The RNC Tech Counter-Reformation!

( – promoted by Rob “EaBo Clipper” Eno)

We all have heard about the big RNC report that came out this week. But of the 39,900 words in it, 6,500 were purely about technology and data. Considering how many topics were covered, for 15% of it to be about technology is something.

Also, in addition to the report, there have been other people going out and talking in support of the content. These are the three biggest and most important pieces in support of the tech section:

“Republican Party Plans a Data-Driven Renaissance” – Great interview with RNC’s new Chief of Staff Mike Shields…

“Closing the GOP’s Election Data Deficit” – op-ed by Karl Rove…

“What ‘Growth and Opportunity’ Means for a Digital GOP” – they interview the Red Edge guys from that NYT Magazine piece we all saw…

There’s a lot I want to say, but does the RNC “get it” about what happened and what they need to do?  YES.

(read more…)


OK, so first, about the report. It is clear that they talked to a lot of people, including some very good ones. In addition, the things Chairman Priebus is saying in support of the document are also clearly drawn from interviews from people that are really immersed in the culture of Internet software.

So what does the report say? A lot. I recommend reading all of the tech stuff. (Link here.) But here I will only include highlights of their summary. (I will put what I think are the most important words in bold.)

1. The RNC should recruit and hire a chief technology and digital officer.

2. The RNC should begin the search for expanded technology and digital teams that can be deployed across every division of the RNC – fundraising, political, communications and so on to integrate the work of those divisions and increase the potential to use technology and digital in an efficient and effective manner. Technology and digital should be treated as two separate but related functions in this process. The search for members of these teams should be expanded beyond the traditional political sphere and include individuals with significant professional experience in web development and marketing programs.

3. The RNC should create in-house staff training programs for digital recruits to ensure the cultivation of mid-level tech/digital leaders who can effectively administer large programs within the digital team, like email, social content, fundraising, and digital field organizing.

4. The chief technology and digital officer should have regular “working group” meetings with representatives from different campaign committees, elected leadership, vendors and party tech leaders on the GOP side who have an interest in participating in the debate/discussion about how best to build the structure needed to grow our tech and digital efforts. The RNC should help seed some efforts, but also be willing to tap into the best of what emerges organically from other entities. And the RNC should strive to be an active member of a thriving digital community – talking, encouraging, prodding where necessary – but supporting competition in the marketplace to ensure that the best ideas rise to the top.

5. The development of “political technology” products that are user-friendly for volunteers is essential. We need tools that easily allow voter registration, the request for an absentee ballot, managing of walk-lists online and so on. These tools can be developed in-house with the digital team or developed by working with vendors, and the committee would need to determine how to legally transfer and/or share these tools with candidates.

6. As with voter contact, test technology by harnessing competition to create innovative results. Conduct tests in real-world conditions to develop best practices for digital contact and/or persuasion.

7. As with data, digital training is critical. The Republican Party needs a new training institute that can benefit all Party committees, state parties, campaigns, and outside groups. This could be established in the form of a 501(c) 4 group to train and develop political/digital talent. Groups are already undertaking this effort, and we applaud their initiative.

8. Establish an RNC fellows program to recruit data, digital and tech “fellows” from college campuses, targeting potential graduates in fields such as computer science and mathematics.

9. Develop Digital Campaign Colleges and network events in high-tech cities such as San Francisco, Austin, New York, Denver, and so on to foster and build stronger relationships within the tech community.


Now I want to add some crucial supporting quotes from Karl Rove, the RNC Chief of Staff Mike Shields and Red Edge’s Bret Jacobson:

Rove: “Can the GOP catch up? Understanding that today’s technology has the shelf life of a banana, Silicon Valley Republicans are working to modernize the GOP’s voter file in advance of next year’s midterms. They know users want an interactive platform with applications so that any Republican candidate or conservative organization can better identify, persuade and turn out voters.

The information and applications should provide for dynamic microtargeting and at least match the Obama campaign’s ability to connect target voters with volunteers they know or whose interests match their own. It should also be possible to update the master voter file in real time from phone banks, door knocks, online activity and other data streams. The platform will use open architecture, so enterprising GOP developers can build additional applications that candidates and campaigns find useful.”

Shields: “When asked if he thought the Republican Party can attract somebody like Harper Reed, the outlandish and mustachioed technologist who left clothing company Threadless to become the Obama campaign’s first chief technology officer, Shields said they could – as long as they show smart people they will have a voice in the party’s goings-on.

“I think the way … people look at the Republican Party and the Republican National Committee now will be different when we’re done building this out, and people will be very pleased with the results,” said Shields.

“There are a lot of people who think ideologically the same way as we do and agree with our principals that are in the tech sector. They have just never been drawn out of the tech sector because they’ve never seen it as worthwhile, that they were going to be part of an organization that valued their input and that they were going to be given the freedom to be creative and solve problems, which is ultimately what engineers like to do,” he added.”

Jacobson: “They’re definitively headed the right direction,” said Bret Jacobson, a partner at Red Edge, a digital consulting firm in Arlington, Va., who’s written in the past about the party’s lagging technology infrastructure (and who was ignored.) “The question is how quickly can an entire culture adapt, and I think that there’s evidence that the culture has to adapt, and then it’s up to a lot of people to buy into that.

Asked whether he thinks the GOP is going to be able to find enough talent to help it with its makeover, Jacobson responded: “Talent acquisition is going to be the biggest operational challenge overhead, and the plan released today is a really good guide for the long-term. What we’re going to be keeping an eye on is who they hire for the chief digital strategist.


OK, now having gotten all that out there, what do I think?

They are doing just about everything I could possibly want. They are going to spend big money on this, and work with outside groups (like Rove’s people) on some of the initiatives. That last part is great. They can’t do all this themselves, and I don’t want them to.

