Operation Democracy: MoveOn/GCI's Crisis of Leadership Continues
by greg bloom, Tue Sep 19, 2006 at 10:47:09 AM EDT
"We must give ourselves the permission to fail."
That is the lesson that my dearest college professor most indelibly imparted to me: you're gonna get it wrong before you get it right. (I said it to myself every morning for a year, as I learned the lesson the hard way...) But eventually, that permission must expire--or the wrong lessons are learned.
In 2004, MoveOn ran its first massive field campaign, Leave No Voter Behind; the campaign was subcontracted to Grassroots Campaigns Inc. Things went wrong, as things always will on a campaign -- and then things got worse, as things often will on a campaign. But after the initial setbacks, we found ourselves pinned under a crisis of leadership in which GCI betrayed the good faith of its employees, and MoveOn's members, in order to protect its contract. This move apparently worked: MoveOn rehired GCI to relaunch a field campaign.
I only began writing the series on Leave No Voter Behind when I had good reason to believe that GCI and MoveOn had simply learned the wrong lessons from the failure of that campaign. I had heard that the damage that GCI wrought in 2004 -- through mismanagement and unprofessional standards -- seemed to be continuing; however, these accounts were still second-hand. That soon changed. For the last two months, I've received a steady stream of emails from veterans of MoveOn/GCI's second and third failed campaign attempts. As far as investigative reporting gigs go, this one was rather easy.
GCI began officially recruiting for Operation Democracy in summer of 2005. Originally, it hired about 18 field organizers (along with 70 or 80 staff for other projects); I am told that none of them still work for GCI. Leading up to October of 2005, GCI hired a second wave of about another 20 field organizers; one or two of them are still employed. The third wave of staff, hired in February of 2006, has reportedly shrunk to less than a quarter of its original size. Several people hired this summer have contacted me in the last week--they say that all of the organizers who they knew in training (just months ago) have quit.
These were, as Lockse said of the doomed LNVB crew: "young, smart progressives willing to do anything to help the progressive movement -- if it will help the progressive movement."
But in an important way, this staff was different from GCI's 2004 operation, in which kids with hardly any experience were herded in and dropped into positions of managerial responsibility. In contrast, the MOFOs (MoveOn Field Organizers) were largely well-qualified for their jobs, with ample experience running campaigns and even national activist organizations. Many expected to work for MoveOn well past the election; none expected that they would quit far before it. Many of them have since gone on to work on yet another campaign (each one of these campaigners is currently working hard and happily).
Several of them look back on the experience with GCI and describe it in terms of psychological trauma. "I felt violated by this job," said Kelly Nagy. But none of them left just because the work was too hard; they left because the work wasn't working.
All of these veterans told me that the Operation Democracy for which they'd been hired and trained was very different from the campaign that actually materialized. GCI and MoveOn originally presented Operation Democracy as a long-term community-based organizing campaign. As opposed to Leave No Voter Behind, this undertaking was to be more dynamic and long-term. MOFOs would nurture volunteer teams in a dozen or so selected localities; they would prepare the teams to undertake their own organizing efforts, target their local Congressional representatives, lay the groundwork for GOTV in 2006.
In the day-to-day objectives of the campaign, this model was similar to LNVB, in that organizers would call for volunteer leaders from lists of MoveOn members, recruit and train them, and monitor their progress. GCI also pushed its organizers to work year-round in the same way that LNVB did in October of 2004: 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week.
The volunteer teams were to do 'media events' -- nationally-coordinated happenings in which MoveOn members swarm a public place and try to get themselves into local newspapers, in order to "expose" the corrupt Republican agenda of their district's Congressperson. These events were "cookie cutters," in the words of MoveOn directors themselves: simple, identical, scalable.
