January 27, 2005

A Letter to the Next DNC Chair


Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be posting an open letter to the DNC Chair candidates in four parts (the first is posted now below). I hope this will spark new discussion on blogs and other communities. Let me know where discussions are happening and I'll respond throughout to questions and feedback.

I'm not laying out a full blueprint for the next party chair -- my topic is the Internet and technology and how they can be used to dramatically improve field operations, fundraising and the relationship with the party's base.

I'm limiting my topics to my experience: I worked on the Kerry campaign for the final eight months, with responsibility for building an email list and using it to mobilize volunteers, raise money and engage online activists to do things that would help elect John Kerry. During the final three months of the campaign, I worked closely with Tom Matzzie (who came from the AFL-CIO and is now at MoveOn.org) in the field directly with organizers and volunteers in 13 swing states to make sure that our online program was helping organizers in practice and not just in theory. Before Kerry, I helped the Dean campaign build its email list and installed their first version of "Get Local" tools (with Patrick Kane, MoveOn's systems architect). I worked as Director of Organizing for MoveOn.org, and before that ran a series of my own experiments in online organizing as well as a few political parody sites (GWBush.com was the main one). Before getting involved with online organizing I was an old-fashioned grassroots organizer in the Labor Movement for five years all over the country. And I even spent a couple of years working as an IT hack inside corporations.

What I saw at MoveOn, Dean and Kerry was a totally new kind of politics emerging: new kinds of people getting involved, empowered by new tools and communications mediums. For tens of millions, the Internet has eliminated all barriers to entry for political action. Simple web tools are bringing mind-boggling efficiency gains to grassroots organizing. In the Kerry campaign alone, more than 100,000 people volunteered in response to emails and recruitment calls from an online "Phone Corps". Nearly three quarters of a million people made online donations. Tens of thousands participated in our "special forces" such as the Phone and Media Corps. And that was just the Kerry campaign: millions more participated in other online communities, organizations and campaigns.

Technology in politics was not all roses in 2004, however. There were also ill-conceived and rushed IT projects that drove organizers crazy, left potentials untapped, and sometimes made things worse than they were before. Even hugely successful online projects had very jagged edges. Nevertheless, the overall picture in 2004 was of millions of people going farther than they'd ever gone before, in large part thanks to email, the web and technology.

For the good of the future, all of us who were involved would do well to admit that despite great achievements we only scratched the surface. In a sense, we failed horribly because the potential we left untapped was so great. Looking back, we can easily see all the things we could have done differently that would have made all the difference in the world. Therefore, we've got to look to the future with an eye on the past, not for the sake of recrimination, but for the sake of getting it right going forward.

Part 1: Work with the New Grassroots to build a permanent field program

The Democratic Party needs a permanent field program -- a permanent grassroots structure broad enough, deep enough and efficient enough to win elections and empower the leaders we elect to make real change. Another way of saying this is: "The Democrats need to be a political party again." Thanks to online assets created in the 2004 election, the party has a chance to engage the "New Grassroots" and build that structure at lightening speed with relatively few resources.

Who are the New Grassroots?

Several hundred thousand activists worked in some significant way to elect Democrats in 2004. For most, it was their first experience with political campaigns. They're angry we lost, and they want to keep fighting now to win in 2006 and 2008. What is totally new is that the New Grassroots have a direct connection to organizations, parties and leaders through email and the web. In a much deeper way than ever before, the movement can continue even now that the election is past.

The online universe of New Grassroots activists consists of several overlapping email lists totaling perhaps 6,000,000 people: AFL-CIO and affiliates (3,200,000), JohnKerry.com (2,800,000), MoveOn.org (2,800,000 domestic), DNC (~1,000,000), Democracy For America (~600,000), TrueMajority.com (440,000) and other organizations and state Democratic parties. Add to that smaller, but disproportionately influential blogs and communities.

The question for the next DNC Chair is: what will the party offer these activists now? How can the party give them what they most want: a way to put responsible leadership in Congress and the White House in 2006, 2008 and beyond? The answer is to build a permanent field organization made up of hundreds of thousands of volunteers -- a new kind of web-enabled organization built faster and stronger than anything anyone's seen before.

