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John Boehner’s Tech Innovation Wave Into The Speaker’s Chair

Stan Freck (Park City, UT) –

The pace of technological change and adoption is increasing rapidly, and even relatively traditional fields like politics and government are not immune from such evolution. Here, I briefly review how the Internet has impacted modern high-profile political campaigns, and take a special look at how in 2010 Rep. John Boehner and the House Republican minority leveraged social media, open source, and cloud computing to create an online dialogue with the American people, and ushered in a new Republican era in the House of Reprentatives, as Boehner took the Speaker’s chair from Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

The Quickening Pace of Technological Change and Adoption

Technology has been changing how humans interact with the universe and with each other since we first walked the earth. Each wave of technology has delivered enhanced approaches to things previously thought of as onerous. Think of the wheel enabling people to cover long distances, the cotton gin freeing people from separating the seeds from cotton by hand and resulting in greatly reduced costs of goods for the garment trade, and the electric light bulb allowing people to make effective use of the evening hours and providing added safety to previously dangerous areas of cities.

My grandfather lived from 1895 to 1979, and in his time he saw broad adoption of a phenomenal array of life-altering technologies: telephones, automobiles, electricity, radio, stoves, refrigerators, airplanes, motion pictures and television, computers. Instead of taking a horse cart down to get ice blocks from the river to keep food fresh so it could be cooked over an open fire, and then sit down with an oil lamp to read a bit if he wasn’t too exhausted, my grandfather could pop a cold one out of the fridge while waiting for his dinner to cook in his electric stove, and sit down in front of his color TV to watch man land on the moon or see the news from around the world.

All of these affected human behavior in diverse ways, and the modern technology of today is serving a similar connective purpose. Technology also makes things we labored over in previous generations easier and opens up a world of possibilities for the application of the human energy and creativity unleashed. Presently, we are observing the impact of what I would argue are three primary fundamental, radical, life- and planet-altering changes of recent years:

  1. Emergence of the personal computer (late 1980s, early 1990s): PCs freed computing power from the isolated mainframe world, and lowered barriers to entry for a generation of the developed world to create value and efficiencies in what had traditionally been non-innovative areas of work.
  2. Broad internet adoption (late 1990s, early 2000s): from an experiment funded by the US government to a network interconnecting individuals and businesses across the globe in less than 20 years, the internet has allowed for fundamental changes in how we work, live, communicate, and even find personal connections.
  3. Global ubiquity of mobile devices: Mobile phone penetration is outstripping traditional Internet penetration in markets traditionally thought of as technologically barren. For example, while household broadband penetration in Africa was just 2.5% in 1Q10, the number of active mobile subscriptions in Africa has now exceeded a half a billion. Africa now accounts for 10% of the world’s mobile subscriptions and is one of the world’s fastest-growing regions – with subscription numbers increasing 18% year over year. This has changed the lives of millions.

But what I really find fascinating is the increase in the rate of broad adoption of technologies by society – the pace is quickening and continuing to accelerate. As described by Geoffrey A. Moore in his seminal marketing tome, Crossing the Chasm, everyone who adopts a new technology goes through a predictable series of steps: Awareness, Assessment, Acceptance, Learning, and Using. Historically, the big challenge for any new technology has been to cross this chasm from adoption by early adopters and innovators to adoption by a majority of average people.

Recently, the World Bank looked at how much time elapsed between the invention of something and its widespread adoption, defined as when 80% of countries that use a technology first report it. For 19th-century technologies the gap was long: 120 years for trains and open-hearth steel furnaces, 100 years for the telephone. For aviation and radio, invented in the early 20th century, the lag was 60 years. But for the PC and CAT scans the gap was around 20 years and for mobile phones just 16. While it took well 40 years for stoves to reach a 50% adoption rate in U.S. households, the microwave oven took 15, and the Internet a mere 10. (The terrific YouTube sensation video Socialnomics shows these trends well.)

Social Media, Open Source, and Cloud Computing in Political Campaigns

So what’s next?

