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In Ohio, Obama's Campaign "Dashboard" a Hard Sell for Some Volunteers

BY Nick Judd and Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya | Friday, August 10 2012

Last week, Obama for America published a glowing blog post about how "Zeppa," a field organizer for the campaign in Ohio's Wyandot and Crawford counties, was using the campaign's Dashboard online organizing platform to recruit volunteers. The post focused on "Billie," a new neighborhood team leader working with "Zeppa," and frames them both smiling in front of what seems to be a campaign office.

The pair are an example of what the Obama campaign hopes will happen on Dashboard with increasing frequency: organizers calling volunteers as soon as they sign up, identifying potential leaders and turning enthusiasm into action on behalf of the campaign.

"If you want to protect our progress," the post ends, "there’s an easy way to get started. Join Dashboard today, and connect to your local neighborhood team."

The Obama campaign is racing to make its online hub for organizing, Dashboard, as inviting as possible for volunteers. With 87 days until Nov. 6, the campaign is pleading for supporters to sign on to the platform, which organizes volunteers by location into neighborhood teams, stores information about the work they are willing to do, and points them to tools to do things like knock on doors or make phone calls. It's a project the campaign is clearly proud of, and has spent months working on — we first noticed the "coming soon" sticker hanging on Dashboard's vacant online storefront last November.

To understand how this tool was actually being used, we looked at Ohio, a key swing state. We tracked a sample of 560 neighborhood teams on Dashboard there over five weeks, during which they were growing — albeit at a flat number of additional volunteers per week, which actually meant the rate of growth declined as our sample grew in size.

Campaign officials describe Dashboard as a way for volunteers to take action without having to wait for permission from the campaign. It's also designed to connect the online energy of supporters with the real-world needs of Team Obama's ground game. Based on interviews with more than a dozen campaign volunteers using Dashboard, while stories like Zeppa's and Billie's are surely there to be told, some of the volunteers who signed up for the platform are waiting in vain for someone to connect them with the campaign. Others, already comfortable with campaign techniques they developed in 2008 or earlier, or uncomfortable with technology, are largely ignoring the platform.

The volunteer base on Dashboard continues to grow, but in Ohio the teams we watched were growing at a slowly declining rate. Taken in aggregate, the teams we tracked grew by 33 percent in the first week we were paying attention, about nine percent the second, less than eight percent the next and by just 7.5 percent last week. That's due in part to growth itself — our sample grew by 580 the first week, 216 the next, 198 the following week and 205 the week after that, and now includes more than 2,900 people.

Adam Fetcher, a campaign spokesman, told techPresident that Dashboard isn't the only way in for campaign volunteers. Some volunteers may use Dashboard only to get updates and campaign announcements, doing their work out of a local campaign office, he said. Others may decide to use Dashboard only to report back to the campaign nightly.

Concerning volunteers who are waiting for the campaign to get them going, Fetcher responded that no follow-up is necessary — part of the point of Dashboard is to make it easier for people to work on their own, without the campaign's direction. Campaign staff will keep working to improve the platform, he said.

"The campaign’s strength has always come from the millions of grassroots supporters who are organizing in their communities and talking to their neighbors about President Obama every day," Fetcher said in a statement. "As we push through the last 100 days of this election, our focus remains on helping make grassroots organizing as easy and accessible as possible for the volunteers and supporters that are the heart and soul of this campaign. That’s why we designed Dashboard to help break down the distinction between online and offline organizing, giving every supporter the same opportunities to get involved that they would find in a field office. We’ve received great feedback about Dashboard from our supporters and volunteers so far who are effectively using the tool to make a real difference in helping re-elect the President."

Some of the neighborhood teams we tracked in Dashboard have more than 40 members, while others have none. There's an average of about five people per team. David Karpf, author of "The MoveOn Effect," says that number is significant.

"Snowflakes"

"The fact that it's five is actually noteworthy to me," Karpf said. "They don't call them groups, they call them teams, and the fact that it matters to me that they're 'neighborhood teams' is because it's Marshall Ganz's phrase."

In 2008, the Obama campaign adopted the teachings of veteran organizer and Harvard University professor Marshall Ganz into its ground strategy. In Ganzian organizing, teams of between five and ten are just the right size for an organizer to come in and start directing activities, Karpf said.

Natalie Foster, who was new media director for Organizing for America in 2009, says that Dashboard fits within the "snowflake" organizing model OfA developed during the president's first campaign — one in which volunteer groups grow, promising volunteers splinter off to lead new teams and those teams grow, too. Foster is now co-founder, with Van Jones, and CEO at Rebuild the Dream, a political organization based in San Francisco.

"Any sort of branch of the snowflake can spin off and start their own new snowflake," Foster explained. "People can move into central leadership quite easily after they've passed a series of tests. So that gives [the volunteer base] the potential to be exponential in growth as opposed to linear."

In the sample we tracked, growth was flat, not exponential, although tracking Dashboard is not the same as tracking all of the campaign's volunteer recruiting. Foster was unsurprised to hear that we'd encountered people who have yet to get onboard with the campaign's online organizing platform.

"Any big new tool is going to take some time to roll out," she said, "particularly to the volunteers who have been doing something a certain way for a long time."

The risk, she said, is worth the reward.

