Towards a Progressive Model (pt1): GCI/PIRG/Fund, meet the Internet!
by greg bloom, Wed Aug 16, 2006 at 10:34:25 AM EDT
This is a new series that will focus on resolutions to the "crisis of leadership" that failed MoveOn PAC's 2004 Leave No Voter Behind campaign, and continues to fail its 2006 Operation Democracy campaign. As explored in the post-mortem "Grassroots Campaigns Inc's Great War of 2004," the crisis is located in MoveOn's subcontractor, GCI, which uses a campaign model based on the Fund/Public Interest Research Groups. This model is unaccountable to its participants and unresponsive to conditions on the ground; consequentially, its grassroots energies are burned through and, at the same time, it fails in its own objectives of political action. It bears repeating that we don't need to reinvent the wheel in order to run better campaigns -- the fixes to the model can be significant without being structurally radical. This post will propose one such change. To do so, I want to take another quick jump back into 2004 (after this, I promise to put the nasty business behind).
During the national training for Leave No Voter Behind, we heard many allusions to the spectacular Dean campaign of a year before. Grassroots Campaigns Inc's MoveOn Field Organizers (FOs) were supposedly carrying on in the spirit of that web phenomenon, as we would be using the 'cutting-edge web technology' of the MoveOn PAC WAC (Web Action Center) to create our massive grassroots army.
Here's what the WAC was supposed to do:
* provide and manage recruitment calling lists for organizers
* monitor the membership and progress of precinct teams
* provide instructions and other materials to volunteers
* provide and manage the voter walk lists for volunteer canvassers
These functions would have considerably streamlined many of our campaign activities. This was way back in the dawn of Web 2.0, as the potential of web-based applications was just being realized -- the speed with which this one was assembled belies impressive effort. Unfortunately, as I hope the last series has shown, 'impressive effort' alone doesn't make for effectiveness -- more unfortunately still, GCI deployed the WAC in its alpha stage, and deployed LNVB itself without a backup plan. As an all-too-predictable result, the WAC proved to be a bug-infested albatross around LNVB's neck, ultimately becoming the organizers' and volunteers' Number Three Enemy (after George Bush, and GCI's model-management dogma, respectively).
But I don't want to harp on the faulty programming of days passed. Really. The concern of this post is as follows: even if the WAC had worked perfectly, it still would have been the element of the LNVB model that could have been most drastically improved.
First, for a point of comparison, consider one of the primary platforms for that spectacular Dean campaign: Deanspace. Deanspace was a new, radical thing in the world of political organizing -- a network of sites that allowed robust, multi-directional communication among central campaign and self-formed Deaniac communities. Any self-identified group could have its own semi-autonomous part of Deanspace: theirs specifically, but connected with the larger movement.
Meanwhile, the MoveOn PAC WAC was... well, the WAC was more like a series of tubes -- upon closer inspection, wholly lacking the user-empowering dynamic of Web 2.0. Instructions and information was retrieved by the user; data was submitted back in. There were bulletin boards that didn't really work; there was rudimentary emailing capability that also didn't really work; however, even if they had worked, they would have been capable only of isolated bursts of information transmission, not of fostering sustained, organic relationships between members. This was a conceptual opposite of the grassroots-cum-netroots Deanspace phenomenon.
Now, on one hand, the time was way too limited in 2004 to expect GCI to build a truly robust system. On the other hand, the WAC was--malfunctions aside--exactly the tool that fits the FFPIRG model. (To underscore the point, MoveOn's 2006 version of the WAC is essentially the same set of tubes--more on that later). Recall that in my post on the PIRG/Fund/GCI model in "Strip-Mining the Grassroots," I noted that the FFPIRG model "does not care about what has been happening on the internet in the last four or five years." That's true of most campaign-managing dinosaurs, to whom 'Web 2.0' is just a dubious catchphrase. But as you, blogosphere, know plenty well, this discussion isn't just about software -- it's about how information itself is generated and processed. It's about how to run campaigns in the 21st century.
Since the WAC's sole function was to automate and monitor the FFPIRG model's top-down processes, the limitations of those processes were starkly revealed when this framework was deployed into the field. I'm going to present two examples of these limitations: one is about how GCI's senior management reacted to conditions on the ground; the other is about how they failed to react to conditions on the ground.
