Iowa caucuses prove that tech isn't always the right answer

Iowa caucuses prove that tech isn't always the right answer
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In the wake of the failure of a phone app in Iowa to quickly report the results of Monday’s Democratic caucuses, this is a message for my fellow Democrats.

Quit it. Stop. No More. When will you learn not to build technology from scratch that you can get from Silicon Valley? 

News reports state that a group of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Democratic demolition derby Juan Williams: Don't count Biden out Candidates in Obama's orbit fail to capitalize on personal ties MORE campaign veterans, including a former Silicon Valley engineer, built a phone app from scratch. Despite an apparent lack of development time (they reportedly built it quickly), a lack of stress testing (to see if the app could handle many people using it at once), and a lack of training, Iowa’s volunteer precinct caucus managers were supposed to report results quickly and seamlessly. The insatiable, instant-gratification appetite of the political media and activists demanded feeding.

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Can it be that the aristocracy of for-profit political consultants now also has captured the technology strategy of the Democratic Party? That Silicon Valley veterans have no contribution of expertise to make? That money again beats function? Was the 2016 Clinton campaign technology so compelling that the Democratic Party has handed the keys over to its veterans? Is it possible that no one remembers the Clinton campaign’s abject failure in 2016 to anticipate and understand what was happening with email security and fake news on social media?

The Democratic Party needs to ask itself: Would you hire a computer science nerd to manage your campaign? Of course not. Then why hire political operatives to build your technology? 

The truth is, new technology is not always needed. Sometimes — perhaps even in this case — Iowa Democrats could have used Google Forms and a fully-staffed phone bank in Des Moines as backup. That would have saved lots of money and all this heartache. I once argued with a U.S. senator in 2004 who wanted to give every volunteer on John KerryJohn Forbes KerryConsensus forming for ambitious climate goal: Net zero pollution New Hampshire primary turnout is a boost to Democrats New Hampshire only exacerbates Democratic Party agita MORE’s presidential campaign a $165 PalmPilot to collect information during door-to-door canvassing. I suggested that a ballpoint pen and clipboard, coming in at about $2.50 total, would avoid the huge training hassles and devices that got lost or broken.

If you are indeed going to deploy new technology, why build it from scratch? Silicon Valley has perfected so-called “B2C” (business to consumer) tools that sell us blue jeans and Caribbean cruises while capturing every micro-movement we make online and offline. Politics requires, in its essence, the same things. Sell us an idea or a candidate. Learn as much as possible about each voter so that you can communicate with him or her on things that will motivate an action, such as contributing money to a campaign or voting.

What happened in Iowa this week has happened in politics every four years, back to the 2004 presidential election when technology in politics first progressed beyond a spreadsheet and a simple website. And it has happened to both political parties. In 2004 and 2008, the Democrats’ Election Day reporting systems broke after great anticipation, forcing me and other battleground state leaders to fall back on traditional phone bank centers to know what was happening. In 2012, the Republicans launched ORCA into the ocean of data management, only to see it sink into oblivion. 

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Since the 2016 political (and technological) disaster suffered by the Democratic Party — and because President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussian sanctions will boomerang States, cities rethink tax incentives after Amazon HQ2 backlash A Presidents Day perspective on the nature of a free press MORE so animates and frightens techies — a couple dozen groups and hundreds of Silicon Valley techies have raised their hands and offered to help. 

Please, Democrats, change your ways. Use new technology only if it really adds value. To save money and prevent failures, identify existing Silicon Valley technologies and work with political operatives to adapt them for campaign use. And let experienced, skilled coders and engineers actually do the tech work. 

Donnie Fowler is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco. He is CEO and executive director of Tech4America and was a co-founder of Democracy Labs, two organizations involved in political strategy. He has worked on the presidential campaigns of eight presidential candidates since 1987. Follow him on Twitter @fowlerdonnie.