Grassroots Campaigns, Inc's Great War of 2004 (p4): Masters and Slaves
by greg bloom, Thu Jul 27, 2006 at 07:19:37 AM EDT
So we've been talking about MoveOn PAC's 2004 GOTV campaign, Leave No Voter Behind. About how the company that MoveOn subcontracted, Grassroots Campaigns, Inc (GCI), was significantly delayed in getting its campaign off the ground, and about how its `cutting edge' internet-based computer system (the Web Action Center) collapsed barely a week in. About how, in order to make up for these setbacks, GCI forced its organizers to redouble their recruitment, at the expense of training their volunteers--which effectively `broke' its own campaign model, but succeeded in getting GCI re-hired by MoveOn for 2006. All along, I've been saying that this conversation is building to a constructive point - but before that can happen, it's important that I fully illustrate the rather bold claim made in the first post: that the result was, for many involved, `a soul-crushing experience.'
I want to make sure that when you read that 'half of the organizer staff didn't make it to Election Day,' you see more than a number. But so far, this analysis has been mostly macro -- largely because I didn't want our discussion to get bogged down in tedium and quibble. After all, campaigns are `hard work,' inevitably there are going to be some feelings hurt along the way, and as Zack Exley pointed out in the comments:
the problems you're describing are systemic to all politics...and really to the question of organization in general.
Indeed - but if we can identify a pattern to the problems, then we can think about a solution. So let's get micro. Here are four stories that are representative of the dozens of people I've interviewed - they are mostly about the relationships between the Field Organizers (FOs), who worked directly with the volunteers, and their supervising Lead Organizers (LOs). I've changed some details to keep things anonymous, but there is no invention here.
John's crew arrived in their assigned city to find that their office was an open floor in a basement -- "no desks, no wiring, no anything, and it took two days for anyone to figure out that no one was coming to set us up." John, who had worked as a Canvass Director for months at a minor DNC office, and had run a very successful campus organizing office for Gore in 2000, offered to arrange and manage the utilities himself.
He was told that his LO would handle it.
Days passed without progress.
"It eventually became clear that it wasn't just the fault of our lead organizers there," John says. "She was getting mixed signals from above on whether she had the authority to make the necessary calls."
In the meantime, organizers weren't allowed to use Starbucks or the facilities of a nearby university (for wi-fi security concerns). Instead, the LOs printed up call lists of MoveOn members, and the FOs used their cell phones to recruit volunteers.
Communications dysfunction was the lesser of John's problems. His assigned precincts were in a town a full an hour away from the office -- he couldn't get any recruits to attend the MoveOn meetings. Along with another FO whose precincts were 'out there,' John began to schedule meetings that were more local -- but his LO insisted on being present to run them. This chained the meetings to the LO's schedule, which rarely allowed for the several hours of driving time required. When clearance finally came for John to run his own meetings, management insisted that he drive back to the office in between every local session. This put him in the car for upwards of five hours a day.
John did some research and found a small office near his precincts, complete with phones and internet access. "We did the math, and ran all that gas mileage up against the cost of rent, and it would have cost about twenty dollars more to just get the office."
But they were not allowed to do so.
"The LOs claimed that they didn't have authority to let us go, and more importantly, the state directors wanted them to keep monitoring our calling hours."
John wasn't the only one struggling -- even those organizers who had precincts closer to the office were still way behind in their numbers. "It wasn't working for anyone. But when we would go to [the LOs] to tell them about something that was keeping us from getting the numbers, we'd always have a proposed solution. 'Here's the problem, here's what we can do about it.' Every time, they reacted as if we were complaining. They'd actually tell us, 'I don't think you really care about this campaign, you're totally replacable, any number of people would be here in your spot.'"
The working atmosphere steadily worsened. At one point, the LOs started making all FOs place their cell phones in a box, so that their volunteers could not reach them during calling hours.
"A lot of [the FOs] were ready to quit together, and it became clear that something had to give -- I was at the point where I just couldn't stand to see anyone treated like this, so for my own sanity I went to talk [with the LO] about it, to see where the cards would fall."
The cards fell with the LO in tears, and John leaving the campaign. The other LO told him to get his stuff and leave during lunch without speaking with his co-workers. John originally intended to go volunteer for the local Kerry campaign office, but he found himself broke from a $600 cell phone bill and various other out-of-pocket expenses, and he had to return home.
