You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

OFA 2.0 Still A Work in (Hidden) Progress

BY Micah L. Sifry | Sunday, December 14 2008

More than two-thirds of the 500,000 Obama volunteers who responded to an online survey asking about their interest in future activities in the wake of their involvement with the campaign responded that they "would like to continue to volunteer in the communities as part of an Obama for America 2.0 organization." And the number one thing these volunteers said they want to do next is work to support the next President's legislative agenda.

So reported Paulette Aniskoff, the Obama Pennsylvania field director, who shared those numbers this past weekend during the Rootscamp gathering at Trinity College in Washington, DC. Saturday afternoon's talk by Aniskoff attracted at least 100 out of the approximately 500 people attending the "unconference."

But while her presentation was titled "The Future of OFA 2.0," Aniskoff had few additional details to share, beyond saying "We do know we have a budget but we don’t know what it will be yet, or how much people will be willing to donate, but we will have organizers nationwide helping strengthen local volunteers." OFA 2.0's goals will be to support Obama's legislative agenda, do electoral organizing behind local candidate, expand civic engagement, and facilitate two-way communication with the administration. "There will be some way for the administration to be communicating with the grass roots, but we don’t know how that will work yet," she said.

Aniskoff said that it would probably be a bit longer before more details were decided, as OFA 2.0 was still going through an information-gathering process. "We are conducting an open, deliberative process," she told the audience. "Hundreds of thousands of volunteer surveys, thousands of staff surveys and calls, a summit last weekend in Chicago with hundreds of staff and volunteers, one-on-one conversations with allied groups, and thousands of 'change is coming' house parties this weekend."

However, when I asked her if the names of the hundreds of people who met in Chicago last weekend and who continue to work on sifting through all the survey responses--noting that the Obama presidential transition team had published hundreds of names of its staffers--she demurred. "The government is owned by the country," she said, and thus obligated to be more open, whereas "we're an organization. I can't really say anything more than that." Considering that the Obama transition is under no legal obligation to be as open as it has been, and there are plenty of political organizations that are far more open about their leadership and staff, this was hardly a satisfying answer.

Why does it matter that OFA 2.0 start sharing more information about who is making the decisions in Chicago? I think there are three reasons. First, because such transparency enables accountability. Grass-roots volunteers ought to know who is making decisions on their behalf and the reasoning behind those decisions. Second, because there will inevitably be conflicts between the president's legislative agenda and his grass-roots base, and the more open the process for participating in and seeing how those conflicts are resolved, the greater the likelihood that the base will stay engaged. A more opaque organizational structure may be easier to control but less energized from below.

Finally, there is the reason illustrated by this picture, which was taken Saturday morning at a 400-person strong "Change is Coming" meeting in Los Angeles.

The caption of the picture, which is on the CommunityOrganize Ning site, reads "Learning how connected we really are. Each district had a ball of yarn that traveled to other attendees that they knew in other districts to show the power of our network in the room."

The true power of what was built by the Obama campaign is not just in the numbers of emails collected or donations collected, but also in the number of people activated and connected to each other. Individuals, and small house-party meetings, inputting their data up to a central office don't add up to as much power as a visible, multi-centered, network of individuals and groups talking to each other and hammering out common plans. By merging its organizing smarts and its technological smarts, the Obama movement has the potential to be something much greater than its parts. It remains to be seen whether it will live up to that potential.