managementA party is a unique organization. Its primary goals are representing citizens in elections and advocating for policy positions — in government or in opposition— that it believes further citizen interests. Unlike many other types of organizations, a party is typically staffed by a mix of party members and full-time professional staff. Every political party must have an internal organization system, including procedures for making decisions, managing resources, tracking members and activists, and communicating internally. Digital technologies have revolutionized the way businesses, governments and organizations across the globe manage their internal processes, and can be equally useful for a political party. The following section lists some of the core elements of political party management and some potentially helpful tools.

Internal communications: Internal communications are a critical component of party management. Most parties have provincial and branch offices, and information should constantly flow between these and party headquarters. Branch offices might need to share financial data, information on local policy priorities based on day-to-day interactions with members and citizens, information on member activities, and local news developments. Similarly, a party’s national headquarters might need to keep its branch offices informed of newly developed policy positions, messaging priorities, major party events, and changes or updates to party rules or priorities. The worksheet on internal communications channels describes some tools a party can use to streamline its communications processes.

Financial management and compliance: Financial management is critical to any large organization. A party must track its income and expenses to ensure that it does not spend more money than it takes in. It must also constantly monitor its expenses to make sure it does not waste money or, worse, lose resources to fraud or theft. Office applications — truly simple digital tools — can immediately improve an organization’s ability to manage its finances. Spreadsheet applications like Excel (or Google Sheets) and basic accounting applications like Quickbooks can help a party plan and manage expenses and income consistently and effectively.

In many countries, all political parties must adhere to strict requirements for tracking and reporting on income and expenditures in order to enforce party and campaign finance laws. In some developed democracies with extensive technology infrastructures, there are off-the-shelf applications available to help manage compliance. However, in most cases, a party would have to develop custom software, or adapt existing software, to meet its specific needs. Customized products can be both desirable and costly. For more information, see the worksheet on customized vs. off-the-shelf applications.

Decision making: Parties’ decision-making mechanisms can vary. For example, a party might select its candidates by primary, official policy platforms may be determined by a vote at a convention and other decisions might be made by an executive committee. Particularly in the case of decisions that require as many party members’ input as possible, technology offers vast possibilities. The case studies on Denmark’s Liberal Alliance and Italy’s Five Star Movement demonstrate how some political parties have used online voting to elicit increased participation from their members.

12370380555_b96dd6838f_zMember management:  Members are critical to political party operations. Some parties are staffed almost exclusively by party members volunteering their time, while others rely heavily on financial contributions from members. To manage members effectively, a party should develop a system for keeping track of interactions with members and constituents. A simple spreadsheet that tracks key constituent data and notes recent interactions between constituents and the party suffices. Other database applications, such as Microsoft Access, are also useful. However, these applications are not tailored to political parties, so searching for and tracking as much data as a party might want to maintain can be difficult, and the applications can be cumbersome and time consuming to update.

Increasingly, parties are turning to Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) applications designed specifically for political parties and campaigns. CRM software helps a party keep track of its members and supporters, and party officials’ interactions with them. CRM systems can be expensive, and typically require significant upkeep costs. However, there are free, open source options available. NDI’s ICT Team recently developed CiviParty, an open-source CRM database adapted from the CiviCRM platform. However, even free applications can have significant hidden costs. For more information on the relative benefits of open source applications, see the worksheets on proprietary vs. open source technologies and cost.

Additionally, cloud-based CRM applications have unique benefits, including their ability to allow multiple users to track updates simultaneously, and capacity to automatically record all changes and updates, including those made by members. However the user must have access to the internet to utilize these benefits, which can be restricting.

Knowledge management: Knowledge management is a challenge for many organizations. Documents can easily disappear if stored on a single computer’s hard drive, for instance, and many organizations struggle to keep track of reports, assessments, plans and other important documents.

Many companies and large organizations have turned to custom (and often expensive) document-management and tracking systems like Sharepoint, but a party should also consider free/open source alternatives like wikis. Wikis are designed to be simple tools for organizing and updating information, often hierarchically, and they contain pages and subpages on particular topics. Wiki pages typically include images, videos, uploaded documents and other resources, making them potentially powerful tools allowing a party to keep track of everything from field outreach checklists to poll results, and including the policy documents that underlie the party’s political platforms.

