10.26.08

open letter to Senator Obama: please keep the volunteers

Posted in Politics at 11:33 pm by ducky

Senator Obama —

I am writing to plead with you to keep your volunteer organization in place after the election.

The articles that I have read about the ground operation (e.g. here and here) sound like your volunteer organization in the US has been just amazing. I’ve witnessed this to a lesser extent myself while volunteering for different (specialized) volunteer work I’ve done for you from my home in Canada.

Please keep the volunteer effort alive after the election. This organization is a hugely valuable resource to the country, to the Democratic Party, to you, and also to the volunteers themselves. It would be a real shame to let it dissipate into the wind.

There are many valuable activities that volunteers could do after election day:

  • The volunteers could organize to do charitable work, much as my friend and your staffer Eric Loeb attempted to do with the Good Works PAC. They could paint schools and homeless shelters, and could also organize for disaster response.
  • There is an enormous amount of data in the world that is not yet on the Web. In addition to doing even more voter database cleansing and analysis, volunteers could work on e.g. transcribing the mountains of historical data living in paper books in federal depository libraries. (Or better, spend their time double-checking OCR scans of the books.)
  • There is a great deal of technological infrastructure that would serve the public good, especially if coupled with large data-collecting operations. Two examples (I have more, just ask!):
    • I had the fortune to get a seminar in “Government 101” from Joe Simitian ten years ago where I was amazed to discover just how many governmental or quasi-governmental bodies I was part of. Ever since, I have wanted a Web site where I could click on a map and get links to all of the legislative, educational, utility, and emergency services districts for that geographical point.
    • You have talked about “Google for Government”. I suggest that something like a “Wikipedia for Government” would also be useful — a place for analysis of bills, legislative history of those bills, reports on how the voting went, legislators voting records, information about campaign contributions, and some data mining to show correlations between campaign contributions and voting records. This would need some software infrastructure to run well.

There would be many parties that could benefit:

  • You. I presume that you will be running in 2012, hopefully as an incumbent, but possibly as a challenger. You would benefit from having a well-developed organization in place before the election. The volunteers also potentially could provide you with feedback “from the ground”, in case you get concerned that you’re living in an echo chamber. You could potentially do polls of the volunteers quickly and easily.
  • Whoever brands the Web sites that the volunteers develop. Every time a random person goes to one of the sites, they could see the logo of the volunteer organization. (I think it would be better for America if it were branded something like “Liberals for America” instead of “Obama for America”. Partially I think it would help the long-term viability of the organization, but partly I worry about the appearance of demagoguery.)
  • The beneficiaries of the good works and disaster responses.
  • Us, the consumers of information that the volunteers create.
  • Us, the volunteers. This can give us purpose and community. This is not a small thing, but this is not the place to make that argument.
  • Potentially the rest of the world. Especially if the “Wikipedia for Government” system is effective, it could be adopted by people in other countries to shine a light on their systems.

To keep the volunteer organization going, I think you need three things;

  • Some money. I’m not sure how much you need, but you need a small number of people to nurture the organization. This might be as small as one, but more likely it’s on the order of ten paid staff. That might be all you need; you might be able to run the rest on love.
  • Some direction and leadership. Someone needs to give the organization some direction so the organization doesn’t succumb to centrifugal forces. It’s probably okay — perhaps even desirable — to have ten different projects, but not ten thousand.
  • Cheering. There are lots of things that people can do individually, but getting some recognition for it — no matter how small — is a powerful motivator. You can move a lot of the cheering downstream if you are careful, but you need to be careful about it.
    • You could build positive reinforcement into the tools: when someone gets done with a data entry session, have it say something like, “Thanks for your hard work! You did X amount of work today, which brings us to Y% done! It’s volunteers like you who are making this good thing happen!” (It’s cheesy, but works.)
    • I suggest that, whenever possible, the online tools have a chat session built-in, so that people could see who else from their neighborhood was working on it, and so they could ask questions of the community and provide assistance.

You have a chance to change the face of politics forever by keeping around a volunteer organization. Please don’t skip the opportunity.

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