It’s been two days since the Iowa Caucuses and we’re still learning more about the failures stemming from the Iowa Democratic Party’s reporting app. But there are some early lessons that are important for anyone involved in campaigns to be aware of.
The goal of this post is not to arbitrate blame or even decide the merits of whether or not IDP even needed an app for reporting caucus results, but rather to look forward and learn from the debacle.
Tech Failures Aren’t Limited to a Single Party
Neither Republicans nor Democrats have all the answers when it comes to campaign tech. While the incident in Iowa brought attention to the Democrats, Republicans have had their own failures in the past, most notably the Romney campaign’s Project Orca in 2012.
The particular challenges facing technologists addressing campaign challenges, like limited budgets, tight deadlines, massive scrutiny, and rapid scale, affect both parties. Therefore, incidents like the Iowa Caucuses failure do damage to the overall cause for increased innovation and use of technology on both sides.
A candidate, regardless of their party, isn’t going to understand the nuanced technical mistakes that caused the Iowa Caucuses app built by Shadow to fail, but rather they’ll be more reluctant to use ANY new technology.
Partisans must ensure that the baby isn’t thrown out with the bathwater when criticizing the technological shortcomings of the other side.
Political Tech Faces Unique Challenges
To outside observers, the challenges facing political tech seem trivial until you dig deeper and better understand the dynamics, like the absence of for-profit investment, but perhaps even more challenging is when political decision makers lack the understanding of what goes into building successful software and applications.
They’re familiar with consumer-facing apps backed with venture capital created by teams of experts and wonder why the software they’re using on their campaign isn’t on par. Combine the limited resources and the tight, make-or-break timelines and it’s clear how campaign decision makers can get easily frustrated and blame the “incompetence” of technology partners.
Campaign Decision Makers Need to Learn Technology Management
The decision makers in the Iowa Democratic Party likely didn’t have the skills necessary to manage or oversee the complicated process that would have been building an app. While we can’t say for sure, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that important corners (like testing) may have been cut due to budget constraints and unrealistic timelines.
Leaders in the IDP had to learn this lesson the hard way, but as politics continues to undergo digital transformation and relies on more and more software, it’s clear that technology leadership and management is a skillset campaign decision makers need to learn in order to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
Always Have a Contingency Plan in Place
We’ve seen it enough times that it should be clear by now to anyone building political technology that they need to have a robust – even analog – contingency plan for a total and complete failure. In the case of the Iowa Caucuses, the backup plan (phoning in results) could not absorb the capacity of a complete failure and the results were catastrophic.
As a technologist, your ultimate responsibility is to the user, not your software. While technology is the best way to address their needs as a user, a credible plan B is essential.
Collaboration and Transparency Aren’t Optional
As far as we can tell, the IDP’s failed app was developed with minimal input from the broader community of Democrat technologists (this may have been due to timelines), but when collaboration isn’t an important value of your technology process and you maintain secrecy, you expose your software to blind spots.
Having as many sets of eyes on a project as possible will only improve the finished product.
As a purely defensive mechanism, it’s important to be able to demonstrate that numerous other stakeholders had their fingerprints on the proverbial murder weapon if something goes wrong.
It’s important for anyone involved in campaigns to learn the right lessons from the failure during the Iowa Caucuses because the experience comes at a dear price.