In an open letter to the candidates for chair of the DNC, former DNC CTO Bryan Whitaker and I made the case that the new head of the DNC should double down on technology and innovation, not pull back. As the DNC prepares to vote on a new chair and they assume office, this will become not an academic question, but a practical one: What does an innovation focus for the Democratic Party actually look like in 2017?
The answer to this question is one I’ve struggled with several times before at the DNC, albeit in different moments, when I took over data soon after the devastating loss in ’04, and again when I led technology after President Obama’s groundbreaking victory in ’08. Of course, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, but there are several key plays the new chair must keep in mind at this early juncture in order to be competitive in ’18, ’20 and beyond.
1. Recycle the best innovations from the ’16 cycle
The lowest hanging fruit and first order of business must be to closely examine and repurpose the best innovations from this past primary and general election cycle. In particular, this cycle saw the adoption of several peer-to-peer text messaging tools like Hustle that creatively skirted around FCC regulations on receiving unsolicited texts.
Moreover, there was a treasure trove of new organizing tools born inside and outside the Bernie campaign, involving a distributed team of engineers building tools to support a massive volunteer infrastructure (much of which is now open source). We used this tactic in Gov. Dean’s DNC circa 2005, adopting as many of the tools built during the Dean campaign as was practical. And this shouldn’t be limited to looking at technology either. What components of the Bernie volunteer organizing model can be adopted by the party? And what tools might be needed to support?
2. Open up to the tech sector
Listening and outreach efforts shouldn’t be limited to just politics, but also technology. Technologists seem more engaged than ever to jump into the fray against Trump. The off year is an excellent opportunity to have some more in-depth conversations with those working in the tech industry (without hauling every technology executive into an awkward conversation at Trump tower). In the off years after 2008, David Plouffe spearheaded a research program to have exactly these sorts of conversations, asking prominent tech leaders how the campaign and party should prepare itself with the only certainty being that technology will continue to change. That certainty is truer now than ever. We should do this again.
3. Beta-runs: Use Virginia, New Jersey and North Carolina as test-beds
Perhaps the biggest must-do for the party in an off year is to test products in the races that are happening. Whether that’s testing models, organizing platforms, GOTV tools, or changes to the voter file interface, it’s essential to see how these tools perform in the field. But this is easier said than done.
The 2017 elections in New Jersey, Virginia, and potentially North Carolina are already creeping upon us. We must strike a balance between a long period of contemplation and strategic planning and seizing the moment to understand what the new normal is. Otherwise, we might lose the opportunity to test in the most meaningful context before the midterms in 2018. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Ship it.
4. Beat back the party bureaucracy
The other major key to a DNC and Democratic Party that is focused on innovation is providing the space to do so. Even in an off year, the DNC is inundated with requests for money, support, favors, you name it. This means that any digital and/or technology teams focused on looking towards the future will inevitably get distracted by the issues of the day. Success depends on being able to build organization that insulates elements of these teams from the day-to-day distractions. Even without the constraints of a presidential year, this bureaucracy is real, and has the potential to impede progress and disincentive making major shifts to how the party operates.
5. Check the ego: Don’t bet that the DNC has all the good ideas
Finally, the real opportunity for the party as a whole to advance on technology, digital, and voter contact approaches can’t just come from a crack team placed in D.C. There needs to be ways for people all over the country to get involved in these efforts. Whether these are the Tech Fellows program that Bryan and I recommended or increased funding for state parties to experiment with new technology tools, these programs can be easily executed in 2017 and can pay dividends while engaging Democrats all over the country
With a new chair coming into office in February, the DNC and other party committees have the potential to make 2017 an incredibly fruitful year for technology and innovation. All of the elements are there – a test bed for experiments in the November elections, Democrats across the country galvanized to do something in light of Trump’s election, and a highly functional technology infrastructure, which allows the incoming chair to focus on more than the fundamentals.
But none of this is a foregone conclusion. A new chair must act quickly and allocate the budget to make this a reality. If not, the reality show we’re currently living only gets worse.
Josh Hendler served as director of engineering at the DNC from 2005 to 2008 and director of technology from 2009 to 2011. He’s currently the CTO and head of product at Purpose.