chasing mainstream technology, they in many ways, they lead the movement towards Web 2.0.  As early as 1999, a few campaigns started using on-line applications to share information between consultants in different locations and local and DC offices.  As Internet access grew and browser technology improved, campaigns were on the forefront of community based technology.  In early 2003, the Dean campaign integrated the community-based tool, Meetup.com, into their campaign organization.  While the Dean campaign was not among the very first users, they were well ahead of the curve.

Today, Web 2.0 has become mainstream, both within the political community and society at large.  With this greater acceptance comes a growth in choices and flexibility; for campaigns, there is both huge potential and significant pitfalls.

Database Management — Web 2.0 Means Sharing Your Toys

One of the unique qualities of a good campaign management program is that it requires campaigns to think in a different way. Instead of having three, four, five or more different storage silos of information – say, one list of volunteers that your field staff controls, one list of donors that your fundraising staff controls, etc. – the idea is to push all of your data into one central repository. It is one place where, ideally, the campaign can conduct all of its activities: accounting, fundraising, volunteers and more.  All the information gathered from each of these different efforts immediately goes into the central data repository.

Many political professionals are used to having their fiefdoms – individual databases that are not shared with other members of the campaign team.  However, this creates huge duplication in data entry and information gaps — often one member of the campaign team will receive new contact information and because they have their own database, this does not get shared with other members of the campaign team.

Today, with web-based software available, there is no reason not to use a single system for your campaign.  It saves you time and money by ensuring the efficient utilization of your human and financial resources.  Your fundraiser should know a donor is also a reliable volunteer.  Your treasurer should have access to the phone numbers the fundraiser entered for the latest campaign event and your campaign manager should be able to instantly access the most recent campaign financials.

With their disparate nature of campaigns, online databases are a critical Web 2.0 tool.

When Good Databases Go Bad

While the value of online databases is tremendous, choosing the wrong vendor can significantly harm a campaign.  Despite the hype of Web 2.0, online tools are fundamentally still just software and poorly programmed tools will still disappoint you.  In evaluating options, campaigns should look carefully at the flexibility of the software and the ease of use.  Perhaps more critically, inquire into the depth of testing (has it survived several campaign cycles or is it fresh out of the gate?) and customer satisfaction.

While the benefits of online tools ensure that nearly all of these systems exceed the utility of desktop software there remains a huge variation in the quality and functionality of these tools.

Voter Contact in an Online World

I always thought it somewhat ironic and rather painful how campaigns send armies of volunteers and staff walking door to door. The canvasser talks to a resident and finds out the issue this voter really cares about is health care. Then the next week, during the campaign’s big push for education, they send that resident an email about education. The field team and the Web team aren’t talking.

This isn’t the only disconnect in politics. Take my next example: direct mail. When the consultants who create and send all the direct mail for a campaign do not talk to the people doing the door- to-door canvassing, even the most devoted supporter can become, well, overwhelmed. I have heard of voters who actually pick up the phone and call the campaign to say “I said I’m voting for you. Stop sending me all this junk mail!”

In the end, it comes down to realcommunication.  Instead of broadcasting a message at voters, if you can have a more directed conversation then you can avoid wasting money on pointless communication. When you speak someone’s language (when you talk to somebody about the issues that you know they care deeply about), then you cannot lose them. Good conversations lead to a more effective campaign.

Strangely, much of this Web 2.0 style of communication actually happens off-line, talking to voters when walking, calling or at events.  The key is integration and facilitating two way conversations.

It all boils down to this: the more information you have going into one place, the more data the campaign compiles. The more data you compile, the higher quality conversations you can have. Conversations do not simply refer to communications with the voter. Data management enhances the conversations your campaign has with everyone involved in the campaign – from the strategy department to the consultants to the volunteers. This, in turn, allows the campaign to communicate better with voters.

Quality control — Good Data Doesn’t Just Happen

Data management isn’t about throwing all kinds of dubious, old, or useless information from an untrackable number of sources into a large pot. Campaigns need to control the entire data process – from what information they want to collect to who collects it and who has access to it.

This starts with security.  For example, you might want to give a campaign staffer the ability to enter any piece of information in the database, but not edit the information fields or change the way you set up the database. Another staffer might be able to edit the database, but not to run reports.  Even more critically, good campaign security needs to control access to different types of information.  The volunteer coordinator needs unlimited ability to enter information and run reports on volunteers but probably does not need to be able to see financial information.  For larger campaigns, this can be further supplemented with geographic based access. One person might have access to all the voters in your database who live in precincts one through 10, while somebody else has access to 11 to 20. Even further down you might have people who only have the access to voters in a given precinct.

