“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” ~Mark Twain
Real improvement requires that we open our ears and minds to what others can tell us, even if it means re-examining our own assumptions and institutional knowlege.
I originally developed this Blueprint for a Better Party for a state-level Democratic Party committee in 2018, to be deployed in early 2019 through the 2020 elections.
It is a set of recommendations for a strategic improvement process to build capacity, improve services to candidates, develop leadership at all levels, increase volunteer participation, develop year round community presence and voter engagement, and improve the party brand both internally and externally.
These recommendations were based on more than 120 individual interviews and feedback from hundreds of party stakeholders including staff, leadership and volunteers at all levels, professionals, community activists and representatives of allied organizations.
Property of Antonia Scatton and UpRise Campaigns.
Blueprint for a Better Party
The purpose of this project is to significantly increase the effectiveness and capacity of the XX State Party Committee in the 20XX building year and into the 20XX election year, by tapping into the human capital of thousands of skilled volunteers and the knowledge and relationships of the community as a whole.
The project will involve stakeholder identification and needs assessment, establishment of working groups, the development and implementation of strategic plans and the creation of procedures for improving internal operations, communication and accountability.
The “project team” refers to the dedicated person or persons either assigned by or hired by the state party leadership to shepherd this project.
The project team will work with the state party and others to identify stakeholders across the broader allied community including elected officials, candidates and party leadership at the state, county, regional and local levels, political donors and professionals, precinct committee members and volunteers. The project team will also reach out to activists and leaders of allied issue, identity and community organizations, and will build a contact database of these stakeholders.
The project team will conduct surveys and organize both one-on-one interviews and group sessions to gather feedback and assess what people want and need from the party. During this process, the project team will identify and recommend people to participate in the next phase of this project and otherwise volunteer their skills, experience, local knowledge and relationships. This feedback and recruitment process will be ongoing.
Bringing people in from the broader community will be critical. This is a huge undertaking. The more people to share the workload, the more we can achieve. We need the contribution of everyone’s skills and professional experience. The project will need buy-in from the whole community if we’re going to succeed in implementing these major changes. We will also be living up to our values of inclusiveness and democratic engagement.
The project team will work with the state chair and party leadership to organize willing participants into working groups. The following areas of improvement have emerged from stakeholder discussions so far. Others may be identified as stakeholder interviews continue.
- Year-round voter and community relations
- Candidate recruiting, development and campaign services
- Precinct committee member recruitment, development and support
- County and local leadership development and support
- Communications, party branding and content (separate from policy/issue questions)
- Volunteer relationship management and engagement
- Creating permanent local office and community centers
See Exhibit A below for a preliminary list of the questions each group would be addressing.
Working groups will operate under the authority and leadership of corresponding state party standing or ad hoc committees. New ad hoc committees may need to be created. Each working group should have at least one member of the state executive committee or executive board serving as a coordinator and representing the working group to the full state party leadership.
Each group will meet regularly and carry out a clearly defined process to:
- Define their mission. If necessary, break into subgroups with narrower missions. Describe what success looks like.
- Gather and review all existing information. (No reinventing wheels.) Get input from the community. Consult expert advice.
- Make decisions. Define improvements. Set qualitative and quantitative goals. Determine what new programs are needed.
- Write program funding proposals including staff, infrastructure and resource needs and accountability measures.
Skilled Support Teams
The project team will work with the volunteer community to identify people with skills relevant to this process and build teams who will provide “staff” support the working groups. These will include people with professional or other expertise in business operations, project management, human resources, grant writing, research, event planning and business analytics.
Note: In early 2019, before we even announced the program, we had four professional project managers and fifteen professionals in writing/advertising/marketing fields volunteer to provide free staff support for the working group efforts.
Strategic Plan Development and Funding
The state chair will appoint a special task force to compile and prioritize these proposals into a strategic plan for the state party for building capacity for the 20XX election cycle and beyond. This task force may also choose to use the output of the working groups to develop longer-term strategic plans.
This may seem ambitious but there are several reasons to believe that significant increases in funding are achievable.
First, these proposals should have the level of detail and accountability usually seen only in proposals for federal government or major foundation grants. This will provide potential donors with greater confidence that funding will be effectively utilized.
Second, both the level of ambition and the unique process of development should provide ample opportunity for positive national media coverage which will draw attention from small and large donors alike.
Note: Dramatic increases in spending in 2020 ($15 billion in federal races alone) with disappointing results, especially massive expenditures on television advertising with diminishing rates of return on investment, may motivate people to fund projects with a higher potential rate of impact, like the type of long-term organizing that showed postive results in Georgia and Arizona.
The project team will facilitate the completion of the working groups and the transition to, and management of new implementation teams. The number and composition of these teams will depend on the output of the planning process. We expect to build dozens of teams, each with fewer members, more narrowly defined tasks and a longer term, possibly open ended, mandate.
Some operational improvements can be adopted by existing party staff. Some improvements and new programs could be managed by skilled volunteer teams and/or skilled volunteers acting as full or part-time uncompensated staff.
Other new programs will be dependent on the acquisition of funding for new staff positions or other needed resources. The project team, with the help of volunteer support staff, will assist with generating presentations to solicit support from potential funders and promote new programs to stakeholders from the local to the national level.
