Blue State Digital (BSD) is something like the Kanye West or Mick Jagger or Madonna (all depends on your era) of political technology— hardcore rock star. They were the technology backbone for Howard Dean when he ran the first successful Internet campaign in 2004 and, even more importantly, they built the technology infrastructure for MyBarackObama.com, thus achieving the status of gods of rock. They only work on campaigns that, shall we say, “lean to the left.” Note the company name, people.
Their historic success rests on their BSD Online tools, which are a technology suite and infrastructure that, coupled with design services, led to the creation of MyBarackObama.com’s (from now on called MyBO.com) location. But that’s hardly their only success. They’ve had clients like the late Senator Edward Kennedy, the Communications Workers of America, London Mayor Ken Livingstone, and AT&T. In other words, they are hardly a one-trick pony.
Mission 21st Century
Their mission is simple, but not what you’d expect. Here it is from Thomas Gensemer, who is the managing director of BSD:
Blue State Digital is the leader in online fundraising, advocacy, social networking, and constituency development programs for nonprofit organizations, political candidates and causes, and corporations. We strive to provide extreme value to our clients by providing the most current, creative, and results-focused strategic advice along with the best tools in the business for online engagement. These tools can be used by anyone, from politicians wanting to engage the public to help their election, to corporations wanting to engage their customers to affect their profits.
While this might sound a little formal in tone, there is one thing the company isn’t and that’s formal. While they build technology backbones and have a strong set of technology tools, their mission for 2009 and beyond doesn’t sound like a high tech company, does it? That’s because it’s strategic. Technology for BSD is a set of tools and infrastructure they need to make sure that what they do is effective for their clients. This is not a company of geeks. This is a business-driven company focused on blue state efforts that is now also moving into the commercial realm.
When they took on the Communication Workers of America (CWA) as a client, they had a plan in mind. They were going to build a program that would support the union’s legislative objectives, which included equal access to broadband and advanced telco services. The idea wasn’t just to win the objective but for the CWA to emerge as the leader in the fight for equal access—and as the leaders in getting Congress and state legislatures to pass legislation in support of it.
The result of this was the Speed Matters program. Speed Matters was lanched in 2006 as an interactive site aimed at recruiting support for the legislative action through CWA. By 2008, there were close to 100, 000 members of the constituency who could be mobilized through action alerts throughout the country. The hook was a Speed Matters Internet speed test (taken by 200, 000 in two years) that showed how fast your Internet speed was, driving home why access to high-speed connectivity was so important.
But don’t get me wrong. They are and have hardcore technologists there. In addition to providing what sources other than them call a “robust” online toolset for content creation and social interaction, they work on the back end of technology too.
When they built MyBO.com, they had to create something that has been fundamental to all CRM since CRM’s version of time immemorial—about a decade and a half. That was a single database for a consolidated view of the individual “customer.” While this has been done by 38 percent of the corporations out there in the Fortune 1000, a woeful number, it had never been done for a presidential campaign. The scope was massive because it was going to be at least terabytes of data. BSD, through Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the BSD CTO, learned what not to do from the Dean campaign’s failure to consolidate data with their six disparate databases.
BSD, with 20 people devoted full time to infrastructure throughout the campaign, chose to use MySQL, an open source database for their data, PhP for scripting, and Movable Type to build blogs, websites, and social networks—plus good ol’ HTML too. Of course, they didn’t ignore their own tools either. The result was that they succeeded for the first time in campaign history, allowing the Obama campaign to see consolidated information on his donors, volunteers, campaign workers, and any other constituents—who often overlapped in roles (for example, volunteers gave money). We know the outcome.
It’s victories like this, successful outcomes that they are intimately involved with and their incredible versatility, that gets them the coveted Superstah! designation for this chapter. Watch their work in the commercial sector as they begin to move to it. They are well worth it.
Okay, we’re heading to the end of this chapter though there is more throughout the book on this important “vertical” when it comes to Social CRM. I’d like to close with another mini-conversation with you and my good friend, Alan Rosenblatt, who will take you through the way constituent engagement is working on the social web via advocacy.
Total Social Engagement:Constituent Engagement on the Social Web
Add one part freedom to petition your government with grievances, one part e-mail, and one part social networks and you come up with a concoction that is sure to overwhelm congressional staff as they try to keep up with the onslaught of constituent communications. In the past dozen or so years, constituent communication has grown from about 50 million messages to Congress a year to over 300 million (with more than 90 percent via e-mail), according to the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF). Even if most of these e-mails are spam that can be automatically filtered, staffers are still faced with triple the workload of their counterparts in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, the budget for staff and technology in Congress has not increased in over 20 years.
From a constituent relations management perspective, this is a recipe for disaster. Workload is increasing at breakneck speeds, capacity remains stagnant, and the Constitution guarantees the rights of citizens to keep sending their grievances. Throw in the fact that the vast majority of the e-mails are form letter ampaigns organized by advocacy groups with large memberships and you can understand why, in the face of way too much work, congressional staff have developed a healthy skepticism about the legitimacy of these e-mails, with 50 percent believing they are fake and another 25 percent unsure, according to CMF).
But, as I have said often and loudly, the First Amendment guarantees the rights of citizens to petition the government with grievances. So, regardless of the difficulties, congressional offices have a constitutional obligation to figure this stuff out. And with the availability of CRM and now social networkingtools, the solutions are not that hard to imagine. The key is to change the paradigm from one that combines top-down broadcast message delivery with a reactive constituent communication management to one that is proactive and interactive.