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First, let's deal with perhaps the most immediate source of frustration for organizers in 2004: reporting the numbers. All of the WAC's functions proved to be erratic, but the data-tracking (of numbers of calls, voters contacted, etc) pooped out immediately, never to return. As a result, management required organizers to record all data in a series of spreadsheets, and report it at least once a day. Amid all the disorder in the WAC's wake, 'getting the numbers in' became second only to making the right number of recruitment calls in the objectives of each day: Field Organizers (FOs) spent up to two hours each night contacting every volunteer to collect data, even when there was no data to collect. Lead Organizers (LOs) became chained to these reports, and were unable to do the rest of their jobs if they weren't entirely completed every day.
Now, even the organizers (like myself) who feared and loathed Excel could still understand that a GOTV campaign needs to regularly monitor its progress. As explained in greater detail in my last post, when information from below is unavailable to the levels above, a firm experiences 'hierarchy costs.' But a kind of hierarchy cost is 'enforcement costs,' which are the losses incurred by having to monitor and enforce a given transaction. When GCI demanded that organizers fully compensate for the defunct data processing function of the WAC, the relationship between organizer and volunteer became grounded entirely within the spreadsheets, the whip and chain of masters and slaves, rather than an ongoing process of relationship-building and problem-solving. Model dogmatics would consider this a huggy-feely complaint, but if the enforcement costs of fifty someodd hours per organizer of non-productive data entry doesn't impress, perhaps volunteer attrition rates of 75-90% will.
A year and a half later, it appears that the WAC has been de-'wacked' for Operation Democracy. Campaign activities are all recorded automatically; the system reportedly has fewer bugs, and is crash-free. The day-to-day enforcement costs of GCI's organizers should, in theory, be greatly reduced.
But the most ironic thing about the 2004 Leave No Voter Behind WAC crash is that it actually gave GCI's organizers the chance to avoid these enforcement costs entirely, by escaping the tightening managerial grip. There was no way for GCI to confirm that all the spreadsheet numbers were accurate, so many organizers (like Esteban, and Mel) simply fed GCI the (fake) numbers it wanted. By and large, these were the organizers who were able to run effective field campaigns.
Now, if the instrument of top-down control has tightened, but the model itself remains broken, participants should actually experience an intensification of the enforcement costs that brought down Leave No Voter Behind. Surely enough, the attrition rate of the Operation Democracy FOs is upwards of 80-90%. (In my next post, I'll write more about the failures of Operation Democracy.)
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The next example from 2004 will neatly show how the model remains broken by hierarchy costs, and it will also show how those costs cascade right down hierarchy to the very bottom, where the 'action' is supposed to happen:
Originally, the LNVB canvass 'raps' asked Kerry-supporters to sign pledges to vote for John Kerry. But once trainings began, Field Organizers (FOs) immediately found that many volunteers were uncomfortable with asking people to "sign a pledge." Many compared it to the recent spate of highly-publicized pro-GOP rallies that demanded all attendees pledge allegiance to Bush. This instinct proved to be correct: some volunteers were willing to ask voters to pledge, but reported back that voters were almost always put off by the request. Across the country, FOs reported this information to their LOs, but their concerns were roundly dismissed and the pledges stayed in the raps.
Many organizers quietly began instructing their volunteers to instead ask voters to "print their information" or some similar phrasing, which clearly went over much better with voters. (Notice how that shifted the frame of the volunteer/voter transaction from masters and slaves to peer-to-peer.) GCI eventually did come around to dropping the pledges from the raps (without acknowledgement) -- after a full two weeks of unknown but significant hierarchy cost.
At the time, GCI's insistence upon sticking with the pledges was inexplicable. I've since confirmed with PIRG campus organizers that "pledging" is a common element of the PIRG GOTV campaign model. They added, however, that their pledges are between peers, predominantly in a campus setting, and with regards to matters much less emotionally charged than the 2004 election (they also note that women pledge more willingly than men). In LNVB, this tactic was immediately pegged as a bad one by the very people who would know best -- the ones who were using it -- but there were no viable channels for communication that could have moved this crucial information into action.
A true "grassroots" campaign would actively seek and process this information in order to best adapt its operations. Of course, the FFPIRG model is not at all 'truly grassroots' -- but, to be fair to the model, it was built before the appearance of technology that greatly facilitates the capacity for information exchange (i.e., before the Information Age). These days, a large, dispersed group of people can easily have an internally-accessible space to exchange information. For instance: a web forum. Simple, right? Obvious, even! But in terms of the PIRG/Fund model, it's alien. The model's participants receive orders and implement accordingly -- they do not interact with the organization itself, or even each other.
