The Post-Digital Decade

For a new generation of organizers, being a segment or silo is no longer enough. Transforming the system will mean tackling the age-old question of leadership.


I recently had the chance to speak at the Personal Democracy Forum about the first decade of digital politics, and what the next decade might bring. This is an edited version of that talk.

I want to start by going back in time. It was 2004. The year Howard Dean screamed, JibJab was the hottest name in viral content, and blogs occupied the public and media psyche in a pre-YouTube, pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook era.

It was also the first year a group of political technologists saw fit to get together to discuss what this all meant at the first Personal Democracy Forum in New York.

2004 is the year I think you can consider the jumping off point in modern digital politics.

From Howard Dean to George W. Bush, millions of people engaged and made their voices heard through candidate websites, blogs, forums, and viral emails. Yes, viral emails.

If the ten years since then was our first digital decade, what does the next ten years look like? More importantly, how do all of us shape it?

For me, ten years ago marked my own start in digital politics, as you can see from this quintessentially Republican #TBT taken right after the 2004 election.

The Bush-Cheney ‘04 digital team

Much has changed since then. For one thing, I’ve heard people get away with not wearing a suit to meet the President the day after winning the election. And back then, the people in this picture were the entirety of the digital team. Today, a picture like this would have hundreds of people in it, on top of the thousands (or tens of thousands) who can be considered digital organizers for candidates, political parties, and NGOs worldwide.

A big thing we considered back then was how technology fit within the organization. How do you build an organization of the future that can use technology to naturally and seamlessly achieve its goals? It’s still a big question today.

This is how we used our best PowerPoint skills to explain it back then.

Super-duper secret internal strategy presentation

It’s a classic Venn Diagram. These are the major functions of the campaign, representing the 3M’s of politics — message, money, and mobilization. At the bottom, we say “the eCampaign is a micro-representation of the campaign of the campaign or party.”

The premise was that this was the organization in miniature. Whatever you could do offline (canvass a neighbor, ask someone for a donation), you should also be able to do online. Let’s build tools that replicate existing and familiar offline patterns of behavior.

The classic example of this today: instead of going door to door with pen and paper, do it with a smartphone.

The problem with this is, canvassing with a smartphone isn’t always a better experience. Making GOTV calls from home isn’t necessarily something most people will do, because it negates the social experience people get when going into a field office.

And it goes to an inherent limitation of this model. While technology might be a slice of what everyone does — the middle of the Venn Diagram — this also implies that a majority of what the organization does will remain untouched by technology. What you saw on the website (or what you might see today on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram) was only a tiny slice of what was actually happening. It was the campaign in miniature.

If we were making this slide today, what would it look like?

Today, the technology and data bubble in the middle would still be there, but it’d be a lot bigger. It would encompass and touch everything. It should be made clear that technology and analytics cannot subsume the core organizing and messaging functions of a campaign. Think of that big “tech and analytics” bubble as the platform, the fundamental enabler that makes the entire system run.

This is a change in approach. For the last ten years, we’ve worked largely at the level of code — building tools and apps to replicate the offline experience. The next decade will be about systems — adapting and rewiring everything that’s not the Internet based on what we’ve learned from the Internet. Instead of digital tools deferring to their offline counterparts, we will learn to more effectively bring the two together. Bright lines between digital and traditional will give way to a blurring of the lines. Instead of digital tools, what will matter most will be digital thinking, applied to age-old challenges.

In 2012 and 2014, the really interesting uses of technology in campaigns didn’t necessarily even need a network connection.

TV buys were made $40 to $80 million more efficient by using set top box data to better target to the individual.

In four years, up to 20% of all TV buying will be done programmatically — in other words, by the exact same set of tools we might use to buy digital ads today. Television will become a technology platform.

In the same way, voter outreach is being re-imagined, and in 2012 and 2014 we see some examples of that being done completely naturally and natively online through social applications.

In fact, this is a pattern we’re seeing everywhere, and not just in politics. Today, people expect a seamless experience that blends technology with the things they’ve been doing for generations. To talk about “digital” or “traditional” buckets as though they were different things no longer makes any sense.

Is Netflix a disruptive streaming platform or simply a way of watching TV?

Is Uber a smartphone app or simply a way of getting from place to place?

Is Bitcoin the “future of money” or just money?

These are great examples of digitally native platforms that reimagined the system from end to end. They didn’t just bolt technology on at the end, a common feature of many digital efforts in politics and the media up to now.

But how do legacy institutions reinvent themselves? They’re still grappling with this question. Nowhere more clearly than in the recent innovation report from the New York Times.

In the Times, you have an institution that sincerely seems to want to put digital first. But they’re shackled by the legacy of print, by the cult of the front page.

And the report suggests many good changes they can make. But it ignores really the basic fundamental question. That’s the question of leadership. Who is calling the shots?

It’s unlikely that the Times or any similar institution will be able to make the kind of radical changes they need to make without a digital native leading the newspaper, and digital natives throughout the senior leadership. Let’s remember that Jill Abramson was arguably fired over trying to install a digital editor as her #3. The irony is that the problem the Times identified may not be solved until a digital native is #1.

Look at the organizations who the Times says are solving it. Look at what all disruptive platforms have in common. They’re led by digital natives without legacy baggage to contend with.

The notion that you can create these drastic cultural changes from two or three levels down within the organization is nice, but it almost never happens.

Another cautionary tale: HealthCare.gov.

There has never been a greater emphasis on getting good technologists to go into government. You would think this would have meant a radically different approach to building HealthCare.gov. But to date, open government efforts have largely been a function of bolting innovation on top of a flawed system. In the long run, an “open data” layer sitting atop a fundamentally broken system rife with cronyism and inefficiency is not going to work.

It didn’t matter how many smart technologists were there before the website was built. The system was set up to fail. The game was rigged through the Federal Acquisition Regulation so that only the legacy incumbents could win the work. And we saw the results. Not just at the federal level, but in numerous states with failing ACA exchanges.

The lesson here is a crucial one. A failure at the system level prevented the right technology from being built. You need to fix the system first.


Technical skill is no longer enough. The days of the early adopters tinkering off to the side and hoping for the best are over. Technology is now at the core of everything. And that means we need to confront the bigger questions of leadership and power and how systemic change happens.

This is not an inherently digital challenge. It’s bigger than that. The work ahead must be thought of as an intrinsically post-digital challenge.

If, over the next decade, we are going to take on the challenge of re-engineering the political system, the media, education, health care, and transportation, it is going to be digital natives who make it happen. Not as digital directors, CTOs, or chief innovation officers, but as CEOs, as presidents, as executive editors.

Technology started out as a microcosm. That microcosm has now grown bigger. A new generation is ready to carry the torch. But it first means assuming the mantle of leadership.