- / -
Esteban had briefly trained and worked under John on the DNC campaign; he had virtually no organizing experience prior to that. But Esteban went into Leave No Voter Behind with an advantage that most organizers lacked: he was assigned to his hometown.
Yet when he arrived at the MoveOn office there, he discovered that the organizers' precincts had been assigned almost randomly, scattered amongst each other, far and wide across a large metropolitan area. "People questioned that," Esteban says, "but [the LOs] just told us we didn't have time to change things around. This was my home neighborhood, though--so I found the time."
Esteban pressed his LOs on the issue "about four or five times a day," and a few days later, he was switched into his neighborhood's precincts.
This would grant Esteban another, unexpected advantage when a new problem revealed itself: the MoveOn office was about forty minutes away from his home neighborhood, assuming good traffic-- not quite as far as John's, but few of his recruits would ever make the trip. Esteban immediately scheduled special bi-weekly meetings at his home. At first, his Lead Organizer insisted at being present to run these recruitment meetings. But when the WAC began to crash, and the office as a whole fell farther behind, Esteban was allowed to run the meetings himself.
"That was pretty lucky -- most organizers were locked into working out of the office, without any control over how their volunteers would be recruited. But by that point my LO was willing to at least try to let us do whatever we had to do." He adds about his LO: "He'd been hired by MoveOn, not GCI, and was kind of baffled by the PIRG mentality."
Using the meetings as an excuse, Esteban was able to work away from the office almost every other day. Two weeks into the campaign, he started making up his cold-calling numbers.
"I found that I could call for three hours the night before a meeting and get eight people to my house the next day. I didn't need any more than that." The rest of the time, Esteban worked one-on-one with precinct leaders and canvassed with groups.
In all, Esteban says that four out of fourteen people in his office stopped calling regularly and instead made up their recruitment numbers -- two of those four met their final goals of 1625 voters contacted. Out of the other ten organizers who were stuck in the office calling for six or more hours every day, only one met the goals; the rest didn't come close.
However, just 36 hours before the election, Esteban and the three others came very close to getting fired.
"The Assistant Organizing Director guy realized that we were basically calling our own shots, and he told our Lead Organizer to get rid of us on the weekend before the election. But our LO was just like, 'that's ridiculous, they have the best teams in the office.' I think he almost got himself fired for that."
- / -
Several times a week, when being "scolded" for low recruitment numbers, Esteban's office would hear about the office from across the state, run by Lead Organizer Mel -- Mel's Field Organizers were, apparently, hitting all their numbers.
Those organizers confirm that Mel was a strong meeting leader, and would regularly turn a more half of the recruits in a room into Precinct Leaders. But their office still struggled to make the model work. Mel found that many of their volunteers were elderly, and not prepared to use the computer system or canvass substantially. Early on, Mel encouraged her organizers to vary their volunteers' roles, so that every person recruited would be able to perform a service. In a few cases, she also stationed her FOs in satellite locations, closer to their precincts. She adds that this was the kind of thing other LOs often weren't allowed to do, but she slid it past her superiors (Mel's management skills apparently work up as well as down).
But after the WAC crash, her office slid far behind the recruitment goals as dictated from above, and Mel was under great pressure to get their calling hours even farther up. Mel, who had a good deal of management experience from before the campaign, saw that her organizers would be better able to contact more voters by working closer with their existing volunteers. So Mel kept reporting the correct voter contact numbers to her superiors, but began to 'sex up' the recruitment numbers.
"Days before the election, we were still supposed to be cold-calling 6 hours a day. I'd told my people a week before to stop calling and start dealing with their PLs," Mel says. "The average age of our people was 60 years old -- those fuckers were old, they didn't know how to deal with the WAC, we have to pay attention to them."
By the final weekend, Mel's office was one of the best in the nation. Not one organizer had quit, and most of her team successfully recontacted their IDed voters. But Mel was not invited to GCI's post-election debrief. She thinks it might be because she was still an 'outsider' (without any prior PIRG experience) -- but more importantly, they probably knew that she had fed them false recruitment numbers.
- / -
The Las Vegas office was staffed with organizers of considerable experience. Several union organizers, a couple of people with years of work in the Fund, and several organizers who had risen through the ranks of GCI to become personal assistants to executive directors. Their Lead Organizers, however, had no campaign experience. This revealed itself early on.
