Get a Guru, Guys…

Iain Dale’s latest Telegraph article is one of his most interesting yet because it is right in my area of
online campaigning and so-called e-politics. He is spot on when he says
that we are years behind the USA in our approach to using the internet
in campaigns and politics and I wanted to touch upon some of the
reasons as to why that might be and offer some ideas for a way forward.

It seems that the fundamental reason why politicians haven’t taken to
the internet in quite the numbers that we would like to see is because
of a good old-fashioned skills shortage combined with the desire by
some politicos to keep a very tight control over their message.

Blogger for example. It’s a free blogging platform
that lets almost anybody start sharing their thoughts and their
campaign message with the world – and guess what – you need virtually
no techie skills to work it. WordPress is a
similar sort of beast, but you do need a touch more skill, but more on
the admin side than the technical side. The beauty of these packages is
that they let the campaigner or politician voice their message without
having to go via a third person – meaning they don’t have to wait,
there’s no need to plan it out, it won’t cost anything and there’s
total control of the message.

The downsides to that is how it leads to some choices in how the
politico or campaigner commissions their own message over the internet.
They like the cost, ease of use and, very importantly, the speed in
which they can set it all up. In politics things change quickly and
sometimes the need to respond or market a message can arise very
quickly. However, where the message can benefit from a longer planning
period a good site can be put together – take the
website for example. The temptation there would have been to create a
website or blog very quickly to extend the period of time that the
message is being delivered to the audience, however a bit of time was
taken to think about it all a little bit and as a result an excellent
site has been born that’s doing a lot to help the campaign. You can bet
your bottom dollar that the work was carried out by a web design firm.
And that brings me nicely to my second point.

The reason the US is so far ahead is because political consultancy is
strong over there. Attached to that is the recognition that bringing in
the best people for the job is a must – and in the USA they have the
money to do it too. Over here, there’s no chance a parliamentary
campaign would be able to afford to bring in a web developer on £35 or
£45k per year. So, what are the options?

is one very good system that could really see
us closing the gap. The system is open-source and expandable almost to
the point of infinity. It’s so good that Howard Dean used it for his
2004 Presidential Campaign. Who uses it over here? Nobody. Not a single
campaign organisation (that I’m familiar with) has taken to Drupal
despite the fact it’s an ideal tool. There’s is only one blogger that
is really using it and that is Shane Greer who launched recently. He’s
using it because I built the site for him and explained the benefits it
will have to his long-term career and the features it can offer to his
users. He was sold and agreed to undergo the necessary training to
learn how to administer the site. Now he does it all by himself and
will even be able to expand the site, put it into a campaign mode or do
whatever he likes with it. Most of the developments he’ll be able to do
himself using the administration tools without the need to contact a
third party. Only if he wants some major work will he need to bring me
back in.

Another thing that needs to be done is the establishment of some party
organisation around the internet. The Conservatives, for example, have
Andy Coulson in the communications post, but what does he know about
Blogger, WordPress and even Drupal? What does he know about online
campaigning? Does he know the difference between Faceparty and
Facebook, for example? That remains to be seen, there’s nothing online
that I could find to suggest a background in this area.

The Conservatives recently advertised a post for a Digital Development
Manager, but that post needs to be more like an internet equivalent to
the communications post – it needs to be filled by a guru with a
mixture of entreprenuerial skills, IT know-how and marketing
experience. They need to have a great deal of autonomy and, quite
importantly, they need to oversee the growth of skills within the
constituencies, which can be achieved by hiring a network of trainers
for a period to go around and up-skill activists around the country on
how they can use platforms like Drupal to get the best out of the
internet and how to mould their message to the web. Building
micro-sites and providing CCHQ-based website design services doesn’t
address the skills gap and smacks of centralisation as well as blocking
out the private market.

From the Conservative point of view, they have got to pull their
fingers out fast. The Labour Party have opted for a different approach
to online campaigning – they use a stable of tools instead of blogsites
and the like. When the time comes for an election – and it could be
quite soon – the Labour Party stand a good chance of delivering a very
powerful electronic strike against Conservatives. Being complacent
because of the power of the blogosphere and it’s leaning towards the
Conservatives is not enough.