Political consultants are notorious in the technology community for having limited understanding of how to develop and iterate on a product. It is common to hear politicos say “we want a mobile app” or ask “can you just build us a website.” This reflects a deep-seeded mentality that must change if the party is to succeed in technology. For a product to be successful and to make an impact, political consultants need to engage with technologists at a much deeper level. Digital efforts cannot be successful if they are disconnected from the needs of political operatives.
These gaps are where product managers can help. Product managers act as liaisons with the interested parties to determine how to solve problems and to assure that the solutions are effective. Product managers are empowered to set the product vision and give the final approval on what to build. They scope the cost and benefits of product ideas and build those that have the highest return on investment. Product managers also protect the technology team from tendencies of non-technologists to interrupt development cycles with last-minute product requirements, for example, or with the use of vanity metrics. Product managers assure that decisions are made to solve problems that matter and to solve them in ways that can be quantified.
For example, a product manager should lead the RNC app store and API regulations. Every good app store ecosystem or external API has rules; however, the app-approval process mentioned in the report could easily turn needlessly political. Application approval must be driven from a product and a data perspective. If the approval process is held hostage by political operatives, technologists will refuse to invest in the API or to build an application for the GOP app store.
Including a product manager in the report’s recommended long-term data team will help the party avoid these pitfalls. The report authors write:
Recruit and competitively compensate talented and committed long-term data staff at the RNC. The Data team at the RNC is too small to adequately provide strong data and analysis of data for all state parties, candidates and organizations. The RNC is a national party and must have the staff resources available in this area to assist all 50 states, not just battleground states.
The RNC should round out this data team with a fully resourced product team, staffed with engineers, designers, data scientists, and product managers. The RNC needs not only a long-term data team but a long-term and self-sustaining product team to build applications for the GOP.
During the drafting of the Growth and Opportunity Project, GOP-leaning technologists from Silicon Valley advised the creation of a similar product team as the most effective and efficient means to leapfrog Democrats in digital capability by 2016. These technologists boldly recommended that the RNC create a “supra-campaign” internal product team. The team’s sole job will be to win general elections through product development. As the party uses the team’s in-house developed products, it will collect optimizations, data, and lessons, assuring that the party is consistently learning and improving. In a presidential-election year, this team becomes the core digital presidential-campaign team. With four years of lessons from hundreds of state-based campaigns and proven products in the field, this team will be a force to be reckoned with from day one.
The RNC is heading in the right direction to solve many of the problems that plagued the party in 2012. Many technologists were surprised by the boldness of some of the recommendations in the GOP report. The decision to open a San Francisco office will be greatly welcomed by Republicans in Silicon Valley. Fostering a culture of testing and rapid iteration will go far toward closing the gap with Democrats. The report was not afraid to expand the reach of digital capability and technology beyond communications and into core campaign operations.
To execute on the report’s recommendations, the RNC must go on a serious recruiting effort beyond the bubble of Washington, D.C. The best practitioners exist and are willing to help the GOP, but they are concentrated in Silicon Valley, Austin, Dallas, and Salt Lake City. Putting the wrong team in place would destroy any momentum and respect the GOP has within technology circles.
Digital is about execution and delivering value to users. It’s also about measurable results. The difference between success and failure in rebooting GOP digital comes down to one thing — team. Without a deeper focus on users, product, and recruiting the right team, the GOP risks returning to the same pattern that plagued it in the 2012 election.
— Aaron Ginn, a former digital staffer for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, is the head of growth at StumbleUpon. He writes regularly for TechCrunch and his own blog on user growth.