An Open Letter to DNC Chair Candidates on the Future of Tech for Our Party

By Bryan Whitaker & Josh Hendler

November 8th was a horrible day for Democrats. The failure to win the Presidency, take back the Senate and make gains in the US House, state legislatures and governor’s mansions will weigh on all of us in the coming years. It was also a troubling election cycle for technology and data within the party including a historically unprecedented criminal breach of our communications systems and fears that our analytics and polling might have been off.

Few are more directly responsible for charting the path forward than the chair of the Democratic National Committee. They will help shepherd the transformation of the party machinery, and will be forced to make incredibly tough strategic and budgetary decisions. And the Democratic National Committee chair in 2017 has a role very much unlike many of their predecessors; in addition to managing political strategy, fundraising and campaign support, they are now effectively the CEO of a technology company that supports thousands of Democrats around the country.

The chair’s election at the end of February 2017 provides Democrats across the country a chance to engage in a thoughtful process and dialogue about who we are as a party and how we should change. It’s critical that we use this moment to not just discuss why we lost, but what our vision for the future ought to be.

As former heads of technology for the DNC, we wanted to contribute our thoughts and collective experience to this dialogue, and help all chair candidates as they think about data, technology, analytics, and digital in the next phase of the Party. That’s why we’ve pulled together these six recommendations for the next DNC chair. These are not intended to be fully prescriptive, but rather starting points for candidates to use as they discuss the future of the Party with one another, DNC members, activists and Democrats around America.

1. Don’t Panic, the Democratic national data program is a huge asset

Coming into election day, the media narrative around data and technology was largely consistent. The Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party had better analytics, substantially more investments in technology infrastructure, and a more unified party. Trump famously wrote off the value of voter files and analytics in the primaries, and had a campaign technology and data team that was dwarfed by the Clinton campaign (Trump’s campaign did change it’s tune a bit during the general, with massive investments in Cambridge Analytica covered by Bloomberg). And yet, despite all of this, the Trump campaign pulled off victories in Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. On one level, it will take months to really understand exactly what happened in these states, as we are able to capture turnout data from updated voter files. But it prompts an obvious question for an even casual election observer: did any of that really matter? Did we, as a party, waste millions of dollars in infrastructure that ultimately didn’t win one of the most consequential elections in a generation?

It is, of course, fair game to question all DNC and campaign expenditures. And as noted below, we think it’s a good use of time and resources to better understand the efficacy of our targeting efforts. However, it’s worth picking apart exactly what this infrastructure provides. These investments in technology, digital, and analytics by the Democratic Party over the last 10 years haven’t just resulted in better statistical techniques to help microtarget voters. They have improved the the fundamentals of voter contact:

  • VoteBuilder provides a consistent user interface for all activists who volunteer with or work for a Democratic campaign.
  • The national voter file provides continually updated contact information, frequent voter list updates, and a consolidated history of voter contact.
  • The Data Warehouse stewards immensely valuable data collected from cycle to cycle to allow the party to learn and grow.
  • The DNC’s Analytics Platform has created a whole new baseline for Democratic committees and campaigns up and down the ticket to create and use predictive models for voter contact and analyze data to increase efficiency and effectiveness in campaigns.

To be sure, there are many unanswered questions that we will need to dig into over the coming months. But the answer to the question of whether we invest too much in infrastructure very much depends on whether you think the Democratic party needs to do more or less voter contact — especially driven by volunteers — over the coming years.

2. Modernize the DNC’s approach to digital security

With all signs pointing to Russian government sponsored hackers breaking into DNC information and communications technology systems, the DNC has work to do to protect itself from future intrusions. This isn’t just about trust in communications, but trust on the part of donors and activists that the DNC is doing everything in it’s power to protect their personal information. Convening a Cybersecurity Advisory Board and contracting with CrowdStrike to prevent hacks were both smart steps forward. However, the DNC has more to do to stay ahead of the next wave of attempts to break into their systems.