"I couldn't believe the phone lines weren't up already when we got there," said Lisa, who had assisted helped plan the LNVB national training in Milwaukee before voluntarily stepping down several rungs to be a field organizer. "Fortunately, I still had access to the right people and files in Boston [GCI headquarters], so I just made it happen without waiting for anyone to tell me I could do it."
The office still quickly fell behind its recruitment goals.
"There were parts of the model that we could see right away weren't working," Lisa told me, "so we made proposals. We wanted to try different things, like having some volunteers do our recruitment calling. They were totally unreceptive. Wouldn't even talk about it."
"People in Las Vegas work strange hours," said Stacy, an organizer with two prior years of experience with the Fund. "In some precincts it was just clear that no one was home during the evening. So we wanted to try calling at different times, just to see whether we could get better numbers in the late morning, in the afternoon -- but our LOs just didn't want to hear about it. It was just, 'that's the model, you're sticking to it.'"
At one point, Lisa turned directly to the executive management of GCI, with whom she had worked closely for months. "I called them up and said, `look, if you listen to anyone, let it be me -- it's not working.' They were at this really weird stress point because everything was going wrong everywhere in the country, and that pissed them off even more. They were like, `you need to stick to it as it is.'"
Over the course of the first week, the FOs began meeting separately to talk about the problems, and to try to work up solutions. "The meetings [the LOs ran] were all just about the numbers. So we'd be like, 'ok, we're going to go have our own meeting -- you're welcome to come.'"
This tension within the staff only escalated as the WAC began to crash, and the calling hours were raised to six or more per day. On October 7th, just over a week into the campaign, one of the LOs called one of the FOs into his office.
"She'd been really struggling with her recruitment, and she was very emotional," Stacy said. "But she was totally committed, ready to do anything, even if it wasn't working at first. Then they called her in and said, 'this just isn't right for you--go get your stuff.'"
When word of this firing reached the office, the FOs called a meeting and demanded that the LOs attend.
"They really didn't want to do that," said Lisa. "They were like, 'we'll talk about this tomorrow.' We were like, 'no, we'll talk about this now.'"
The FOs refused to let one of their own be fired for 'not hitting the numbers' -- "especially since so much of it was out of our control," Stacy says. But the LOs refused to engage with the group, and threatened to fire the whole office, and the FOs unanimously walked out.
"At the time, we weren't really thinking, `oh we just could go work somewhere else,'" says Stacy. "We wanted to be a part of it. We came here to see it through. We were frustrated, but we were all still trying to do our job."
Later that night, senior GCI management announced that the office was closed. The next day, GCI called all of the Las Vegas host families to tell them that their guests had been fired; some report that they were told to stop housing the ex-FOs.
"I was devastated," says Dana, another FO. "I'd been so committed, it was my first campaign experience, we'd moved there so excited for this, only to be constantly frustrated at everything we tried to do, to be told we weren't doing it right...and then we find ourselves having to stick up for what we believed in by walking out. It was really shocking to me - but the others told me, `this is not how it usually goes -- the process can be better.' And that immediately proved to be true."
Almost the entire group was hired the following day by another major GOTV operation. They would go on to be canvassers and field trainers, and they report that the rest of their month in Las Vegas was very fruitful.
"There wasn't ever a question," says Dana, "that we would continue working together until the election. For me, that actually made the experience a positive one -- that we all stayed to help each other get through it."
- / -
I'm sure anyone with extensive campaign experience could pull out a couple of stories that match those of John and the Las Vegas office, in terms of wastefulness and folly.
But the pattern here is clear -- and it is not a simple matter of good managers and bad. In fact, it's the inverse. The LOs in Las Vegas and John's office were merely following the orders passed down from above. In the meantime, the managers who managed to run the best operation (Mel, and Esteban's LO) were those who broke from their instructions. (This pattern can be confirmed by comparing these stories to this comment, which is the most favorable review of the campaign yet to come, at least from outside of GCI management; also see this comment for some quality chuckles). It's also important to note that no one was trying to "break free" of the campaign model - rather, they were all receiving information from the ground and trying to implement the model in the way that best responded to that information. But in doing so, they had to act covertly -- or they had to leave.
This is more than startup company trouble - the pattern reveals a deep institutional imbalance. In my next post, I'll talk about the managerial paradigm behind this imbalance, and explain how it functions to protect itself from feedback and change - so thoroughly, in fact, that the crisis that tore through Leave No Voter Behind continues today within Operation Democracy. I believe this is what people meant when they wrote: "I think this model is broken."