"The only way you're going to fuse the digital and the field together is going to be something like this," she said.

The experience each user has on the platform changes along with the role that user plays and the team that user's on. TechPresident recently noticed a box appeared along the right rail of some teams' home pages. "This is a Phase 2 Team," it explains. "This team is taking shape! It has a Neighborhood Team Leader and a few active volunteers joining in team events. It needs Core Team Members in order to have a strong leadership foundation."

That seems to be the condition of a large number of teams in Ohio, and for volunteers who signed up expecting Dashboard to be a window into a hive of organizing activity, it can be frustrating.

Waiting to connect

“I don’t understand what I signed up for, all those details and info," said Sam Friedman, 35, a supporter for Team Euclid South. Euclid, Ohio, is just outside of Cleveland. "I expected immediately after [signing up] I would be contacted, especially after putting in such specific things as, 'are you interested in religious things? Or the environment? Or gay rights?' They really asked very specific things about each person. I don’t know what they’re doing with all that info or with that website.”

While the idea of Dashboard may be to give direction to the energy of volunteers who are already fired up, Friedman is an example of another type of supporter entirely. He says he doesn't have the time to seek out opportunities on a platform like Dashboard. He was expecting that by giving the campaign all his information, he'd stand out as the kind of person who an organizer could recruit for a weekend phone bank or a door-knocking shift. But that hadn't happened when we spoke to him in late July and still hadn't happened when we followed up with him Thursday.

"Obama's been within 45 minutes of me twice in the last two weeks and I wasn't aware about it until after it happened," he said Thursday. "I run a business, I run a family, I'm happy to help — but somebody has to reach out to me with an opportunity."

Dashboard does have features that seem designed to connect people with others in their team. Foster said that when she logs in, she sees stories of other volunteers in their area and why they're volunteering for Obama. It shows, she says, "that it's not just you and a website." And some volunteers in Ohio say they are noticing changes the campaign is still making to the platform. Earlier in July, we spoke with Kate Mullins, 60, a phone bank coordinator in South Media, Ohio.

"I have used Dashboard, barackobama.com and Votebuilder, and I wish the sites talked to each other," she told us. Votebuilder is a separate program, built by NGP VAN and owned by the Democratic National Committee, that hosts data on voters and is used by campaigns at all levels to track voter contacts. "Dashboard is nice, but sometimes it's a little cumbersome. It would be nice if the site could notify me of events in the area and connect the sites more."

When we spoke to her again Thursday, Mullins said she had noticed improvements, an indication that the campaign is building this particular bicycle and riding it at the same time.

"It's a little bit more user-friendly," Mullins said. "It's a lot easier to create events, keep track — being able to reach out to people. Being able to document volunteers that have attended events and possible volunteers for the future. I think the Obama campaign has got a really good tool here now that they've worked on it a bit."

Outside the system

Ultimately, Dashboard's utility as a web platform will only matter to the campaign to the extent that volunteers use it to stay active and organized. From academics like Karpf to volunteers like Mullins, everyone we spoke to agreed it's a good-looking piece of software, although some disagreed about its ease of use. But Obama for America is not in the business of building pretty software, it is in the business of winning an election, and with 87 days left until Nov. 6, Dashboard only helps do that in places where volunteers sign up and stick around.

"It looks beautiful, it's elegant and it's as effective as the Obama for America community makes it," Karpf said. "That last point is the real big asterisk. Looking over it, I didn't get a sense of how well organized, how well used is this thing. They have me logged in as being from Brooklyn, and there's a list of not too much activity in Brooklyn, but then again it's not like he has to work very hard to win Brooklyn."

Activity on Dashboard can't be taken as an indicator of the enthusiasm among Obama's volunteers overall, though. Even in a state where Obama will have to work hard, not everyone working for his re-election is using the platform — so low activity on Dashboard doesn't mean low activity, full stop.

"Most of my team is not on Dashboard," said David Girves, 68, the team leader for the northern areas of Upper Arlington in Ohio. "When I mention it during the meeting, they look at me like I used to look at people when they told me, 'You should be on Facebook.'"

North Upper Arlington is in a congressional district Cook Political Report pegs as solidly red, but is within easy reach of areas that are far more supportive of Democrats — meaning it might be a good place to have a lot of volunteers.

Girves spoke to us earlier in the summer. When we followed up with him Thursday, he explained that Dashboard alerts him whenever people join the team in his neighborhood, which, he said, was filled with people more likely to be around his age than to be younger. While Dashboard pegs his group as having about 20 people, he says that in reality, he's working with a far larger group of volunteers. As the team leader, he coordinates with all of them — just not on Dashboard. He sends emails and holds regular meetings, he said. And he uses Votebuilder to log the results of door knocks and phone calls.

It's a story we've heard before: While Dashboard might be an easy way in for newbie campaigners, veterans of Obama's 2008 effort and of previous campaigns sometimes prefer to use the tools they already know.

But they're still at work for the campaign.

"You caught me between two houses, knocking on doors, with sweat pouring down my face," Girves told techPresident when we reached him late Thursday morning.

He said he had found a tree he could stand under and take a rest during our conversation. And once we were done speaking, he said, he would return to going door to door.

With Miranda Neubauer

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