A true "modern," even-somewhat-grassroots campaign would provide its participants with a forum in which they could immediately transmit information, like, say, 'voter pledging is a bad idea and needs to be fixed.' The forum would have mechanisms (like collaborative moderation and peer review) to shape this information into a viable consensus, and the campaign's model would adapt accordingly.
This would be a campaign made up of a network of principals and agents as opposed to masters and slaves. Participants wouldn't just carry out orders, but would help to determine the best way to carry them out. This would not just make everyone feel more empowered; it would also make the campaign more productive. Those gains have been demonstrated most prominently in Yochai Benkler's essay on "commons-based peer production,"Coase's Penguin. Benkler shows how a volunteer-based, distributed mode of production can be more effective than a hierarchical firm at reducing transaction costs. Now, he was writing primarily in the context of open-source production, which is quite different in nature from a campaign with concrete objectives and a limited timeframe. But Benkler notes that the distributed peer-to-peer production mode can be coherently incorporated into a hierarchical structure, combining the strengths of each.
Benkler's most apt example is the Eureka project, in which a photocopier production company created a forum for its technicians to exchange information about its machines. See if this sounds familiar:
The original approach toward technical failures of machines was to use manuals that came with the machines, because the machine was conceptualized as being completely engineered by the engineers, with all the possible failures specified in the manual. Technicians were thus conceived of as instruction followers, who came to machines that were broken, diagnosed the problem by locating it in the manual, and then solved it by executing a series of corrective steps prescribed by the manual. The Eureka project changed the conception of the knowledge content of the machine and the organizational role of technicians from instruction followers to knowledge producers... The knowledge content of the machine was now understood to be something that is incomplete when it leaves the design board and is completed over the life of the machines by technicians who share questions and solutions on a peer-review, volunteer model.
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A year and a half later, the Operation Democracy Action Center is still the same old WAC: a series of tubes to provide instructions from above and accept data from below. There are only the most rudimentary ways for volunteer participants to interact with each other. There are no viable channels for information to be exchanged back and forth between the organization and the participants.
There is, in fact, a link called "Open Forum" -- but that phrasing is particularly ironic, since it links to MoveOn's widely-scorned "Action Forum." Welcome to the primary 'feedback mechanism' -- in which members suggest a broad idea ("Election reform!"), and the idea gets voted upon. The "forum" allows for no discussion of process and neglects those ideas that might come from outside of the pale of the common member's imagination. Ideas cannot organically take root between members themselves. The result, in Micah Sifry's phrasing, is a "walled garden" -- in other words, a static operation that is incapable of capitalizing upon the true collective strength of its membership. Sifry notes that this is akin to "chopping off your own long tail."
Now, this structure defines MoveOn itself -- if you read close, MoveOn does not claim to be a forum for grassroots "lateral linking" among its members. I'm not going to critique the MoveOn structure itself here -- ultimately, I think that such a centralized, nationalized, command-the-troops entity could be (and occasionally has been) truly powerful. But MoveOn has hired GCI to get its members themselves out into the field -- and that should not entail a separation from the computer. A truly effective Operation Democracy would include all of the technologies that make "lateral linking" among its participants possible: forums, blogs, RSS, chat, and so on.
This doesn't mean doing away with the goal-driven framework. After all, Deanspace was impressive for its potential, but it accomplished little -- it never did get much of a chance, but its lack of driving purpose was still evident from the outset. Now, if its distributed, peer-to-peer dynamics were integrated into the objective-oriented framework of the PIRG/Fund/GCI model, the promise of Deanspace and Leave No Voter Behind could be realized together.
As Joe Trippi himself said: it's hard to get it right. But it's foolish not to try. The Kerry campaign, for instance, never did figure out that the Dean phenomenon was more than just a hot tube for money flow -- but at least Kerry had some people inside who were trying to help the campaign "get it." In the PIRG/Fund/GCI world, web forums and blogs are perpetual 'secondary priorities' -- and since the primary objectives (the numbers) can never be accomplished, the secondary priorities are effectively null. At times, the contempt for information technology is explicit: time spent futzing around on computers is time spent not "doing the hard work."
Off-blog, I asked Lockse whether, if left to their own devices, Fund/PIRG/GCI would ever adapt its campaigns to take advantage of these internet technologies.
"Absolutely not," was the answer.
Why? I asked.
Lockse responded: "because they are scared."
So, in a sense, these series have been an attempt to bring FFPIRG/GCI management face-to-face with its fears.