Lessons from field in the 2004 cycle

There are two obvious lessons from the field programs of 2004. The first is that a truly enormous number of activists in every state and county want to shape their society and want to work on elections. The Internet didn't change how many people wanted to participate, it just made it so much easier for them to find out where to show up to work.

The second lesson is that an effective national field program cannot be built in six -- or even 18 -- months.

There are many efforts underway to analyze the exact success or failure of various field organizations and specific strategies and tactics. The problem is that much of the data involved in those efforts are unreliable. Several well-known field and polling geniuses looking into this question disagree with each other -- something that indicates data simply aren't sufficient for a meaningful empirical answer. No one will ever know the true impact of the field programs run by the DNC, ACT or MoveOn.org. The organization that devotes the most PR resources to publicizing their success (probably ACT) will appear to be the one that made a difference.

But there are easy and obvious lessons to learn by talking to the organizers who participated in the field organizations of 2004. Former staff from all three major Democratic-side programs -- at least in private conversations -- will speak of the utter chaos that defined their experiences. They are proud of the organizations they helped to build and were deeply changed by the relationships they created with individual volunteers as well as whole communities. But they'll tell you it was generally a madhouse.

However, if you talk to organizers from several state primary campaigns, you'll hear about a different kind of experience. Dean/New Hampshire is a particularly interesting example because the person who built that program, Karen Hicks, went on to run field nationally for the Kerry campaign at the DNC.

People who were a part of Hicks' New Hampshire organization glow as they recall their experience. There was structure, order, concrete goals. One young organizer told me that he had accomplished and learned more each day than he had in entire semesters. Dean's post-scream recovery from disastrous polling levels to second place (in ten days!) was forced by the brute strength of the grassroots organization Karen Hicks and her organizers built. (That organization impressed Kerry's field guru Michael Whouley enough that he hired Karen to direct field nationally for Kerry.)

I've literally seen tears well up in the eyes of organizers as they described their daily schedule in that organization. It wasn't just the excitement of working for any primary campaign. It was the effect of being part of something that was really working. It was being a part of an organization that truly empowered people, perhaps the rarest thing in the world.

What was the difference between the organization Karen Hicks built in New Hampshire and the one she led nationally? The difference was the amount of time there was to build. Hicks spent one full year organizing in New Hampshire , one of the smallest states in the country. She meticulously developed talent and skills on her staff as well as in her volunteer base. She had time to continuously push responsibilities out onto volunteers. Volunteers had time to recruit wider and wider circles of their social networks. Eventually an enormous percentage of all Democratic voters in the state had attended an organizing meeting for Dean lead by Hicks' staff or volunteers. The distance, measured in layers of bureaucracy, between a front line organizer or volunteer and an experienced and talented field leader was increadibly narrow. That kind of solid organization took a year to build in a tiny state. It would take much, much longer to build across the whole nation.

At the national level, Karen had six months to build a program that was to be 100 times bigger than her New Hampshire organization. Also, in New Hampshire, she had near complete autonomy, but in DC she faced inevitable bureaucracy from all directions inside the enormous Kerry-DNC operation.

A truly incredible organization takes time to build. Only with time, can new layers of genuinely experienced and talented field leaders be developed. If the DNC starts building a national grassroots network now, it will only just be ready in time for 2008. Traditionally, it would take decades to build such an organization. But in this letter, what I would like to suggest is that email, the web and a little bit of technology will make it possible to build in time for 2008.

Also, the Republicans are doing it

The cheap shot argument for building a permanent field operation is: "Because the Republican's have one." It's not clear whether the GOP's long-term field push had a huge effect on turnout. But it is clear that the Republicans are building a powerful, permanent field operation -- and that, at the very least, it's a powerful growing threat. We know that they started building years ago. We've seen their volunteer training materials, and have sat in on some of the trainings. They give volunteers formal roles, hold them accountable for results and continuously replace the ones who do not perform. What they're doing is very advanced. If it wasn't a major advantage in 2004, just give them another four years and see where they are.