So, what are the real challenges going to be?  (Note: My actual job is not writing things on Facebook and RMG, but doing consulting work at NTT Data to huge conservative organizations about how they can change to embrace new technologies. So this stuff is exactly what I have been doing for many years. There is no problem the RNC has that I haven’t seen before.)

1. Culture

Bret Jacobson from Red Edge hit the nail on the head. Technology isn’t like accounting. It is a fast-moving and crazy industry that has many cultural beliefs that are uncommon in other fields. For one, we have developed a very powerful belief that giving away some of your work to community projects –  even to use by competitors – speeds innovation and the feedback improves your work. We also believe in a lot of  transparency. I really can’t imagine the GOP and affiliated groups freely sharing code, data, and ideas. Their history is about keeping things internal and legal agreements and money changing hands.

Another cultural touchstone is speed. We are constantly learning and experimenting and moving very quickly. Can the RNC adopt that?

2. People

One of the problems that I have seen with the GOP – at all levels – is that when people want technology, they always look for the technologists in the Republican community rather than the Republicans in the technology community. The report shows that they now know they have to look beyond the partisans in their existing social networks.

I am also happy that they get the fact that you have to give people challenges, let them make their own decisions, and then give them a voice in the direction that things go. Autonomy and status are expected at the top of my field. Nobody is going to go to the RNC to be treated like a high-tech janitor who just keeps the data organized.

I do think that Mr. Shields is overconfident about finding great people. Jacobsen knows it won’t be easy. One of the issues I see my clients have is that they don’t have any ‘A’ people, so they don’t even know when they are doing fantastic work, or merely good work. You have to have a few really good people around so you can properly gauge how things are going, and to lure other ‘A’ people to come and work there.

Here’s an illuminating idea: if I had to choose between the whole RNC and Karl Rove’s millions and 100 dedicated people the RNC hired OR to supervise the 12 best developers I know for one year with a $50K budget outside of salaries – I would take the second choice without hesitation. That is how important the talent is.

3. The Actual Work

I remember one meeting I was at in London a while back, when someone was standing in front of a group of IT managers, talking about their grand plans to create this massive new infrastructure effort and all of the money and people that would be involved in it. The diagram behind him was dizzying. So many people and boxes and lines! I stopped him and said, “But how many people are going to be doing the actual work?” He didn’t get it. I turned around my sticker-covered laptop, pointed to it, and said ,”Ultimately, the end product of this whole initiative is going to be accomplished by people sitting in front of computers typing things into them. Everything else is just supposed to properly describe what those people are supposed to do, to provide them with all their needs, and then to share what they typed. It appears that this army is all generals and quartermasters and almost no actual soldiers.”

When you look at what Obama’s technical guys created with only a handful of engineers, you realize that if you have great people, you can be very lean and very focused and extremely productive. Adding other people just adds friction, confuses programmers, and pulls those programmers away from their computers far too often.

So my concern is that there are going to be a lot of people involved with this, but not that many actually writing code and analyzing data.

4. Outside Contributions

One great thing about open source projects is that anyone – yes anyone – can drop in and use what is there and make small contributions. The RNC really needs to have as much of their stuff as possible out in the open, so any developer can participate without going through some vetting process. Karl Rove and the RNC say a few things that hint at this, but I wonder how far it will go. There will be a temptation to keep things secret so the Democrats don’t get them. I think that’s the habit, but it must be broken. (We are behind and they are not going to copy us anyway.) The RNC needs lots of entry points where people can do stuff. Sure you have some gatekeepers, and, like in open source, you don’t give someone all the privileges until he proves himself for a while.

Let’s take the GOP Data Center. The technology is lousy and the interface isn’t good either. What if I wanted to improve that? Or write an app on top of that? Chairman Priebus, in an interview about the RNC report, said that he wants the RNC to be like the “App Store” that Apple has. I loved that he said that! But I have had more than one client say something similar. I usually say, “Well… OK then! Are you willing to do the kinds of things to make that happen? Are you willing to put all your data out there in an easy-to-consume format so it can be consumed and remixed and put into apps? Are you willing to be loose about the process to get into your app store? Are you willing to tolerate some less-than-awesome stuff to make the place welcoming? Are you really willing to give up the control that you are used to?”

But Chairman Priebus at least used the phrase “hack-a-thon”. I look forward to going to a Republican Hack-a-Thon and telling my technology friends about it. 🙂

Final Thoughts

First, I wanted to say what a relief it is that the RNC finally understands how important technology is, and what a huge effort it will be to get serious about it.

But I wanted to step back and look at the big picture.

The Democrats have a better existing culture and party demographics for adopting Internet technology than we have. They don’t just have a bunch of tech geniuses in OFA and others on-loan from the Valley for campaigns, they have a huge ecosystem of people and organizations that want to use technology to empower people to change our politics. The DNC, infiltrated by the OFA crowd, is now one – but only one – major player in their ecosystem. They don’t have to manage everything. In fact, I don’t even think they are the most important player. But they don’t need to be.

Ultimately, there needs to be a comparable right-wing technology ecosystem of which the RNC is only one major player. The best thing that it can do is to go out and preach to all the organizations and donors it touches that this is a priority, that we are in an information technology revolution and politics is an information war. (Yes, the report was a brilliant and forceful first step!) The RNC must also gather together great technologists and train new ones to work on the problems that it needs solved. It should raise money to fund initiatives and handle the necessary paperwork and legal stuff to take the friction out of different organizations working together and sharing things. But most of all, it needs to convince the world of right-thinking technology guys that there is actually some cool stuff going on in the Republican Party, and that anyone who has the skills – or really wants to get those skills – can stop by.

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