Friday, April 17, 2009

Database software is sooo sexy

Or you'd think so anyways, given that this Globe story has generated over 300 comments:

In a bid to match successful tactics used in the past two election campaigns by Stephen Harper's Conservatives, the federal Liberals are importing highly sophisticated voter database software used by Barack Obama's political strategists.

To make maximum use of the technology, the party is also taking steps to centralize administration, fundraising and election preparation. This would effectively end the party's status as a loosely federated body of provincial and territorial associations.

A centralized administration and election-readiness strategy would address one of the federal party's major problems: how to get hold of membership lists and other voter data from provincial, territorial and constituency organizations.

The Conservatives' centralized database has given the party a huge advantage in fundraising and identifying potential party election volunteers and voters.

Very positive that, after years of talking about it, the Liberals will finally be starting to employ some of the sophisticated voter identification and tracking techniques that parties in the U.S., and the Conservatives, have been using successfully for years to identify voters and raise money.

Anyone who has ever used ManageElect, which LPC and riding campaigns have traditionally used for voter ID tracking, will know that it's both cumbersome and lacking in functionality. That's also why buy-in was never high with the system. And technology, of course, is just a tool: garbage in, garbage out.

I think Valpy does go off course by confusing the membership database, and the issues around centralization there, with the supporters database. Obviously you want your members in your supporters database, and I understand that has been happening for a few years now with ManageElect, but your supporters database is a very different database from your membership one, to be used for very different purposes.

Valpy's article gives the impression that challenges remain around centralization on the membership side, but by and large most of that work has already been done. The National Membership Registry was implemented in 2006, for example. That work has helped pave the way for "VAN" as the new supporters database has been dubbed.

But this has nothing to do with, as Valpy says:

To make maximum use of the technology, the party is also taking steps to centralize administration, fundraising and election preparation. This would effectively end the party's status as a loosely federated body of provincial and territorial associations.

Not at all true. As I said, the membership centralization has happened. Now, there were some renewal committee recommendations around a further centralization of functionality at the LPC level and a de-emphasis of the federated structure. I intend to devote a post to that topic soon. Spoiler alert: I'll be mounting a spirited defence of the federated structure and the PTAs, for its a great Liberal asset.

But this debate has nothing to do with VAN. The adminsitrative steps to enable it, ie. a national membership registry, have already happened. No further steps, no "effective ending of blah blah" is necessary to "make maximum use" of VAN. It's two seperate issues.

Now, the real key to success with this new system will be making it easy to use and then making it mandatory for everyone to use it, so we can get that critical mass of quality data to leverage at both the riding level, and nationally. The system is only as good as the quality of data contained within.

With good data, all levels of our party -- riding campaigns, PTAs and party central -- will benefit from the power of the new database.

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Gauntlet said...

Looking forward to how you see a party is going to be able to impose a standardized use of a piece of standardized database software across 13 loosely federated organizations with their own governance structures, executives, constitutions, budgets, institutional momentum, attitudes, hangups, etc...

Concerned Albertan said...

The national executive meeting of the 28th of March rejected doing major constitutional work based on the report for this convention, and has since moved to try working within the current structure with new operational agreements between the PTAs and national.

No worry until 2011 on this front!

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Jeff said...

Jason, the steps needed to ensure the viability and utility of a national database have largely already been taken. The primary challenge will be to ensure standardized data entry at the riding level and ensure campaigns buy-in. The only wrinkle to be ironed-out I can see is to ensure PTAs and LPC don't overlap around fundraising.

The database, though, is a tool that both national office can leverage, that PTAs can use based on their regional perspectives, and ridings and campaigns can leverage as well.

We have leaned too heavily towards a decentralized structure in the past. But the prime issues there have been addressed. We need to be careful not to lean too far towards centralization. The federated, PTA structure remains one of our assets.

Kyle, it won't be on the table for Vancouver, but the battle will continue to be fought in the backrooms, at national exec, at council of presidents, and at PTA AGMs. I think it's important to keep making the case for our regional strengths.

The Rat said...

Isn't it ironic that the LPC is a loosely federated party, resistant to centralized power, that advocates for a strong central government while the CPC is a heavily centralized party that advocates for a loose federation?