But we shouldn't need a Republican threat to motivate us to do the obvious. What is a political party without a strong, capable grassroots? Just a shell of a party -- and that's what both the Democratic and Republican parties were for a very long time. The 2004 election gives the Democrats a chance to leave that legacy behind.

That Democrats are stuck in a deep identity crisis is not a valid excuse for progressive organizers to pass by this opportunity. It cannot be said that activists won't work in a protracted, difficult effort for today's Democratic party. Grassroots activists at the county level are just as frustrated as we are with the party's ideological paralysis. And they are just as capable as we are of thinking long term. They are perfectly willing to build the party in their communities both in anticipation of the day when the party gets back on it's feet and as a way of making that happen. This movement will in fact be a movement to rebuild and reinvigorate the party itself. It's got to happen from below -- we know that, and here is a way to make it happen.

Ten steps to building a permanent field program with the New Grassroots

Here is one possible scenario the Democratic Party can use to build a vast, permanent field organization with the New Grassroots by leveraging email, the web and a little technology. Any number of variations on this basic plan would all work just fine -- my purpose here is only to introduce the basic structure of such a plan:

  1. Propose the plan to the base. Ask the new grassroots to join and fund a permanent field program. A short email campaign to the JohnKerry.com and DNC email lists will probably raise $5,000,000 in repeated emails over several months. Probably 10,000 people in about 1,000 counties would sign up to participate. An email campaign to the DNC list alone will probably raise $1,000,000 and sign up 2,000 people. No doubt there are also major donors who will want to fund this.

  2. Hire field organizers for key states. (Or why not hire them for ALL states?) State field directors and organizers will report directly to a national DNC field director. These will have to be very experienced and talented as both organizers and managers. Ideally, they will be chosen from the best of the state and regional field directors from the 2004 cycle and have respect for, and a good relationship with, state parties.

  3. Sign up activists for kickoff meetings in every county. Setting up kickoff meetings in 1,000 counties will be as easy as sending out an email invitation with a link to a simple web signup tool. Data on all attendees, including personal statements and other application data, drops into organizers' inboxes in advance of the meetings. There is even a way to have attendees agree on and book meeting locations without organizers' intervention.

    The organizers' goal in each county meeting will be to leave behind a volunteer team of dedicated and talented individuals. In densely populated counties, organizers' jobs will be to pick the most promising volunteers out of a crowded field of applicants; in sparsely populated counties it will be to convince a few attendees to take on a bigger role than they were thinking of. In either case, the organizers' goal is to build teams of natural, talented leaders. The teams will understand their responsibilities and know that if they don't meet their goals they will eventually have to step down from the team.

    • This step represents an enormous efficiency gain for organizers made possible by the email list and the web. Without the email list and the web, these thousands of meetings would have taken a year to pull together by the same staff (or would have taken a staff of thousands). This is one of the ways in which this plan shortens what would otherwise be a decade-long process of nationwide organizationbuilding to just a few years.

  4. Hold the volunteers accountable for results as they build out the organization. When the first month of organizing has passed, already thousands of counties will have volunteer teams in place. Their inaugural task will be simply to recruit identical leadership teams within their counties for every city and town.

    • Two more big efficiency gains come in at this stage. First, in building town-level teams, the county-level teams will be assisted again by simple web tools that give access to lists of prospects (e.g. volunteers from 2004). This means teams will find, say, one new recruit per ten cold calls instead of one per hundred.

    • Second, by requiring volunteer teams to report their progress using a simple web form that feeds into a database, organizers will spend more time fixing problems and less time hunting them down. Organizers will be able to easily see the exact current progress of all their counties just by looking at a web page. Normally it takes organizers in this situation hours and hours each week to get a true picture of where their volunteers are.

    At this stage, the organizers' job is to keep things moving: encouraging teams on conference calls and by visits. Organizers will shower praise on high performers and ask them to teach the secrets to their success to others. Even more important, organizers must begin weeding out non-performing volunteers, and reconstituting failed teams. Of course, there will be things to do for anyone who wants to help, but the formal positions on volunteer teams are privilegesto hold -- they are leadership roles that come with real responsibilities.