Leaving aside the technical issues for processing large amounts of constituent e-mail, a problem being addressed by CMF, advocacy groups, software vendors, and individuals with deep knowledge of the congressional e-mail system like Daniel Bennett, a shift in strategy can go a long way toward solving this problem. If congressional offices become more proactive in their communications with constituents, using their websites, e-newsletters, and other e-mail to anticipate constituent questions and concerns by providing substantive answers in advance of the questions, they can better steer the engagement with their constituents into a relationship that serves everyone’s needs.
This new paradigm would use new social engagement software like wikis, blogs, and social networks to allow congressional offices to move policy discussions to public, interactive venues. Once shifted to a public forum, the burden for responding to individual e-mails is alleviated. Congressional offices can publicly respond to thousands of inquiries simultaneously, rather than one at a time in isolation. And since the engagement is in a public forum where anyone can chime in, often offices will discover that other constituents in the discussion community will handle the answers for them. All the office has to do is monitor and correct any mistakes in those answers.
Further, by creating an interactive community for discussing policy, one that includes the active participation of the member and his/her staff, the relationship with constituents will deepen with potentially less workload. In political science research, we talk about internal and external political efficacy as an indicator of political engagement between citizens and government. External efficacy is the degree to which a person believes the government responds to the people. Internal efficacy is the degree to which a person believes the government responds to him/herself.
In a world where all constituent communications with Congress are private and one-to-one, the number of people who get direct responses is inherently limited and there is no opportunity to see how other people interact with lawmakers. If offices engage in public discussions with constituents using social applications like wikis, then both internal and external efficacy can improve, leading directly to greater trust in government.
Interestingly, according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer (2008), younger citizens, those most likely to use the social web, are more trusting of government. The key is to increase the personal connection between communicators, whether it be between citizen and government official, or between citizen and citizen in the presence of the government official.
Integrating these social engagement technologies into the congressional constituent relationship management process is a challenge. Arcane technology rules crafted before the Internet, as well as those crafted in the early days of the Internet, limit the ability of offices to use much of this technology behind the firewall. That is slowly changing, but we still have a ways to go. A few offices are using open source servers that allow installation of wikis, but cultural biases continue to confound implementation. Still, some offices are pushing the limit, offices like Representative George Miller of California and Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, which have been experimenting with wikis.
Moving outside the firewall, a few members are venturing into the social web on sites like YouTube and Facebook. George Miller has Miller TV, which starts with a YouTube channel and feeds the videos to his official congressional website). Those watching the videos on YouTube are able to post comments and video replies. Other members have ventured into the social networking world. Many have created groups, pages, and profiles on Facebook, but aside from Congressman Ron Paul’s presidential campaign group, the most successful only have a few hundred friends or members.
Clearly this is a brave new world for elected officials. When in candidate mode, they totally get the interacting with voters on a personal level thing, but once in office they tend to lose that sense. And even in campaign mode, few really tap into new social web technology to create a total social engagement with the voters (Barack Obama’s presidential campaign being the primary exception).
A few years back I wrote a blog post about an upstart Senate campaign in Utah. Pete Ashdown, founder of Utah’s first ISP, ran against the incumbent Orrin Hatch. Faced with a much better funded opponent, Ashdown created a policy wiki on his website and invited the voters to help him refine his platform. Meanwhile, Senator Hatch’s website included a blog with the comments turned off. So while Ashdown was using technology to deepen his relationship with the voters in a truly meaningful way, Hatch was using technology as a vehicle for talking at the voters. This eminded me of the old 1770s debate driven by Edmund Burke about the proper role of an elected representative. Should they be a delegate, implementing the will of the constituents or a trustee, exercising judgment on behalf of constituents? Ashdown was clearly a delegate and Hatch looked a lot like a trustee.
In the emerging world of total social engagement, demands for delegates to replace trustees are inevitable. The more people can engage with government and their peers in public spaces, the less inclined they will be to blindly follow a trustee. The people have tools in their hands for learning about policy that rival the tools in the hands of congressional staff. This evening of the playing field changes the game completely. The old adage “knowledge is power” used to explain why the elite opinion leaders were powerful—knowledge was a scarce resource. But today, knowledge is no longer scarce.
In a market where knowledge is abundant, power is more evenly distributed. Those in elected office no longer have control over knowledge, thus they have less power relative to their constituents. And with social technologies at the disposal of a knowledgeable citizenry, giving them the ability to spread information, build networks, and mobilize them to action, power is now distributed in a manner that will make it harder and harder for elected officials to continue doing “business as usual.” In a world of total social engagement, the game has truly changed.
That’s just about it. Go get something to drink or eat. Then, when you’ve swallowed and digested, head over to the appendix for the final piece of this chapter, a piece written by my brother and expert in the social web and Social CRM when it comes to government administration and enforcement. That appendix is on an amazing project (among others) called Virtual Alabama, which uses Google Enterprise. It’s been so successful that it’s now spawning regional pilots throughout the U.S. under the name Virtual USA.
After that, we move on. We’re heading into some big small territory next—how social CRM impacts small business and what small business can do with it. Very cool stuff following very noble stuff.
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