Wikis are also typically designed to allow many users to create and edit pages at once. This means party staff can use wikis as a platform for collaboration. In some cases, a local network or intranet hosts wikis, but often they are cloud applications and require internet access. Of course, wikis are just one solution to the problem of organizing information, and like every other online tool, they are only as secure as their login information.

Digital training: Training is a key political party task. Staff and members require regular education to keep them on-message and up-to-date on the party’s organizing strategy and tactics. Face-to-face training remains superior to online training in most circumstances. However, new technology can supplement traditional training programs. For example, a party can use digital channels to distribute follow-up information and updated materials. Email, listservs and social media allow participants to ask questions and receive clarification, and to network with one another after the face-to-face portion is complete. Webinars, or webcasts, are another way for parties to reach out; they are peer-level web meetings that allow users to share text-based messages, as well as voice and video chat simultaneously across geographically dispersed locations.

shutterstock_133608929Digital channels can also deliver the actual training classes, even in relatively low-tech environments. Many political organizations in the United States – including both the 2008 and 2012 Barack Obama presidential campaigns – have employed online video to create “virtual classrooms” for field staff and volunteers, establishing an online curriculum for volunteers to study on their own time. For example, political parties such as the European Greens, and  political organizations like Wellstone Action and the New Organizing Institute, host a large range of training resources and modules online that are available to their supporters and the general public.

If possible, it can also be useful to have trainings available in multiple formats, to allow those with different bandwidths and levels of internet access to participate. Possible formats include video presentations, PowerPoint or slide presentations, basic HTML webpages, or downloadable document such as PDFs.

A party can use digital means to train its staff and members in cases where travel is impossible or too expensive, security is a concern, or other reasons. Digital communication and collaboration tools, as well as e-learning software, can allow party members to interact in real time or asynchronously. These tools can improve collaboration among party members, simplify intra-party resource sharing and help maintain a standard level of training. Although technological capabilities vary from party to party, all parties can take advantage of at least some aspects of digital training.

Digital communication and collaboration tools allow new staff and members to interact with experienced party staff via the web in real time. These tools can help parties communicate with branch offices and run live trainings that allow participants to ask questions and get feedback. Additionally, through community e-learning software, new staff members can take online training courses on their own time without the help of an experienced party staffer.

Several good examples of communication and e-learning tools exist.

  • Video conferencing/VOIP tools (e.g., Skype, Google Hangout, GoToMeeting): New staff and members can live chat with training staff, with or without video.
  • Co-browsing or screencasting (e.g., Oracle): Co-browsing lets experienced party staff perform virtual demonstrations for new staff and members.
  • Virtual learning environments (e.g., Blackboard, Moodle): A party can upload training resources to online learning environments that allow for interaction with instructors as well as member collaboration. Some, such as Moodle, are free and open source, while others, like Blackboard, are available for purchase.
  • Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs (e.g., edX, HarvardX, MITx): Many leading universities are offering free educational content to anyone with an internet connection, through MOOCs. Early data on MOOCs suggests that significant work needs to be done to diversify the learning audience and make online education as engaging and interactive as the traditional classroom. Partnerships between academic institutions and NGOs offer one potential model. A recent Harvard/MIT study of nearly 70 such courses found a rising share of female, U.S.-based, and older participants. Courses such as these could help party staff increase their skills in basic organizing, fundraising, management and other useful activities not specific to political parties.
  • Webinars/Webcasts (e.g., GoToWebinar): A party can schedule and live stream online training seminars that allow viewers to watch a presentation and interact with the presenter.
  • Wikis or Blogs: Wikis and blogs allow new party staff and members to read and modify training materials. These platforms allow for collaborative modification, but no synchronous interaction.

The rise of VOIP tools such as Skype and Google Hangouts have created new opportunities for live online video trainings. They combine several of the advantages of online video and in-person trainings by allowing participants to join from any location with an internet connection (preferably with a minimum download speed of 512Kbps and a minimum upload speed of 128Kbps). But, again, in low-tech environments, video chat applications might not be available consistently or at all.