Three interrelated technologies, combined with changes in the way people leverage increasingly ubiquitous mobile technologies and connectivity, will be the source of the next broadly adopted technology advances and will drive the next set of radical changes in society and politics. These are: social media and social networks, open source code, and cloud computing. To some degree or another each of these has existed for some time (Hotmail, for example, was available in the early 1990s); yet it is only in the past few years that we have observed their emerging usefulness for business, government, and campaigns.

Some areas are always slower to adopt technology than others, in some cases because the principal players in a given area may be reluctant to abandon old ways, in others because the technology industry has been focused on areas perceived as more lucrative. One broad area that has been, arguably, a bit slow to adapt to technological evolution has been government and politics. And not so long ago, traditional press conferences, town rallies, and kissing babies got your brand and message spread pretty far.

Admittedly, none of this has gone away. But the past decade has seen an influx of technology into the governmental and political arenas, and some new and interesting options arise for how to conduct campaigns and how to run a government. In the U.S., there has been a strong increase in the willingness and motivation to adopt new technologies in government agencies, a phenomenon often called Government 2.0 or Open Government. And in concert with this, as candidates and their staffs get comfortable using technology to spread messages and engage commmunities, the winners and their staffs bring that experience and a desire to apply similar technology to govern and engage citizens.

An extremely brief history of modern communications technology in political campaigns:

  • 2000: John McCain’s Presidential campaign uses online fundraising to bring in $1 million in 24 hours following a surprise victory in the New Hampshire primary.
  • 2004: George W. Bush’s Presidential reelection campaign introduces microtargeting to direct communications strategy at specific voter demographics.
  • 2004: Howard Dean Presidential campaign uses the internet to organize decentralized support and raise numerous, small donations.
  • 2008: Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign targets activists and small donors through an integrated new media strategy incorporating online engagement.

There has been a large shift from the traditional model of getting large donations from a small number of donors to the new model of large numbers of smaller donations. Historically, political fundraising was done primarily via a powerful and relatively small network of influential donors. In 2004, the Dean campaign shifted that model, raising $50M in small chunks with an average donation of $80. Taking things further, the Obama campaign raised two-thirds of their $750M campaign haul online, and even the more-traditional McCain campaign raised $75M of their $360M online.

But the Obama and McCain campaigns ended over two years ago, a lifetime in technology years. What’s next? It turns out that now-Speaker of the House John Boehner and his colleagues have found “what’s next” in something that leverages social media, combines it with other emerging technologies (open source code and cloud computing), and takes the online conversation to the next level.

How House Republicans Helped America “Speak Out”

In May 2010, Republican in the House of Representatives launched America Speaking Out, a standalone social platform to increase and amplify the dialogue between American citizens and the Members of Congress who represent them in Washington, DC. The site purported to offer Americans, “a new platform to share their priorities and ideas for a national policy agenda.” Driven by John Boehner and the, then-minority / now-majority leadership, House Republicans used social media (Facebook, Twitter) integration, on an open-source (but customized) platform, hosted by cloud computing technology via the Internet to allow thousands of citizens to submit thousands of ideas and crowdsource hundreds of thousands of votes to bring the cream to the top.

Most importantly, true value was extracted from all these users and comments and votes — Republicans were able to not only understand what citizens wanted them to focus on and think about while governing, but this real world input went into what became the 2010 Republican Pledge to America. Now, while I am not suggesting that Republican gains in the mid-term elections were the sole result of the America Speaking Out site, or say, the power of cloud computing, I would argue that this is part of the next level of “getting it” with regard to emerging technologies and politics.

America Speaking Out was built on some interesting technology from Microsoft called TownHall which enables any organization to build moderated or unmoderated forums quickly, skin them so that they are an integral part of their visual and brand identity, and run them in a highly scalable way “in the cloud” with costs driven strictly by usage. If no one comes to your site, then your operational costs are zero… but if millions come, the site scales out without the owner having to procure hardware, software, or additional IT staff. (And even for large-scale sites like America Speaking Out, operational costs are only a few $100 a month – essentially, you can run an online TownHall 24 x 7 x 365 for less than it would cost to run one real-world event… a nice feature in this atmosphere of cutting costs and making government and society more efficient.)

