Leadership Campaigns As Tech Incubators

In Canada, we are looking at not one but two leadership campaigns: the Ontario Liberal Party will elect a new leader on January 25, 2013, while the Liberal Party of Canada will hold their leadership vote on April 13, 2013. Beside watching the back and forth between the candidates, I’m primarily interested in the technology that will be on display during these contests.

Even though many may view general elections as “the big show” and these types of leadership races are a whole lot of inside baseball, it is my contention that it is these lower-profile campaigns where some serious innovation, primarily on the technological front, are possible.

Why? Three reasons:

Less Risk

Let’s be honest – a misstep or poor performance during a leadership race is rarely fatal. Party members may be more spirited, but overall they are more forgiving to their fellow members. And everyone knows that it is their opponents who they are up against, not each other. So it can be a more forgiving atmosphere.

Secondly, the Party membership is a unique audience: they are engaged, politically aware and ready to be mobilized. Granted, they aren’t exactly a true representation of the wider population. But when deploying new technology or new approached to activating individuals online – which is often the primary goal of social media technology in politics – they can be a group of great beta testers. If they don’t take it up, it has no chance.

No Party Infrastructure

Often, necessity is the father of invention. In a leadership contest, the existing party infrastructure is basically off limits – riding associations, Party HQ are all (supposed to be) neutral. Fundraising is split up three, four or five ways, depending on how many candidates have thrown their hats in. With resources spread so thin, campaigns need to find new way to organize, recruit and mobilize.

Social networks and open source technology provide a platform for campaigns to recruit and communicate volunteers, while increasing their communications reach through the power of their supporters’ social profiles. In the early days of the Obama campaign, that’s exactly the tactic they employed – empowering supporters to self-organize through social networks when there was no money or campaign infrastructure to speak of.

Fewer Rules

One of the biggest advantages for leadership campaigns is the lack of bureaucracy. Less resources, staff, etc also typically mean less hoops to jump through. The hot glare of a general election does not exist – its more of an internal exercise that the media and the public is passively interested.

Depending on the worldview of those managing the campaign (whether they see social as an opportunity or a liability), this can create an environment where there are fewer rules around what can and can’t be done. In my own experience, I was able to try out tactics and concepts that in a general election may not have been considered.

And that’s where the real value is found: a leadership campaign is an online proving ground where data can be collected and proper testing can be done to determine what works and what doesn’t.

Of course, not all leadership campaigns in Canada become a hotbed of technological innovation. As discussed here a few months ago, the recent federal NDP leadership was fairly unremarkable on that front.

But the environment is there. Whether the Liberal leadership campaigns at the provincial and federal levels take advantage of that reality remains to be seen.

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