This is cross post from the Fast Forward blog and the only time I have done this on the same day but I thought the timing was important. Yesterday Hillary Clinton made a comeback to win 3 of the 4 contested primaries but Barack Obama was able to close early gaps to gain significant delegates and keep his lead in the pledged delegate count. There has been a lot written on the organizational strength of the Barrack Obama campaign. Part of this comes from some creative use of the new web, both on public sites and within the organization. One of the tools they are using is Central Desktop, a collaboration platform for business teams. Yesterday, I spoke with Isaac Garcia, CEO of Central Desktop, on the day of the Texas primary on what the Obama campaign was doing in Texas and what they did in California. Prior to our conversation I read his Central Desktop blog post, “Barack Obama and The Long Tail of Politics.” It spoke well to the general issues of the long tail, but I wanted to know what they actually did with the software, and Issac filled me in and took me to the Obama Texas site to see some stuff while it was still up. I was very impressed.
Howard Dean made effective use of meetup.com to organize meetings and his web site to gather donations in his 2004 campaign. Many other politicians have since used their web sites to gather donations. Some, such as Mitt Romney, have even employed tools such as salesforce.com to manage the donation process. Almost all campaigns also started blogs in 2004. The Obama campaign has gone a step further and uses web 2.0 tools to help train and organize their volunteer supporters, allow volunteers to rapidly update information and, in some cases, provide web 2.0 tools to help manage their volunteer efforts. The core staff has also used these tools within the campaign.
Central Desktop is an on demand collaboration platform that is wiki-based and designed for the business user. A political campaign is also a business, as well as a movement, and is really a rapidly growing startup that has huge collaboration and communication needs. I will write about the details of Central Desktop in a follow on post but want to focus on its use within the Obama campaign in this piece.
The use of Central Desktop started in the California campaign where the Obama people faced the task of developing and managing a field operation in a geographically massive and diverse state. According to Issac, the conventional wisdom was that you could really only campaign in California effectively through TV and direct mail. No one had tried to build a field operation from the grass roots up in California since Bobby Kennedy. Several volunteers started using Central Desktop to coordinate their internal efforts. It worked well so they decided to open it up to more volunteers as they hired and then organized a field operation that enlisted 6,000 precinct captain volunteers.
They set up MyPrecinct pubic workspaces for selected precinct captains. This allowed them to manage their efforts with task assignment, calendaring, documents, lists of key information, and other workspace tools. These spaces were separate form the main web site. They allowed the precinct captains to manage and organize themselves, reducing the burden on the central staff and on the central web site staff. It also reflected the more decentralized operational mode of the campaign. One of the main themes is increased participation in the political process, and this allowed for increased participation in the workings of the campaign. While Obama did not win in California, he did manage to close the gap and gain significant delegates.
As the Obama campaign moved on to Texas, Central Desktop came with them. Since this campaign was still current at the time of the interview with Issac, I was able to see much more about what was going on. Here the main focus was to the use the tool to quickly train precinct captains on their job and provide the information they need. The wiki based tool allowed for rapid content development in the few weeks leading up to the Texas campaign and then maintenance and updates by volunteers. Central Desktop has many permission levels so the content could not be spammed or trashed as sometimes happens in public wikis.
New or prospective precinct captains can go the Precinct Captain Learning Center, a separate application from the main web site. I put the link in but I am not sure how long it will be up. You are first greeted by these choices on the home page:
1. “Apply to be a Precinct captain - not yet a Precinct captain - click here to sign up”
2. “Get Started - First time visiting the site - Start here” - the page starts with - “From the entire Obama for America community in Texas-- staff, volunteers, and supporters -- we sincerely thank you for stepping up and taking responsibility for a piece of this movement… (then it goes on after more welcoming) - Time is precious -- click here to get started now!” You go to a clear and detailed list of steps to take. - Step One - learn your role, Step Two - Call 20 voters using MyPrecinct (with many quick guides on effective calls), Step Three: Recruit Help (with more guidance).
3. “New Features in the MyPrecinct calling tool” - this section has screen shots and explanations. It showed you how to do data entry. The precinct voters are already entered and when you want to update the results of a call - you click on edit data giving you wiki editing rights. You also get rolled up data on your efforts. In addition, there was also a My Precinct Team feature where you can meet other precinct captains through their contact information for further collaboration.
4. “Find Your Early Voting Location” - here the wiki format is useful in up dating information
There are also many links in the side bars under training & tutorials, help (FAQs, contact your organizer), and resource center (issues, fact check, office locator, etc.). Underneath the four main sections above were three links with graphics:
Share Your Story - people can write about how they got involved in the campaign in a blog format
Office locator - with maps - the wiki tool helped with the updates
The Texas Two-Step - clearly written explanation of the hybrid primary voting and caucus process that explained in a way that I had not heard in the media.
This was all done in a few weeks and allowed for more effective participation but a campaign that is attempting to bring new people into the process and make them effective. The campaign sates on its main web site, “I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring real change in Washington… I’m asking you to believe in yours.” It is nice to see the campaign use participatory web 2.0 tools to further enable people in this process. I hope that whoever gets elected will try to engage more people in the political process through tools such as these.
Here is a comment to the above post from Mike Chapman who served as an Obama precinct captain in Texas. It appeared on on the Fast Forward.
"Thank you for this post on the Obama campaign. I’m a social media practitioner of sorts here in Austin, Texas, and an Obama Precinct Captain as well. I’ve been involved in and with political campaigns my whole adult life and you are absolutely right about how effective the Obama online campaign was. There were some occasions where the system slowed down due to high volume of use, but the site was interactive; the campaign made modifications in response to our input as we went. It was extremely effective in allowing for precinct captains and other volunteers to work out of their own homes or offices and be constantly connected to each other and the campaign. The time saved from going to the headquarters alone was tremendous. At my own precinct caucus, where Obama easily defeated Clinton, many, many people came up to me and told me they appreciated the personal touch of someone from the neighborhood calling them, another advantage of the Obama and Central Desktop operation. I could go on. With a couple of months to work, we could have won the state even with the last minute negative campaign tactics being used by the Clinton campaign. Watch out in Pennsylvania if the Obama campaign adjusts and learns and continues to use Central Desktop."
Another commenter, Rob Patterson said, Others say -”He has no experience” But isn’t the organization of his campaign a model for effectiveness and does it not show a brilliant insight into his understanding of the new reality? Imagine a fortune 500 CEO with this approach and what they could do." Here is a model for viral marketing for any web startup.