Back in 2004, Ms. Betty Castor was running for the US Senate seat that was being vacated by then Senator Bob Graham. Close to the end of the election, she launched a grassroots management website that was unlike others I had seen at that time. And coincidentially, the gentleman who launched turns out to have been part of the Dean campaign trying to come up with a technology solution to work with the grassroots.
Daniel Lopez, founder of vivaDemocracy, came up with the idea of leveraging workflow applications to a distrubted volunteer management problem. Instead of relying on the management to choose who does what jobs, why not let the supporters choose what jobs they could do and report back on what they accomplished - similar to the Action Centers we see on the Senate sites like Senator Clinton or the GOP site. Armed with this idea and some engineering talent, Daniel and his team created vivaDemocracy, an intriguing offering for less-monied campaigns looking for an easy way to manage their volunteers.
Let the masses decide
One of the most amusing aspects of the political process seems to be the "desire" to have voters choose their elected officials, but getting people involved in the "real action" is a challenge for both the campaign and the volunteers. Campaign management is ofen centralized at the campaign HQ with satellite offices around the district, county, state or nation. This hierarchical structure allows for management of the resources, message management, and a level of "accountability" for any potential mistakes that can arise (someone has to be "thrown under the bus"). But, this structure is often inefficient in other ways::
- Putting the right resource on the right task
One challenge I often found in my campaign experience tends to be the matching of person to task, or the assumption that any person could handle any task. It was almost comical to watch a person who had little phone skills on the canvass lines at the campaign offices trying to get up the gumption to speak to the person on the other end of the line with the passion of the other person right next to her who had a comfort level of making phonecalls on a regular basis. While this sounds like a simple problem that could be handled with simple management techniques, consider what is happening at the time when volunteers are coming on board - especially in an exciting campaign. Too often, labor resources are "left on the table" - either because of lack of knowledge of their capabilities or lack of bandwidth to handle the resource opportunity.
- Tracking volunteer performance in an efficient manner
In the corporate world, Sarbane-Oxley has forced corporates to track risk across the company to ensure investors are alerted to problems before they become extremely large. In campaigns, the accountability is often difficult in the canvassing efforts, because of the challenge of determining who did what when. If the campaign gets a call from a disgruntled voter complaining about a "fresh young man" who called at dinner time, how can the campaign determine who did what, especially if the tracking processes are essentially a canvass manager who passed out papers to different volunteers?
- Recognizing top performers
Another challenge tends to be the difficulty of recognizing who does what well. On the field canvass in Florida back in 2004, one thing I could never figure out from my team was who was doing what well. We would walk the senior citizen retirement communities, and the only metric I had was to determine how many door hangers my volunteers had taken from me. And once we were done doing a shift, we would rush back to the office for another task, with little time to determine performance or praise.
viva allows volunteers to choose their jobs
Making the task of creating the jobs in a structured format is what vivaDemocracy offers - especially for the task of volunteer and field management. You create jobs that are based on phone canvassing, field canvassing (walking the beat) or writing letters. campaign staffers create jobs - by selecting a portion of the voter file, the task itself (e.g. calling, walking, letter writing), a script for the job, and other factors that help target the job to the volunteers. Once the job is submitted, it shows up in the collection of jobs for the volunteer supporters. Matching people to the right task is the job of the system - and of the user.
As shown in the screen above for Advokit, Digial Campaigns (a now defunct company) or a homegrown solution like the eCalls for Clark or the phone outreach for Latinos for Dean. viva seems to go one step further in terms of making the reporting and workflow management extremely simple. As an application, it is nice, clean and relatively easy to use.
Now, here are the challenges I see - with any and all applications of this sort:
- Tool is only as good as the effort behind it
One of the greatest challenges I see on campaigns is the fact that, they could have the greatest tool in the arsenal, but without support - whether via email campaigns, staff resources or attention to the tasks at hand - the tool does not provide results, only the commitment of the staff doing the work does. viva is a nice tool in terms of committed supporters - making it easy to do the volunteer tasks. But if the campaign does not work with it, it will flounder and be ineffectual. To give a sense of this: the Rod Smith campaign, across all of the state of Florida, only had slightly over 600 volunteers. With those 600 volunteers, the numbers were not as impressive as I would have expected (11K calls, 4K letters, and 4K doors knocked), but I wonder about the campaign volunteer process. I never received any emails to remind me of the job opportunities on the center, and I rarely saw the Volunteer Center mentioned in other campaign communications.
- Make the commitment more understandable
The challenge I see is how to incentivize people to get involved and act. When I first used the application back in the Castor Campaign, I noted that to get a job, I had to commit to the task, before I knew what it might entail. Even though there is a summary, I was hesistant to commit - which more than likely is a challenge for most users that are not completely dedicated to the campaign. It took me a couple fo times to note the "sample link" to see what I might be getting into, maybe making the link into a prominent button would help clarify the commitment.
- Nothing that a little AJAX wouldn't help
As I tried out the call management system, I noted the challenge of having to read the script, then page down to the person I was calling to enter the data, and then returning back to the script. With some simple Ajax (or Atlas) tricks, the application could be that much better.
Recommendation - nice app, needs campaign support
Truthfully, it is a nice application for what it does - and, given the campaign support (in terms of marketing, group coordination and staff support), it could provide campaigns a chance to leverage distributed supporters in areas that they could not reach through normal means. Daniel's best example was having sparce Democrats in a heavily Republican district and being able to manage the supporters in a more efficient manner. Anything that can multiply the force of the grassroots (in terms of distributed democracy) has my support.