Working closely with state party leadership and staff, the project team will assist with defining new staff needs and potential roles. We expect that most new staff positions will be managing the work of large teams of skilled volunteers. The project team will work to leverage every new position, whether paid or unpaid, into exponential increases in volunteer labor across all areas of our workload.
The project team will also assist in the development of new training programs needed for effective adoption of new programs and activities.
The project team will also work to assess and define technology needs to support all new and existing operations, evaluate off the shelf options and potential customization requirements, and make recommendations for new technology acquisition and/or development.
For all programs, the project team will establish best practices for continuous improvement: processes for meaningful measurement, feedback gathering, analysis and ongoing adjustment.
Building Institutional Trust
A new ombudsperson role will be created to facilitate ongoing feedback procedures, hear issues and intermediate between stakeholders and volunteers and the state party.
The ombudsperson will also take responsibility for helping the party at all levels live up to a code of behavior designed to build trust in the party as an institution and encourage greater commitment by outside individuals and groups.
The following code was derived from the feedback of hundreds of dedicated party staff, state and local leaders and volunteers across the state and across the country.
The Better Party Pledge
- Practice our values internally and externally.
- Listen, communicate regularly and keep you informed.
- Build real relationships, not just get what we need.
- Increase local decision making and reduce top-down rigidity.
- Build procedures for feedback and improvement into everything we do.
- Measure what really matters, not just what is easy to count.
- Be transparent about decision making, roles and responsibilities.
- Be held accountable for getting our jobs done.
- Give you the information and tools you need to effectively do your job.
- Allocate resources in a way that reflects the right priorities.
- Invest in our people (“human capital”) whether they are current or potential candidates, staffers or volunteers.
- Build trust by being honest and following through on our promises.
Once the campaign season kicks into high gear, change will necessarily slow down in favor of scaling up the programs we have put into place. For this reason, we should do our best to build all the infrastructure we can in advance and leave nothing to the campaign season except that which cannot be done in advance.
We firmly believe that the best outcome for all candidates necessitates activating every single volunteer and stakeholder to the best of their ability, in every district across the state.
The role of the project team during the election cycle would be to facilitate the intake, assessment and placement of volunteers, either with individual candidates or with independent volunteer teams organized around particular skills (like graphic design) or activities (like postcard writing) that serve to support multiple candidates.
For more information, contact Antonia Scatton at
Antonia@UpRise.org or Antonia@LeftWords.org
Year-round voter and community relations
How could we develop deeper relationships with voters across the state and across a wide range of communities between election cycles, especially underrepresented and low turnout communities? How could we generate positive word-of-mouth by giving people more opportunities to personally interact with the party and making that interaction a positive and memorable experience? How could we improve relations with our community organization partners and collaborate in mutually beneficial ways?
Candidate recruiting, development and services
How could we build a diverse bench of talented future candidates, campaign managers and staffers? What information do people need about running and about their communities? How could we help develop their skills? What kind of support do they need from us before and during their campaigns and after they have been elected?
PC recruitment, development and support
What is the role of the precinct committee member (PC) in community organizing? Supporting the party? How could we communicate that to potential PCs? How could we help them develop their skills? What additional training and resources could the party provide PCs to help them do their jobs? Might we need to expand the definition of PC to include a wider diversity of volunteer roles, including the many described in this document?
County and local leadership development
How could we clearly define the roles and responsibilities of county and local committee leadership and the relationships between them and the state party? How could we identify and share best practices? How could we best support county and local leadership in their efforts to improve? What training and resources could we provide? Should we build cross-committee teams around areas of expertise?
Communications and content
(Not including policy or issues) How could we develop a brand identity for the party that is culturally appealing to voters and allows our candidates to represent us with pride? How could we best articulate the common value system that underlies and connects our policy positions? How could we develop emotionally impactful language and content that illustrates those values and then distribute it through all available channels: owned, earned, paid and social media? How could we train our candidates and other spokespersons to communicate effectively? How could we enable every party supporter to distribute that language and content to others?
Volunteer management and engagement
How could we engage every volunteer as an individual and find the most productive and rewarding way for them to participate? How could we maximize the value of the 60% of volunteers who prefer not to engage in “direct sales” type activities like canvassing or calling voters, especially those with applicable professional skills? How would we build an infrastructure to leverage thousands of hours of skilled labor with a small paid staff? How could we build and sustain volunteer communities between elections? How could we better provide a sense of achievement and the social rewards that incentivize volunteers to get and stay engaged?
Creating permanent local office and community centers
Having local offices open year-round would support local committees and keep volunteer communities together in between campaigns. It would give the party a physical presence in our neighborhoods so new people can find and join us. A year-round community presence would also help dispel the recurring complaints that we “only come around when we want something.”
We need to investigate the possibility of a better model than the current one of limited, temporary office space completely dependent on donations. We have volunteers with business experience who could help us create multi-purpose community centers. We could theoretically combine elements of campaign and local committee offices, coffee shops, co-working spaces for allied organizations and individuals and even party gift shops. It might even be possible for a multi-use center like this to operate at some level of financial self-sufficiency.