Beyond security, quality data requires an active process of data maintenance and updates.  When sending out a broadcast email, it’s important to manage the bounced messages – update or delete invalid email addresses either manually or preferably via software tools.  A similar process is necessary for postal mail and phone numbers.  Likewise, any actively used database will undoubtedly develop duplicate records and manual or automated process to remove duplicates is a necessity.

However, in the Web 2.0 world, you can now allow your volunteer, donors and even voters to update their own information – providing you with new contact information and critical demographic knowledge.  Obviously, most campaigns have a well deserved fear of too much outside access but properly designed tools can allow you to allow outside data entry while preventing data loss.

State and FEC filing – Accounting on the Web

Campaign accounting can be a complicated and costly endeavor, if not done properly. Federal and state regulations require a campaign’s best efforts to report accurately.  Without proper tools, accountants should count the days until they are fined.

The growth of web-based software has been a boon to both professional and volunteer campaign treasurers as it has eased the process of generating accurate campaign reports quickly.

The most critical benefit has been via the creation of integrated databases that allow the accountant to quickly and easily share information with the rest of the campaign team.  This minimizes the amount of data entry the accountant needs to do, allows the easy “farming out” of tasks such as getting addresses and occupations and makes it easier for other keys staffers, such as the campaign manager, to review financials and thus catch mistakes before they become serious.

Additionally, the growth in online fundraising has created another time-saver for campaigns, as donors are now responsible for their own data entry.  With the proper tools, all of the contributor’s information can be directly added to the accountant’s records.

Perhaps most critical to political campaign treasurers is the ability for online software providers to rapidly develop and update their software in response to the changing requirements of various governing bodies.  The FEC, state and local agencies will regularly reinterpret and clarify reporting requirements, leaving campaigns often with only a few days to adjust their filings to meet these new requirements.  With inflexible desktop software, campaigns are typically unable to comply.  Online tools, when fully supported, allow for rapid software development to adjust for these changing needs, despite the tight time frame.

Of course, none of these advantages will matter if the software is not properly built.  If the tool you are using to generate these reports is not integrated into your accounting system, and you are not able to conduct bank reconciliations with it or view an edit log, then there is just no practical way to make a good effort at accurate reporting. 

A good system, in addition to these features, will also have tools to aid in the creation of accurate and complete reports.  For example, if a donor does not report his or her employer, a well designed system will warn you before you file. These are the kinds of missing details that can cause a lot of heartbreak and waste a lot of time if they are not addressed as quickly as possible within the campaign.

Putting the Service in Software-As-A-Service

For some companies, the move to online software is simply an evolution.  Web-based software is simply the newest incarnation of the software they have provided for years.  However, for others, Web 2.0 reflects not an upgrade but an entirely new philosophy in how to best assist campaigns.

For this second group of companies, customer service is not viewed as either a necessary evil or additional revenue stream but rather as a critical component of their business model.   Rather than paying a large upfront fee, customers of these companies pay a much smaller monthly fee that includes software, support and upgrades.  As a result, support is viewed, in addition to being a core business function, as a key element of customer retention, marketing and even product development.

The challenge of campaigns is to differentiate the companies with this literally “out of the box” thinking from those who have simply ported their desktop software and mentality.

Conclusion

We are rapidly departing the time when traditional software can fully accommodate the needs of today’s campaigns.  Just as technology grows, so too do the expectations of today’s voters.  With the desire to have a personal connection with campaigns and candidates coupled with a common frustration at feeling like a cog in the machine, today’s voters want a more intense relationship than campaigns using desktop software can provide.  As we have seen, Web 2.0 addresses these needs full force, as do the software companies that operate on its principles.  Properly supported web-based software streamlines the various challenges campaigns face: targeting constituents, tracking supporters, running complicated compliance reports, and allowing open accessibility to a diverse campaign staff.  More importantly, this revolution of technology and simplification of methodology gives campaigns back one thing they may have lost in the flurry of separate spreadsheets and individua
l call lists: time.  It gives them time to spend on new ideas, new campaign ideas, and new ways to interacting with voters.  With this, web-based software is no longer merely an accessory to campaigns, but rather, it becomes a strong cornerstone in the changing face of modern campaigns.

This article originally appeared in Constituent Relationship Management: The New Little Black Book of Politicsas published by the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet (IPDI). The publication can be ordered at http://www.ipdi.org/Publications/default.aspx.


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