We recommend the DNC take immediate action to implement the advice and recommendations of security experts, such as the Cybersecurity Advisory Board to allow the DNC face the constantly evolving threats. These actions need to include dedicated security leadership and staffing. Further, the DNC should take the lead with all Democratic committees, campaigns and state parties to ensure the Party’s systems are secure now and in years ahead. Dedicated cybersecurity staff and resources are needed to perform trainings, identify best-practices and recommend vendors and tools the Party can use from top-to-bottom to protect against attacks. Even assuring that all Democratic campaigns use a secure email platform with two-factor authentication would be a step in the right direction.

3. Rebuild trust in Democratic Party polling and analytics

A DNC research and polling operation is needed to guide DNC resource allocations and inform outreach and branding operations. Further, the DNC needs to take a leadership role in figuring out the next generation of opinion research so Democrats at all levels have accurate intelligence on what voters are thinking. Revelations like the prominence of fake news also show that we need a deep understanding of public conversations, so that we know how and where to meaningfully participate in it. A first step is to convene Democratic pollsters and analytics professionals to do a formal post-mortem on polling & analytics in 2016. Identifying any systemic failures in our polling and analytics methodologies will be critical to help rebuild faith in data-driven campaigning. This post-mortem should be completed so that any recommendations can be implemented prior to 2017 elections. Further,

4. Stop waiting for Presidential cycles to innovate on technology and voter contact

Coming out of a Presidential election, the DNC traditionally cuts funding to software development and slows the rate of innovation within the Party. This is usually done based on assumptions about cost-saving and funding priorities. We recommend the DNC bucks this tradition and re-establish a fifty-state strategy innovation lab and ensure the tools, data and infrastructure built in 2016 can be implemented to support down-ballot candidates and rebuild the party in 2017 onward. This lab should be staffed with full-time engineers, creatives, organizers and data scientists and focus on prototyping and experimenting with tools that engage and turnout voters and empower volunteers (the Bernie Sanders campaign is a great case study in building tools to empower volunteer structures). This builds on the work already started by Project Ivy, an initiative started at the DNC in 2014 to build a robust set of tools for Democrats all around America.

5. Launch Democratic Tech Fellows program

We believe that more technologists around the country should be given an opportunity to get involved in helping to advance the Democratic Party’s technology program. We propose the creation of a ‘Tech Fellows’ program, where engineers, creatives and data scientists can take a 6–12 month leave from their job and join the DNC’s innovation lab. Participants need not necessarily move to DC, and this could serve as a great opportunity to seize on the current desire of many technologists to direct their energies to doing something meaningful about Trump, as well as building out the DNC’s presence in tech hubs around the country. This could also build on the great work of both Obama campaigns and the Hillary campaign in directing top technology talent into campaign technology organizations.

6. Promote the ecosystem of Democratic Political Apps

Historically, the DNC has packaged a relatively small number of technology products and provided them to campaigns. By and large, this unified strategy has helped the Party gain its technological advantage over Republicans. However, we believe that now more than ever, it’s important to encourage a healthy ecosystem of tools servicing Democratic campaigns and progressive organizations. This has two different implications for the DNC. First and foremost, it means the DNC and its vendors must augment APIs that Democratic candidates and State Parties can plug into. These should be automatically available to any Democratic campaign or state party who already has access to the voter file. New vendors shouldn’t need to go through a burdensome approval process so long as they play by the rules. Second of all, the DNC could directly stimulate the space by holding challenges or hack nights around different subject areas. At the very least, this would promote an open conversation between the Party and technology companies on what the biggest challenges are and where we can be moving in the future.

Josh Hendler (@joshhendler) served as Director of Engineering from 2005 to 2008 and Director of Technology from 2009 to 2011. He is CTO and Head of Product at Purpose.

Bryan Whitaker (@whitakerb2) was Director of Technology from 2011 until 2013. He is now Chief Innovation Officer at TargetSmart.