Iowa Caucus Tech Disaster and 5 Tips to Avoid your Own
Clearly the Iowa Caucus was a tech disaster. We can hold our feelings on whether Iowa should go first or if caucuses are democratic at all. Let’s talk about tech strategy for political campaigns and big moments. As the Digital Training Director for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, I supported the rollout of the then groundbreaking Dashboard platform with training and resources. (If you were part of the rollout it was also breaking itself, as new tech often does). For a decade I’ve been leading training on how to adapt tech tools and emerging online strategy to campaigns and nonprofits.
There are lessons I’ve learned… often the hard way. Let’s talk about a few solid tips to avoid your own Iowa Caucus tech disaster. Technology, apps, online tools or whatever you want to call it are complicated and often have hurdles and problems that go unseen. But these problems have real-world impacts.
1 — Know the problem your tech tool or app solves
The number 1 problem I see again and again is people not truly understanding the problem they are trying to apply tech to solve. This problem crops up in two big ways. The first is shiny new app syndrome. The second is solving for the wrong problem… and often creating new ones. Let’s break these both down.
Shiny new app syndrome. Plagues campaigns and organizations around the world. Major donors and funders what to invest in shinning new things. People who “like tech” but don’t have years of experience on rollouts also suffer from this. It’s the idea that something new is better. That creative tech is better than however, you are doing it now. See know your problem and the rest of the tips below to cure Shiny new app syndrome.
Know your actual problem. To be honest this isn’t easy. First of all, you need to find someone who is tech-savvy but not suffering from Shiny new app syndrome to lead solutions application. But identify your actual problem should involve deep analysis and at least answer:
- What is the core problem?
- Are there underlying structures that create this problem?
- Is this problem unique to us? (Probably not)
- How have others solved the probably?
- Are there process changes that could solve the problem?
- Are there tested tech solutions to this problem?
Only knowing all of this you should very carefully wade into technology, apps, or online tools to solve your problem.
2 — Train, Train, Train on your new technology
Years of doing this work only continue to reinforce that people need extensive training on new tech and apps. People developing tech and working with them typically understand the problem and solution than core users who you need to adopt and use the new technology properly. A few key pieces of you training should include:
- Develop training that is centered around common users, not developers.
- Test the training with common users.
- Training redundancy
- Offer training several times
- Offer training in several formats if you can like video, in-person, documents.
- Get 100% adoption if it is mission-critical.
When we were training on Dashboard we rolled out training for six months including training other trainers to expand adoption. Even using simple tools like peer-to-peer texting apps like Hustle requires training. In 2016, I built a team of 100 contractors managing a massive texting voter registration and texting team. We managed consistently and redundant training for leaders and texters to peak at sending 1 Million messages a day.
It sounds like Iowa dropped the ball across the board on the training.
3 — Test your tech
Beyond training, you should test your tech before it needs to be used in wide scale or on a big day. Big days are NOT when you want to be testing.
In Iowa, it’s clear they didn’t run a complete test. There is no way people wouldn’t have had the App installed as was the case in Iowa if they had run this properly. For something this serious they should have run a complete simulation where everyone reporting was online and reporting at the same time.
Ideally, they would have also had a redundant reporter also testing. The redundancy because they were counting on people using their personal devices. What else would you do if the person reporter was sick, had an accident, etc? The backup person should have run through the simulation too.
Having a few people use an app is NOT a true test. For big moments you need a full run before the big moment.
When we rolled out Dashboard in 2012 it was pretty flawed at first. It broke a lot. But it was launched far in advance and tested in several states to see what hurdles needed to be overcome over the year.
4 — Manage expectations
Do not suggest new tech will be easy. You can talk about what it can make better in the process but almost never is it easy. Change is hard.
Clearly Iowa way overshot this. I was personally really nervous when I heard them touting how great it was gonna be. For the 2012 Dashboard, the product leads way over promised on how easy and flawless it would be. In the follow-up training I had to do a lot of cleanups. I had to come back and explain why new tech is hard but what it would make better in the long run.
5 — Have real backups
Test your backups. What should have happened in Iowa they should have tested the apps plus what they do when the apps fail. Never assume your technology will work 100%.
Clearly, this didn’t happen or else they would have known about the call center problems as well.
In 2012, as the rollout of Dashboard failed staff rolled back to the spreadsheets they were using. There was certainly tension around this because we needed more users to test the bugs but staff needed to get their work done and reported. Setting expectations and training could have solved this better.
In the end, I’ve seen tech make real and positive impacts for campaigns across the country. It will help you scale your strategy, reach more people, and work more efficiently. Just take the time to implement the 5 Tips ahead and you will see better success,
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Brad (Schenck) Caldana
Author and Senior Digital Strategist & Trainer at The Digital Plan
Brad is the author of The Digital Plan, founder of the website and training community. Currently, Brad helps nonprofits, campaigns, and organizations of all sizes with their digital strategy, coaching, and training.