The Democratic Party Has 99 Problems and Core Data Services Ain’t One

This week, in a sudden revitalization of the post-election firing squad, Hillary Clinton attacked the Democratic Party’s data program. Plenty of smart folks have weighed in on why this is wrong. Bryan Whitaker, another former CTO of the DNC, and I actually predicted this attack would come about in an article we co-authored in December.

The biggest problem here is not that we’re attacking each other (admittedly not ideal), but rather that it’s detracting from other problems the Democratic Party has to confront on the technology and data front over the next few years. Chairman Perez has started to move in the right direction since his election, but the proof will be in the pudding over the next few months.

So, I present to you, dear reader, 99, errr, 6 problems that should worry us more.

#1: Since the election, the tech sector has doubled down on creating tools for the political sector and helping to tackle some of the most tricky problems. Living in the Bay Area these days feels like living in DC. This is great (mostly!). But the party is still wrestling with how to make the best use of this infusion of talent and startups. Most importantly, it is burdensome for progressive startups to interact with the party data systems without an accessible and modern API. And it’s on the party to make that happen.

#2: When 2018 Democratic campaigns boot up across the country, they will all share one thing common: a lack of uniformity around IT infrastructure. It’s not sexy, it’s not exciting, but this might be the most pressing technology issue of the cycle. Some campaigns will make smart decisions, others will not. And while some of the other committees are attempting patchwork solutions, the DNC should be leading the way for itself, state parties, and candidate campaigns. People say Russian hackers are coming back, but let’s be honest — they haven’t left.

#3: One of the biggest challenges with the DNC is that it’s so cyclical. It is rare that I had technology leadership roles under two different party chairs. That means that it’s absolutely critical that the DNC hire a diverse, talented technology team that’s committed to stick around through 2020 or longer, and not just leave at the end of 2018 (and of course, refraining from publicly attacking this team is a good retention strategy).

#4: When we think of Democratic Party technology infrastructure, we think of the DNC. But the state parties play an incredibly important role in working directly with campaigns. There’s been progress in improving the tech infrastructure in DC, but that hasn’t always worked its way down to state and county parties across America. If you want to get involved, think about getting involved at the state and local party level.

#5: Historically, the party has taken the lead in creating a distributed toolset for Democrats across the country to campaign on their own (a little known fact is that before My.BarackObama.com in 2008, the technology was initially funded by Governor Dean’s DNC in 2006 under the auspices of the 50 State Strategy). But more recently, this has been the purview of the Presidential campaign. Chairman Perez recently launched a ‘Mobilization Team’ and started reframing the Party as part of the resistance. This is great progress, but it also presents an opportunity for the DNC to build infrastructure that’s not just top-down but rather bottom-up and sideways.

#6: Last, but certainly not least, where is the Party in working to set the record straight on fake news and combat online troll armies? To be sure, the Party cannot solve these problems (it’s not clear anyone can), but it’s urgent that they have a strategy and are providing guidance to Democratic campaigns across the country.

Of course, this isn’t all to say that everything’s broken. Rather, it’s to show the opportunity for our Party is we can focus our time and attention in the right place. What if we could actually leverage this new energy from Silicon Valley? What if we could make Democratic campaigns 5x easier to boot up and hand them a dramatically more secure infrastructure from day one? What if we had strong state parties who were hubs of local innovation? What if we can put more power in the hands of everyday Democrats?

That’s the opportunity, but let’s make sure we push for the right things.

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.