Saturday, 21 March 2009

Some thoughts on 'The Change We Need' and inspiration from Barack Obama

The thrust of the final chapter of Nick Anstead and Will Straw's 'The Change We Need' is ostensibly about the need to open up the political process - but what this really means is that the Labour Party need to relax their controlling instincts.

They show how technological advances and the resulting social changes were utilised effectively by Obama's Presidential drive and highlight a new way of political campaigning. The authors argue in their conclusion that this point needs to be recognised by all parties if they want to remain relevant in today's world, and I would agree with that sentiment.

It seems the incidents that define Barack Obama's campaign to become the 44th President of the United States were the user-generated content produced in his honour, like the ubiquitous Obama Girl. However, in a more serious capacity...
'Barack Obama's web site contained a social networking element, my.barackobama.com, or MyBO as it became known. This allowed users to register with the campaign, and then create policy or interest groups with like-minded supporters (such as Veterans for Obama), organise their own fundraising drives or canvassing events, and advocate their beliefs through blogs or online petitions. This approach was extremely successful.'

It seems unlikely that people would willingly sign up to a social networking site built around the presence of our current Prime Minister. Surprisingly, mygordonbrown.com has already been registered so perhaps this might not always be the case. That the same organisation has also staked a claim for mydavidcameron.com suggests this is opportunism more than any guiding principle though. And I am sure that the Liberal Democrat leader will still be upset that there is no mynickclegg.com.

Seriously though, the way the US public took to MyBo was incredibly successful but some of the other initiatives operated by the Obama campaign did cause problems. Change.gov, the transition project where the President-Elect asked users to 'come back often as we define new programs and possibilities to engage and be part of this administration', is a case in point. Users did come back often and placed almost a million votes on more than ten-thousand questions - the most popular of which were to be put to the next President. The winner, displayed prominently on the homepage?
Will you consider legalizing marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and create a billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?

Clay Shirky, internet writer and consultant for the Obama campaign, recently recounted how this caused problems for the administration - some staffers calling for the question to be taken down. Others managed to convince them that this would only cause more embarrassment and so the question stayed . This was the eventual response and the problem was solved, no more adverse publicity. The interesting thing is whether Labour would be in a position to take a similar attitude of fortitude, I can't speculate authoritatively but assume it would take a significant realignment in attitude at some levels.

Anstead and Straw move on to make some clear conclusions and I overwhelmingly agree with the recommendations they reach. The first is rightly to 'remove all barriers to participation' in political engagement.
Labour Party membership fees create a barrier to entry and make it harder to regularly ask supporters for donations. Scrapping party subscriptions, and instead moving towards regular fundraising drives of members and the wider progressive community, would offer supporters the chance to contribute to specific issues or electoral-based campaigns.

This would also be a significant symbolic step, as in the digital age people want to be part of a community and of a network - not a closed system. However, the impact of this statement is negated by them continuing...
To avoid a funding cliff edge, this new model could be phased in gradually by giving new members the right to set their own subscription level (including paying nothing). Existing members could be encouraged to change their subscription fee with an assumption, but no obligation, that it would increase.

Surely there can't be any assumption of this as the entire point is to give autonomy to the members? It goes against the spirit they have spent an entire publication setting up.

Another conclusion reached by Anstead and Straw is of the need to 'give supporters the tools to self-organise', which would be a welcome step. Party activists preaching to the converted is a problem that has already been identified.
Labour currently has, in technical terms, some very good online tools allowing members to publish content, organise and debate ideas with each other... these systems should be opened up and developed further, to ensure that broader connections between progressives can be formed.

Perhaps their most important recommendation though is to 'keep supporters better informed'. Sue Macmillan spoke at the launch of LabourList about the party's strides in this capacity, but there is still much to do. The way Obama was embraced by the Democratic community will probably not be replicated for quite some time in any country, but the feeling of community can be much improved quite simply.
It is vital that Labour improves its use of email and other information and communication technology, such as SMS text messaging, to form an individualised link with every one of its supporters. Messages should also request action rather than providing a one-way flow of information, as they so frequently do.

The authors' final conclusion is to 'reward hard work and entrepreneurialism', something which Thomas Gensemer, managing partner at Blue State Digital, advocated recently. This would deepen an individuals relationship with the Party as well as benefit the campaign.
The efforts of individual activists need to be recognised, allowing them to progress through the echelons of the Party and to gain more responsibility.

Overall it seems 'The Change We Need' will be an incredibly interesting read when it is published on Monday, and hopefully the debate to coincide with this will flesh out its themes further. Perhaps the only major point of contention I have with the concluding chapter is painfully obvious - the end. In fact that is precisely the problem - it is far too obvious. 'Yes we can?' Do Nick Anstead and Will Straw not read Private Eye?

3 comments:

Rachael Jolley said...

Michael - a good point about the need for Labour to increase communication with both supporters and potential supporters. I have met Americans who said they loved feeling being inside the Obama campaign and finding out about decisions ahead of the media.

The Labour party already does email members, but has to do better on showing how it can listen to what they have to say.

Michael Haddon said...

A point I was going to make but forgot to include in the post - the current situation where an initial email thanks people for joining the Party but doesn't include any links is a missed opportunity. That is surely the point where people are most likely to be receptive to exploring further, maybe even into the things that they can do to help.

Nick Anstead said...

Michael - thanks for this very thoughtful post. I hope you enjoy the rest of the book when it comes out. And I love your spots on the domain squatting! :-)