There is a tendency in the online political world to look at the online political world as the object. However, in the Obama campaign, the organizing success has less to do with the blogosphere and more to do with other organizing strategies. The online world was mainly a tool to empower the offline world. To my knowledge the best description of those organizing strategies is from a March Rolling Stone article. One of the key insights was this one:
Figueroa’s goal is not to put supporters to work but to enable them to put themselves to work, without having to depend on the campaign for constant guidance. "We decided that we didn’t want to train volunteers," he says. "We want to train organizers — folks who can fend for themselves. …
The result was a network of trained organizers who became what Figueroa calls the campaign’s "secret weapon." Early on, the volunteers essentially served as Obama’s staff in key states where he didn’t have employees. "It quadrupled the size of our operation in states that were going to be voting not only on February 5th, but February 9th, February 12th and here on March 4th," Figueroa says. "We had an anchor in those states for a long, long, long time."
The key insight here is that a volunteer organization isn’t made up of volunteers but of volunteer organizers and recruiters. The people who are in touch with and motivate the volunteers. This is a shift in thinking from both traditional Democratic and Republican organizing strategies. Some people will look at this as nothing new because it is somewhat based in community organizing principles, but it is quite similar to organizational innovations in other spheres. For example, in megachuches, small group leaders are the pointy end of the spear in member recruitment and retention. We will look at more examples in a second.
These recruiters are not just trained. They are given tools and organizing authority:
Using the social-networking tools of MyBo, the volunteers began to create city- and statewide networks with names like IdahObama, groups that could be tapped later by the professional staff to organize down to the precinct level. In Maryland, the campaign was able to mobilize 3,000 volunteers in only three weeks, thanks to the months of groundwork by groups like Baltimore for Barack Obama.
In other words, recruiters were not just identified, but they were provided tools to allow them to connect their recruits to the rest of the campaign. They knew what their task was: word of mouth spread of excitement about Obama by getting them to sign up to the campaign.
Again, compare to other organizations. These guys are just at the cutting edge of organizational strategies. In recent years, the Marines have placed increasingly emphasis on the Strategic Corporal, recognizing that problems are solved at the point of contact near the bottom of the chain of command, rather than at the top of the chain of command. Or Toyota’s moving the power to innovate into line workers, captured in the term with "autonomation," defined as a "type of automation [that] implements some supervisory functions rather than production functions." (anyone who has done the 72 hour program can relate to the "production function" problem) In each case, authority and innovation are pushed down into the hands of people on the front lines.
I want to extract two kinds of recommendations from this.
One recommendation is that, long term, the RNC (or the new institutions of a conservative movement) needs to focus more on training and empowering recruiters, and they need to provide them tools to build and deploy their organizations. In addition, this could help address some of the pressures that field office staff suffer from and help alleviate volunteer burnout, which were real problems in 2006 and are likely to be worse in 2008.
The other recommendation is about deploying more community-style blogs on the right. We don’t have a structure where good information and good bloggers can conveniently trickle up. We hope that The Next Right itself is a step in the right direction.
I am going to follow up on these in future posts.