DNC Tech: Open-Source for real?

After all of the hub-bub is done and the Governor is elected as the new DNC Chair – Gov. Dean is going to be inundated with all sorts of issues that need to be addressed: how to work with the DECs across the country, how to work with the party machine there in Washington DC, deal with the many inputs that are coming to him from his advisors both from the primary campaign and the DNC Chair campaign. And, as another voice in the crowd, I think there are a number of issues that need to be addressed in the organization in a more structural sense – this time focusing on the integration of the back-office technology and data services, not as an insland or silo of the organization, but as a true horizontial provider of services that can best work with the ongoing efforts of the party.

Learn the real lesson of open-source
In large businesses today, many CIOs are considering new alternatives to the Microsoft platform or the bespoke initiatives that have hamstrung organizations to particular vendors – whether being a “Microsoft” house or an “open-source platform” house – but keeping code proprietary – and keeping the organization tied to the provider much like a drug addict is to their supplier. My own experiences with outsourced organizations demonstrates that when budgets are tight and the need for innovation is high (e.g. expanding features, responding to competitor moves), the organization is hamstrung.

An alternative which has worked to my advantage in the past is to build an internal team that covered the various development and architectural needs. This provides strong management over development cycles, a strong management of the cost base, and potential innovation benefits are there since the connection to the producers (the programmers, designers, etcera) are close to the organizational customers (e.g. marketing, product team, customer service, etcera).

But, being the DNC and being Democrats in general, offers a unique organizational opportunity to benefit both the Democratic party both inside and outside the party structure and to leverage a truly democratic and distributed effort with all of the democratic minded people around the world.

Instead of focusing all of the attention within the organization, leverage the lessons of SourceForge and Clark TechCorps and build a team of open-source development managers/programmers who focus on the development of the various components and platform structures that are in line with what will be built for the upcoming elections. Instead of keeping the Volunteer Center behind an IP contract with Friends of Kerry or the ePatriots code behind the DNC firewall, hire a OS Project Manager and release it.

Then, use product development techniques by drawing in the customers that will be using the products (e.g. internal DNC staffers and external political types) to build the product requirements and priorities. These meetings have to be with the developers in them – whether they are face-to-face or virtual through conference calls and wikis – to provide the “skin-in-the-game” value and then let the project manager lead the team.

Are we giving away the store?
Is this a strange concept? Truthfully, no. It is an excellent concept – especially if it is a blended effort focusing on the development of a set of tools for a platform that will evolve. Using the internal teams initial drive, building the first branch of the codebase allows others to extend the codebase and grow it with features and add-ons (e.g. the client architecture that would be a secure solution to connecting with the back-end solution). Some of the best innovative work has been after a team launches code into the wild (e.g. Gnutella) and allows the community of developers a chance to extend it. With guidance and support by the DNC, any of these tools can be extended and developed as needed – especially if the DNC communicated with the developers in an effective manner. Think about what might have happened if AOL had actually managed the development of the Gnutella Network in the direction of an iTunes or Napster. Might we be discussing the financial windfall of AOL’s vision versus Apple’s?

Remember the fabric, not just the tools
One thing that I have seen hamstring organizations is a need to control the development of tools within an group – almost serialize the development along functionary lines (e.g. eCRM solution for Customer Service has integration problems with the email communicaton platform for the Marketing organization). One of the most important aspects of this development has to be the build of the middle-layer: how will the organization, both the enterprise and the extended parts communicate between themselves effectively? While many vendors will offer their solutions (e.g. TIBCO, Vitria), again, the needs here are relatively simple and the tools are available (e.g. XML-SOAP, web services) – all we need is an understanding of the fabric and the integration between the different services.

Interestingly enough, the fabric is all about the data – how will all of the services communicate back to the various data stores. That will be how the DNC will win in the infrastructure war – how fundraising will be able to provide understanding of their effectiveness across a large donor base, how the volunteer coordinators will be able to determine the effectiveness of their staff, and how the political team will determine how effective their message is reaching the public – by allowing the tools to allow the discourse of ideas to rise about the functionality of any particular technology or channel.

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