TownHall runs on Microsoft’s cloud computing Platform as a Service offering, named Windows Azure. The TownHall “open source” code is available at no cost under a license that allows anyone to download, modify, and even resell the code, with the sole requirement that it remains connected to Azure to realize cloud computing’s economies of scale. Data collected through sites using TownHall is the private property of the organization running the site – AKA: Microsoft does not mine, monetize, or otherwise use the data in any way. And the data is stored in a SQL Azure database which can be easily exported to an on-premise version of SQL, or mashed up with other data feeds an organization may wish to correlate the data with. Sites on TownHall don’t even carry Microsoft terms of use – the terms of use for each site are determined by the sponsoring organization.

But wait, there’s more. In addition to hosting this seamlessly within your site within all the major browsers on Macs and PCs, there are widgets available to plug into networks of sites to bring additional users to the discussion, integration with Facebook and Twitter, and clients for multiple devices (iPads, Windows tablets, iPhone, Android, and Windows phones) so that audiences can access the discussion when, where, and how they choose. This is the new phase of social technology for politics: Not relying on individual social media platforms, but rather a new phase of building standalone, well-controlled sites and leveraging free open source code, the scale of cloud computing, and a variety of social media channels.

This is what social media, Government 2.0, political campaigns, and open advocacy look like taken to the next level.

Politics in 2012: Be What’s Next

Like an intense game of no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em (see: Matt Damon, left), in politics and campaigning antes will continue rise and what may have been perceived as a risky bet a short time ago looks more and more like table stakes in the next round. And things that were the purview of the big guns at the national level last cycle will filter further and further into mid-tier and local levels rapidly.

One interesting movement in the political space is the development and early adoption of end-to-end online campaign service “dashboards” both in the U.S. and overseas. A prime example of this is CampaignCloud from a small but influential company called ElectionMall. The company positions this suite of tools as the “One-Stop Shop for Online Campaigning and Fundraising.” Much as the creation of Microsoft Office changed the game in business productivity tools when it entered the market in 1989, CampaignCloud unifies a campaign’s productivity tools and allows the campaign to access a suite of tools which support the key actions (website development, fundraising, etc.) of a modern campaign via a common interface and log-in. In 2010 in the U.S. alone, ElectionMall has supported more than 600 campaigns, including over 150 for U.S. Senate and House candidates.

As political operatives progress toward the big U.S. 2012 elections, the amount of innovation in online politics and campaigning will accelerate, and not just in how to place online search ads. Simply using technology is not a determining factor; how a campaign uses it is still the high-order bit. More and more, we will see energy put into connecting online and offline behaviors. But do not be mistaken – figuring out how to leverage these new technologies of social networking, crowdsourcing, open source code, and cloud computing has become table stakes and the ante will continue to rise.

Stan Freck is the Director of Public Sector Solutions for Microsoft’s U.S. Public Sector Innovation Team. He previously held positions at MSN and elsewhere within Microsoft.

Photos of giant LA chair, crossing the chasm, McCain/Palin, and Matt Damon used under Creative Commons.

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Will be fascinating to watch in 2012 to see how online is used different than in 2008. To me, the biggest lessons learned from 2008 Obama campaign and new media is that it takes a lot of smart resources to do it well – they had a large team of super smart people. My guess is both sides will have large, super talented staffs and continue to move the new media role higher.

Jeff Ribeira

Great thoughts. It’s pretty crazy how quickly and exponentially new technology is emerging. I sometimes like to picture myself as the grandpa (however many years down the road), and think about what type of technological changes will have taken place in my lifetime, and what my grandkids will be laughing at me for. By then, I wonder if I will have the tech know-how to keep up with exponential evolution. I like to think I will…

I agree that elections in the near future and beyond will be won or lost with the successful usage of new media. It’s going to be an interesting one to watch, that’s for sure.