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Open-Source vs. For-Profit Tech and Activism

So last wek I made a point in my Spectator piece that the GOP has a tech problem, but it’s a tech problem that can be addressed through a significant investment in money and culture.  As I argued, you can address a lot of tech shortcomings if you invest in being better, smarter, and bringing people to the table that have the skills and letting them run with those skills.

My former colleague Patrick Ruffini, on Sunday, seemed to take issue with at least part of that when he chided Stuart Stevens – Romney’s brain trust – for suggesting that money can solve our tech problems.

What really troubles me about Stevens’s comments is his dismissive statement that “technology is something to a large degree you can go out and purchase.” No, it’s not. Technology is not about the tools. It is about people. It’s about creating a culture that drives metrics over hunches and BS “message of the day” fire drills.

Stevens will be the last general strategist of his kind not because he didn’t tweet, but because he thought of technology and data as some cool toy you could buy, not as the very foundation of a strong organization.

I would actually challenge Ruffini on that to a degree.  If poor tech is the problem, you can, in fact, invest in better tools.  But part of the GOP’s problem is it has not recently invested heavily in tools.  The period when it did (roughly 1996 through 2006) was marked by a significant improvement in tools.  The RNC database that eventually led to Voter Vault and microtargeting, and scared the Democrats into stepping up their game, was a result of that investment.  The GOP Team Leader program, the Bush re-elect effort, and many, many wins at the state and federal level were all a result of that investment – better data, better tools, better ideas.

Like the hare that naps and lets the tortoise win the race, however, the GOP got complacent.  It seemed to believe the headlines after 2004 that said the Dems may never be able to catch up with our data and microtargeting supremacy.  Those same headlines are being written now about the Dems, and I find them absurd. No party has a lock on tech, ideas, or success. Tech, especially, is a fickle beast and steer erratically between the latest good idea.  The GOP began to learn that when the 2008 Obama campaign took what the right had done and built on it.

So do I agree with Stevens that we can simply spend our way to competitiveness?  The answer to that requires a bit more framing.

We need to think of our problem differently. In politics, like technology, there are two camps. One, we’ll call it the open-source approach, creates a larger more vibrant community (of either activists or technologists).  The other, for-profit model is still perfectly legitimate, but doesn’t invite as many to participate and becomes much more expensive to maintain.

Think of the left’s activism as Linux, MySQL, and Drupal and the right’s as Microsoft or Oracle.  One innovates faster and has a larger community, one is limited in functionality to what they’re willing to invest in, rather than what the crowd can come up with.

There is nothing that says the right cannot compete with a Microsoft model.  They can, quite reasonably, invest huge sums of money in closed platforms, and be competitive.  That was Stuart’s point, and I agree that it is a viable – though certainly not the best – option.

One way or another – whether we follow the Stevens model, or something much more open and inclusive – the right must undergo a major attitudinal change.

If we want to follow Stevens model and closely guard the source code and hardware for GOP 16, then the donor culture on the right still needs to stop thinking in two-year cycles of TV ads and invest heavily in organizations that will be continually innovating, continually coming up with new, but still largely proprietary products.

What you cannot do, in Stevens model, is what the GOP has done for the last six years. You cannot release Windows Vista and expect it to keep you viable for a decade.

We would need to follow something more closely resembling the Apple model – a locked down platform that meets the needs of 90% of consumer (jailbreakers excluded), but one that still guards the source.  Voter Vault, in many ways, originally took that approach.  It protected the kernel while still meeting the needs of the users.  The problem is the GOP didn’t innovate when the needs of the users began to change.  Rather than enabling Voter Vault to be integrated with state, county, local, and issue advocacy campaigns through tools that would connect to the data, and share the benefit of all that data collection – Voter Vault became the iPhone without the ability to add apps.

Would it be possible to succeed with a tool that is still a walled garden, but one that meets the needs of its users?  Just ask Facebook.  They have made a huge business from that model.

So while I respect Patrick’s view, and agree with him that a more open model would be better, I disagree that there is absolutely no other option.  The Stevens approach could be successful, but it would still require a major cultural shift, and would be less likely to produce good outcomes.

Written by Michael Turk