  5. Gather volunteers for trainings. After a couple months of overseeing and pushing forward the county teams in their recruitment efforts, there will be something like 10,000 to 30,000 total volunteers filling formal leadership roles at the county and town levels. At this point, state directors will bring them together for state and regional trainings. The trainings should be held in rolling succession so that the national field director will be able to attend almost all of them. Trainings will be repeated inside states so that all volunteers will be able to attend regardless of their schedules.

    Training will be general as well as specialized -- setting down the core values and expectations of the organization, but also teaching practical skills. Volunteers will pick areas in which to be "certified" -- e.g. Phone Bank Leader, Canvass Director, Data Entry Officer, Organizer and County or Town Organizing Director. Training in these areas will be continuous, with regular conference calls and occasional meetings.

  6. Recruit precinct-level teams. As soon as town-level teams are born, they begin recruiting precinct-level teams -- just as their county-level teams recruited them. They use the same prospecting tools and reporting tools that the county teams used. This time, it will be volunteer organizers who are encouraging and troubleshooting the recruitment process -- in other words, members of the county- and town-level teams will be acting as full-fledged organizers, acting in the same capacity as staff, in the chain of command right alongside paid state-level organizers. A massive, structured network is coming into being.

  7. Constantly put more and more responsibility with volunteers. At this stage of the plan, only several months into the project, we're dealing with an organization that has five layers: national field director, state and regional staff organizers, county-level volunteer organizers, town-level volunteer organizers and precinct-level volunteers organizers. Only the top two levels are full-time, paid staff -- and there won't be that many of them due to budget restraints. Therefore, we'll be expecting our volunteers to do so much more than organizations typically do. It is important that volunteer organizers start taking paid staff positions. The organization will become much more solid as young paid staff go off to law school and The Hill and are replaced by retirees, housewives, and other adults with natural talent, life experience and deep roots in the community.

    This is really what this whole project is all about: giving real responsibility to grassroots leaders; and it's the hardest thing in the world for paid organizers to allow themselves to do.

  8. Fill in the gaps. After several months of organizing, there will be huge gaps in sparsely populated areas, Republican areas, and anywhere else that the email lists are weak -- particularly very low-income areas. Therefore, all volunteer teams will have to adopt weak precincts and go hunting for promising activists to fill positions in those. Again, web tools will assist in contacting leads more efficiently.

  9. Rehearse for the real thing. As soon as the precinct teams are in place, they should go to work doing things that mimic the work of a real election campaign. It's impossible to say now what exactly that should be: registering voters; cleaning the voter file; a mix of many things? Whatever it is, it should mirror a real campaign in terms of the skills used: phone banking, canvassing, etc. Midterm elections in 2006 will provide a perfect dress rehearsal for 2008, but will also be an opportunity for the organization to make its first attempt at influencingthe outcome of an election.

  10. Train. Train. Train. Good training makes all the difference in activities such as phone banking and canvassing. If the phone bank supervisor has no training, he is likely to give people flat and boring preparation-- if he gives them any preparation at all. Phone bankers will be flat and boring on the phone as a result. What's needed to make a phone bank, or any other group campaign work, is a successful leader who inspires volunteers. That's not to say the leaders need to be Martin Luther King. They just need to be able to explain how important the task of the evening is, make a personal connection with participants and create a good working environment. As Tom Matzzie says, "They need to remember to put on the coffee and bring the doughnuts." A good phone bank supervisor gives great pep talks, keeps the energy level up throughout the night, makes absolutely sure there are snacks and drinks on hand, and wraps up the evening in a way that inspires volunteers to come back again.

    Some people make great trainers. Those people should be constantly identified in the organization and should become official trainers who go from county to county continuously improving the quality of operations. Training and retraining is what will make this volunteer organization great. It's why it takes years, not months, to build this kind of organization. And again, web tools will help the process by making it easy to collect evaluations on every trainer from trainees -- so that we'll be truly training people and not just pretending to be training them.

We're talking about a totally new form of organization.

In the same way that railroads, highways, the telegraph and the telephone all changed the maximum size and efficiency of national organizations, so does the Internet -- "the Internet" being web tools and email.

Because of web tools and email, a new kind of massively volunteer-heavy organization is possible.

