Paul Abbott is Chief Executive of Conservative Way Forward and an Associate Director at Portland Communications.
With Lord Feldman’s Party Review on the horizon, ConservativeHome has asked me to scribble down a few thoughts each week, in answer to the central question: How can we build a Conservative Party machine fit for the 21st century?
Last week, I looked at membership.
This week: IT systems.
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Think of the Conservative Party’s IT infrastructure as a grand, sprawling, historic old building. Rather like the Houses of Parliament. From a distance, the sight is beautiful. The “cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, / The solemn temples, the great globe itself”!
But, like most historic buildings, when you get up close, you can see that the paint is peeling and everything is in sore need of modernisation. The cramped offices, the crumbling facade, the defunct dead ends, the pointless staircases, the embellishments that perhaps once made sense – but are now extravagantly insane.
Our Party’s IT systems are rather like this. They have been built up organically, accumulating a rich sediment over the years. But, the result is a patchwork of confusion, which often fails to do its job.
During the election, there were at least four separate teams in CCHQ, running at least four separate digital platforms.
- The Data Team, in charge of Votesource and Merlin. They stored voter information.
- Connect2015. The heroes in charge of our telephone calling system.
- The Chairman’s Office. We ran the volunteer network, called Team2015, which Grant Shapps founded in order to find new activists, and move more of our existing activists into battleground seats.
- Then there was the actual Digital Team, who pumped out messages on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Conservatives.com, and who ran our email list of 1.5 million people – probably the Party’s single most valuable asset.
All of these four teams used different IT and database systems. Sometimes these systems spoke with each other. But, most of the time – this being the Conservative Party – they didn’t.
This led to problems.
Let me explain:
1) Votesource. This is the mainframe of the Conservative Party, storing all our voter contact information. It is far superior to its predecessor, the hated “Merlin” system, because it is web-based and can update the electoral roll faster. The CCHQ management team were right to scrap Merlin and go in this direction.
But Votesource was built in-house by a small coding team in CCHQ, because our antiquated Party Constitution makes it impossible to use off-the-shelf systems from America. As a result, Votesource was rolled out horrendously late in 2015, and had some big teething problems. It was also never universal. Some Associations were conservative about it, and stuck with Merlin, or even with the Ur-versions such as BlueChip or FilePlan.
This was all sub-optimal. It made it harder for the data team to do their job. Votesource, however, did not integrate automatically with Team2015, which ran on the Nationbuilder platform. Nor did it automatically sync its data with the platforms used by the digital team for Conservatives.com.
There simply wasn’t time to fix this, because we were building it in-house and the decision to junk Merlin was taken late in the Parliament. Votesource did sort-of-sync with Connect2015 – the telephone system – which was good news. But because of the late roll-out, this was only functioning by the final stages of the campaign.
2) Connect2015. Once you are logged onto Connect2015, and approved as a user, this system works like a dream. It is web-based, and slightly gamified so you can see where you are in the league table of “callers”.
The problem was logging on in the first place. To gain access, you had to wade through a blizzard of passwords, usernames, emails, and confirmation processes. Most volunteers at this point just shrugged their shoulders and simply gave up.
For a while, every single potential canvasser on the Connect2015 platform had to be manually – manually! – approved by a member of CCHQ staff. Madness! This was a total waste of time. The problem was that the sign-up form wasn’t A-B tested by our digital team and so didn’t incorporate their wizardry – minimising the number of clicks that a user has to make, for example.
3) Team2015. We ran our volunteer network through Nationbuilder because it was cheap, scalable, and worked straight away. The downside was it didn’t sync with anything else. It didn’t sync with Votesource, Connect2015, the Party’s main Facebook page, or our email system. We also couldn’t host it on Conservatives.com, unfortunately – where it would have got hugely better traffic. But it worked. We didn’t have time to integrate it, because the project only really got money in mid-2014 – and so, like Votesource, we were trying simultaneously to build our weapons and use them in the field. Next time we need to start earlier.
4) Conservatives.com. The platforms used by the digital team were all Rolls Royce, off-the-shelf stuff, with some coding around them to make them look bespoke. They worked. They were shiny. And they were properly A-B tested, so that the sign-up forms converted, and the donation “asks” generated money. Basically I have no complaints. More, please.
The consequences of all this confusion however – and the consequences in particular of not using the peacetime years in the earlier part of the Parliament to build a stronger, more unified digital infrastructure – was that we missed huge opportunities.
If you include Boris Johnson, George Osborne, David Cameron, and other key pages, the Conservative Party enjoys the largest social media fan-base of any political party in Great Britain. We are big on Facebook. We are also huge on email.
But because none of these things were 100 per cent integrated with our voter contact system (Votesouce) or our activist platform (Nationbuilder), it was massively harder for us to understand our supporters, and to communicate with them on the issues that they cared about. As a result, effort was wasted. Work was duplicated. And this meant ultimately that we won less votes in marginal seats, and raised less money, than we otherwise might have done.
Yes, we won the election. But we lost good MPs like Nick de Bois, Lee Scott, Mary Macleod, and others – sometimes by the narrowest of narrow margins.
We can’t go on like this.
For 2020, here’s how I would change it:
- Scrap Votesource. We will never be able to spend enough money on improving it, to keep it competitive with the brand new software coming out of Washington DC. We cannot win a digital arms race against America. Let’s stop trying. Change our creaking Constitution, so that we are able to buy a top-notch voter contact system off the shelf instead.
- Repurpose the data team in CCHQ, to be quality testers and caretakers of that system. Their job should be commissioning coding from the best and brightest geeks around the world. They should stop coding themselves.
- Give the digital team in CCHQ control over every single public-facing digital platform we have. They should own the “user experience”. They’re the experts in A-B testing. Let them do their job.
- Make sure that all our databases automatically sync with each other. And let’s do this in time for the local elections in 2016. The internet is the future of politics, and the pace of change is accelerating. Let’s not get left behind.
A standing caveat: I haven’t spoken with anyone in CCHQ before writing this. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble! But, also the Conservative Party is important to me, and we should take the Party Review seriously. Lord Feldman deserves praise for getting it going: we all have a duty to get involved, and to say what we really believe.
P.S. Next week I will be writing about candidate selections. Do ping me a message on Facebook if you’ve got any anecdotes you would like to share (publicly or privately).