Operation Democracy was originally district-based, and each team was to focus upon its own particularly vulnerable or egregious Republican congresscritters. But in October 2005, MoveOn and GCI changed strategy. Instead of organizing by district, the MOFOs would be organizing by media market. In other words, rather than targeting a particular Republican in a certain district, the campaign now focused upon the metropolitan area itself -- aiming at all of the newspaper and other media outlets that operated in this market. And GCI was kicking it up several notches -- instead of one district, MOFOs now had to organize up to 20 media markets. In some cases, this was the entirety of several states.
Like 2004, the organizers found that they were now being pushed to recruit so furiously, at the expense of building their teams in, that all of the work they had done was crumbling behind them. As Kelly said, "we ended up abandoning or dismantling those teams that were ready to work for the progressive candidates in their district." Many were openly instructed not to work with their old teams any more.
Operation Democracy was entirely non-local -- MoveOn's rationale for this was that they're trying to build a scalable, flexible national force. But according to their organizers, it didn't fly with the volunteers; they were largely nonplussed by the limitations of the campaign. "In Missouri," Martin says, "I had many volunteers wonder why they were calling into San Diego for Francine Busby and not into their own neighborhoods for Claire McCaskill."Takeata notes that her volunteers organized to try to engage MoveOn with their concerns and suggestions; they were ignored. (The only volunteer report of Operation Democracy outside of MoveOn's web site confirms these frustrations - it is an account of a volunteer whose dedicated efforts were wasted when the GCI organizer disappeared and the campaign fails to respond.)
At the same time that the volunteers were increasingly dissatisfied with the abstract, intangible nature of their work, GCI was also pressuring its organizers to push their volunteer leaders into bigger commitments. "Some of my volunteers were working full-time on this - and they were doing it because of my relationship with them!" wrote Martin. "And I was only pushing them to do more so that I could keep my job. Because of this, I turned some really motivated people completely off politics." And if they weren't willing to do more work, GCI told its organizers to stop working with them.
Takeata reported that GCI's organizers tried to come together and present the organization with a list of constructive solutions to an array of problems; before that could happen, they were intimidated by management, and some feared for their jobs.
Disillusioned, embittered organizers; disillusioned, wasted volunteers. Attrition rates of both approaching 90%. This is a campaign whose model has broken.
And yet the campaign continues. Why? Wouldn't MoveOn recognize on its own that something needs to change? Well, the GCI organizers had no real way to communicate to MoveOn; several say that they were instructed by GCI management that MoveOn "does not need to know" about volunteers quitting en masse.
But why would GCI so flagrantly diregard the volunteers that its organizers have recruited? Well, the fine print on MoveOn's web site shows that every member who shows up to a GCI-associated event will have their contact information submitted to GCI's database. (They get an email asking them to "opt-out" if they don't want to be contacted...but MoveOn knows as well as anyone that few people open those emails, and fewer read them, and hardly anyone responds.) So Telefund, GCI's sister telephone fundraising program (which happens to be expanding into three more offices right now!), profits off of every new MoveOn member that GCI's organizers recruit!
So the crisis of leadership continued in Operation Democracy -- only in this second attempt, there are no drastic infrastructure collapses that can mask the crisis. There is only GCI itself to explain why its campaign is a massive series of revolving doors.
GCI just finished its fourth wave of hiring and training -- twenty new MOFOs. Its Operation Democracy organizers are currently being deployed throughout the country in preparation for the 2006 election. If GCI is left to its own devices, their experience will be no different from those in 2005, or in 2004. Yes -- seven weeks out from the election, there needs to be a change of course.
ChangeGCI has outlined 6 ways that MoveOn can begin to change course immediately. These recommendations would begin to allow some openness and install some accountability into this system. If you agree that these are feasible and necessary measures, please email email@example.com and cc firstname.lastname@example.org
Keep in mind that at this point in 2004, the ink on MoveOn and GCI's contract was only two weeks dry; Leave No Voter Behind was still a week away from getting off the ground. This is an election that we'd all really like to win, and MoveOn is (or could be) one of the most powerful forces in the nascent progressive movement. If MoveOn is true to its own mission, six weeks is plenty of time to begin to prove it.