Consider one of many examples of how this works: a specially trained "Quality Corps" of volunteers will continuously call through members of the entire organization collecting anonymous feedback, exposing bogus reporting and providing a constant reality check from the bottom of the organization to the top. Collecting honest feedback from the front lines is an incredibly expensive and difficult thing for most organizations to do -- but if it's not done, state and national directors fall hopelessly out of touch with what's really happening on the ground. Web tools and email make this easy and cheap. (An even cheaper solution is to email out simple web surveys -- that will unearth problems, but not give a truly representative picture of the organization.)

The underlying technology that make these kinds of self-maintaining systems possible has already been proven by MoveOn.org, the Clark and Kerry campaigns and others. Quality Corps members would log into a web interface to get names of several volunteers to call with specific questions and forms to report responses. They'll answer "customer service" questions from the volunteer leaders, thereby improving quality as well as reporting on it. When Corps members come across questions they can't answer, they'll be able to bounce them up to more experienced members. There is virtually no limit to the self-sustaining complexity of these kinds of web-enabled sub-organizations. For example, as the Quality Corps grows, it may need its own internal quality checking system which should be automated as well. These systems are "automated" in the sense that web tools and email can provide the structure in which people can be efficient and productive without hand-holding by paid staff or lots of time consuming and organizationally perilous meetings and intolerable conference calls.

These kinds of systems allow organizations to leverage huge numbers of talented, dedicated volunteers who have only an hour or two per week to give. Five hundred Corps members working two hours per week is the equivalent of 25 full-time staffers. For perspective, during the Kerry campaign, we had 5,000 "Phone Corps" members from the Kerry email list working regularly as volunteer recruiters using the same interface described above.

It is incredibly significant in this new form of web-enabled organization (A) that quality and performance can be measured for all participants and represented centrally in a database and (B) that an entrenched bureaucracy IS NOT necessary to have consistent communications to the base (because email and web tools give the top a direct connection to the bottom). These facts should make it possible to have a totally new form of huge but nimble organization.

Bureaucracy always leads to ossification and degradation of skills. Bad people take over. The "tyranny of the annoying" asserts itself as it always does in grassroots organizations. Normally, nothing can be done, because the organization has no nervous system and no immune system -- no capacity for regeneration. An email- and web-enabled organization has those new capabilities.

Another area of huge gain for this kind of organization is in the flexibility with which individuals can float between positions. In fact constant rotation of volunteers between county, town and precinct levels must be institutionalized in the system. This will prevent "aristocracies of incompetence" and the "tyranny of the annoying" from slowing down the organization. Constant rotating will keep the organization fresh and limber. Normally, it's incumbentupon entrenched individuals to maintain the structure and lines of communication of the organization. But in the web-enabled organization, continuity does not rely on entrenchment of individuals.

This organization should be able to do something that almost no one has ever accomplished before: continuous reinvigoration and renewal. The beauty of this kind of organization is that it can (we hope) have all the benefits of democracy (intelligence and initiative at all levels, deep involvement and commitment by volunteers) along with all the benefits of hierarchy (coordination, efficiency) without the dangers (entrenched incompetence and avarice).

Reaping the benefits of a permanent field program

Assuming work begins in this summer (and not August 2008!), then just think of where we'll be when the election is just a few months away:

  1. The voter file will have been made far more accurate (after millions of phone calls and door knocks to clean it up).
  2. The largest possible target voter universe will have been accurately ID'ed.
  3. Tens of thousands of volunteer leaders will have been trained to run effective phone banks and canvasses.
  4. Strong precinct, county and state organizations will be trained and ready to execute a campaign plan they've been practicing for a year.
  5. Solid precinct organizations will be ready to absorb and train the flood of new volunteers who step forward right before an election.

We could be half way there by the 2006 elections, and fully functioning by 2008. The 2006 election will serve as both a dress rehearsal and a recruitment and training ground for 2008.

Using the online assets that Democrats built in 2004, we should be able to jump light years ahead of the Republican field organization. If we do, it will not be thanks to Internet Magic, but rather thanks to mixing new online tools and resources with good old-fashioned grassroots organizing, focusing on results.

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