The technology issues that led to the failure of the Democrats’ Iowa Caucuses have gotten a lot of attention in the days following, but not enough attention has been paid to the leadership and management failures that preceded the technological catastrophe.
I’ve written before about how you should assess the tools your campaign wants to use and you can read more of my thoughts on larger lessons from Iowa here, but in this post I’ll focus on what you, as a campaign decision maker, need to understand when managing a campaign tech project, whether it’s a new website, internal software, or an external app for supporters.
Getting technology right takes time. Sometimes the delay is on the vendor’s end if other projects take precedence or somehow is out sick, but often, the delay could be on your end. Always provide feedback thoroughly and on time. If you need to give your vendor access to domain names or photos and videos, do so as soon as they request it. If you don’t, they’ll waste valuable time chasing them down from you and if it means a pause in the work, the team building your tech will spend time getting back into the project.
One trap I’ve seen plenty of campaigns fall into is delaying spending on critical technology infrastructure in order to play the “cash on hand” game where you hold non-urgent expenses until after a campaign finance report. This is dumb. The advantage of amassing a campaign “warchest” has evaporated and by delaying important investments only hurts your campaign.
Doing technology well comes at a price – especially in politics where the market isn’t as large and there aren’t as many consumers to spread the cost among. Another factor that may contribute to the sticker shock is the number of skill sets involved in a given project. A website, for example requires a project manager, a designer, and a front-end developer, at a minimum. Part of your cost is renting that talent which you would otherwise be unable to afford.
Know Which Corners You Cut
When you decide to cut corners on budget and timeline – like the Iowa Democratic Party did – your final product will suffer. There’s no question. But you can have some control over which corners get caught and at a minimum you need awareness of what they are.
Always Be Testing
Often testing, what technologists call “quality assurance” or QA, is the first thing to get cut when timelines or budgets are tight. This is also, of course, the one you want to have most awareness of. If your budget or timeline didn’t allow for proper QA, you either need to soft launch the website or app to give you time to find and fix the bugs or spend an intense period of time doing this yourself with your whole team.
This still isn’t a safe move because only an expert knows what to look for and all the ways something can go wrong.
Training Unlocks Full Potential
A good technology partner will budget time to train you on the features of your new product – this is sometimes called “onboarding.” If you’ve already used the product before or have gotten training, you can sometimes save time and budget by skipping this step.
But cutting this particular corner may mean you’re not getting the most value out of your technology investment if you’re not familiar with all of the features or settings. It doesn’t make sense to spend all of that money on a product only to get partial use from it because you scrimped on training.
Have a Credible Plan B
If your vendor is scrambling to get your project delivered on a tight budget or timeline, the likelihood that your new system will fail will be higher. If you decide to cut corners, you need to have a credible backup plan in place.
If the IDP, for example, had hired 500 people to answer phones and enter data, they would have had a better result for cheaper cost. Obviously they didn’t need that level of backup, but would we be talking about the incident if they had 50 people on phone support?
The mistakes made by the Iowa Democratic Party with their caucus reporting app were 100% avoidable and we should all learn from them. This incident should not make campaigners more skeptical of using technology smartly, to their advantage. Understanding how to manage technology is now a critical skill for any campaigner.