Why the NGP VAN model hurts democracy

If you’re not up to speed on the bug in NGP VAN that caused a political civil war among Democrats last week, you should be. Campaigns & Elections wrote a great summary piece that outlines what happened. Recommended reading.

The Bernie Sanders data fiasco exposed a long-standing problem with NGP VAN’s model that sucks for democracy.

In the middle of the mudslinging between Hillary Clinton, the DNC and Bernie Sanders is a basic truth: a piece of campaign technology broke because it’s bad. The reason the software is bad is not because the developers at NGP VAN are in some way inferior — it’s because there is no incentive to improve their product.

Here’s why: NGP VAN has a contract with the Democratic National Committee in which their customers’ data is owned and retained by the DNC. In exchange, the DNC provides data to NGP VAN customers — those using NGP VAN get the data of every previous NGP VAN user and the DNC, which basically covers every Democrat to run for office in modern history. The advantage for these campaigns is tangible immediately: oh look, here’s everyone who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 in the 3rd Congressional District of Iowa. Here are the people we know who are education voters in New Hampshire, economy voters who vote in primaries in South Carolina, et cetera.

The DNC has a crazy amount of information, and it gets better and better as time passes, because hundreds of Democratic campaigns across the country use NGP VAN to run campaigns on a daily basis. If one campaign discovers that John Doe moved to a new address, every Democratic campaign in the country knows immediately.

But here’s the problem: campaigns don’t actually own the relationships they build in the software. The Democratic National Committee does. The deal struck with the DNC ensures an incredible competitive advantage for NGP VAN: use our software, or be cut off from all Democrats’ data. Moreover, if you break our rules, we’ll kick you off the platform and cut you off from your own data.

And because they made a decision early in their history to focus on hyper-partisanship, they don’t much care to expand into other potential markets. They have a clear hold on their focus market, Democratic politics, so they have absolutely no incentive to improve their product. They won! They beat the game. All done.

As a result, people say harsh things like “NGP VAN is a creaky voter database system that looks and feels like it was put together in the 1990s,” and they’re not wrong. Scarier than the bad user experience, it lacks security protocols that are standard issue for other platforms. These mistakes resulted in Hillary Clinton data showing up in the Bernie Sanders campaign account, which is just about the most egregious flaw a database can have.

So at the end of the day, to say Bernie Sanders “stole” campaign data from Hillary Clinton is a bit of a misnomer. It is true that they violated the trust of the DNC by peaking, but if you walked into your living room and found a stack of $100 bills on your coffee table, you’d pick it up, wouldn’t you? The issue is this: why was the money sitting on the coffee table in the first place? Well, the technology failed so miserably that it accidentally shared Clinton data with the Sanders campaign. Can we just reiterate how monumental an error that is?

The other model

NationBuilder — the software company for which I work and towards which this entire article is admittedly biased — chose a very different path.

The mission of NationBuilder from the outset was rooted in a personal belief by founder and CEO Jim Gilliam: everyone should have the ability to become a leader (watch his incredibly powerful personal story here for more context). NationBuilder was never a political venture — it was an attempt to grant leaders of diverse opinions and backgrounds access to the technology they needed to build movements.

If all people have the ability to build a movement and become a leader, the thinking goes, then the best ideas (and voters’ favorite candidates) rise to the top. Ideas win.

As a byproduct, NationBuilder is not just a software for campaigns or a specific political party. That means its market is comprised of campaigns, advocacy organizations, nonprofits, businesses, artists, and just regular folks trying to be leaders in some capacity or another. Its market is massive in comparison to the very small world of political technology, so it has the budget to iterate and improve constantly as it competes against dozens of other products in many different verticals. In other words, it is forced to adapt and iterate like any large software company in a competitive environment — it’s not pigeonholed to a tiny, saturated market in the same way NGP VAN is.

Perhaps more important than the ability to iterate and improve is the lens through which NationBuilder sees data. Without question, data put into NationBuilder accounts is owned by the customer. NationBuilder owns and retains nothing, which means leaders have autonomy and full ownership over their relationships, and only share it when it’s in their best interest. NationBuilder focuses on building a better tool to help customers talk to people, which in turn helps customers improve their data, and everyone wins.

In this model, campaigns and parties house their data in independent, totally autonomous databases. They can share that data back and forth between campaigns, much like a Google Doc. Moreover, data can never accidentally show up in another account, because those accounts aren’t even stored in the same place — they’re separate databases altogether.

In turn, campaigns can choose to share all, some or none of their existing data with other campaigns and party operations, depending on their relationship. This more dynamic technology actually reflects the political realities on the ground, as opposed to forcing the party to either completely accept or completely deny a campaign’s access to their data. Party operations can, of course, deny access to party-owned data, but they can never shut down a campaign’s access to its own campaign.

Denying Access

So how did the failures of NGP VAN’s model sting the Sanders campaign? Well, NGP VAN and the DNC can reject a campaign from using their data at the outset. The campaign doesn’t get Democrat data or NGP VAN technology, but they just come to NationBuilder and run their campaign there. It’s a bummer because they lack legacy data, but it’s not insurmountable.

Where it gets bad is when the DNC shuts down access midstream. The contract NGP VAN signed with the DNC effectively made Bernie Sanders’s presidential run — a campaign built on the foundation of millions of passionate Americans — as fragile as a bug in NGP VAN’s software. NGP VAN’s software failed to the point that Sanders campaign staff could see Hillary Clinton data. Predictably, a few bad-egg staffers on the Sanders campaign chose the low road and peaked at Clinton data, and the DNC suspended Sanders access to data altogether. Not only did Sanders lose access to the wealth of Democrat data, he lost access to his entire campaign infrastructure.

But think about this: because of the setup of NGP VAN, the DNC could have shut them down permanently. Party bosses can just shut down a presidential campaign on a whim. I can’t see your face right now, but I really hope you’re grimacing.

Think about what that would have done. It would have immediately stalled the single most impressive mobilizations of humans since Barack Obama’s 2008 run. It would have crowned Hillary Clinton the nominee and ended the Democratic primary, and millions of voters would have been robbed of their opportunity to have their voice heard. A crappy piece of software and four overzealous, over-caffeinated, morally ambiguous 20-somethings at Bernie Sanders HQ shouldn’t have that kind of power.

That the DNC has a data file they share with their preferred candidates is good politicking in 2015. That the one software system they force campaigns to use is so fragile that it can accidentally share data between opposing campaigns is really, really bad. But most important is this: that the DNC can use that awful piece of technology to kill movements where they stand and change the course of American history is a denial of democracy, and it should be corrected.

I am a Director of Politics & Advocacy at NationBuilder, where I help leaders use technology to build and grow relationships. I mostly work with federal and statewide campaigns and PACs, national advocacy organizations and presidential campaigns. Follow me on Twitter here.