Iowa caucuses: Digital transformation run amok

Iowa’s first-in-the-nation, high-value, high-visibility caucus misfired last night, potentially costing the state its special status in coming years, which could trigger a massive economic impact due to the loss of revenue associated with early campaign activities (e.g., hotel stays, dining, gas, ads). The strategic value of rapid visibility bouncing into New Hampshire, first capitalized on by Jimmy Carter in 1976, is a reminder of how long Iowa has held this status and what a disastrous operational failure could mean. 

This poorly executed digital transformation (DT) will most likely cost Iowa its high-value job in the nation’s presidential primary process. Nevada purchased the same software as Iowa for its upcoming caucus and will now face pressure to quickly learn from Iowa’s mistakes and lay out a proper DT plan. DT can only proceed at the rate and pace of the slowest learners. Volunteers of all ages and technological savvy are, by definition, going to include some slow technology learners.

We’re seeking to elect people to navigate the new economic realities technology brings to bear on our way of life. There is great good that comes from technology adoption, but there are also negative impacts. Leaders, often from older demographics, don’t know what they don’t know when it comes to technology. Conversely, younger staffers versed in technology and tasked with the rollout may not understand the need for training of those from older generations. If they cannot execute simple tasks from a phone, how are they to craft legislation to mitigate against the moral hazards technology can inflict on our way of life?

So what went wrong? The Iowa democratic party didn’t know what they didn’t know

The Iowa Democratic Party apparatus sought to modernize the method by which they aggregate votes. Rather than phone the results into a central aggregation point, they decided, “There’s an app for that.” Additionally, the process of tallying votes was, likewise, shifted to accommodate the large number of primary candidates through the use of the second-choice ranking systems to release supporters of candidates who did not reach the 15% support threshold within each of the 1,700 caucus sites. So, a new process on the ground and a new process for communicating the results back to a central aggregation point ignited the dumpster fire that was the 2020 Iowa Caucus.   

Bad idea compounded by poor planning

TBR has a signature article around the concept of “Wallet versus Will” in which we articulate how the axis has flipped on public sector technology adoption. Government used to lead when cost was the driving inhibitor to technology adoption, as “protection of the commons” could justify heavy capital outlays for leading-edge technology. Today, the consumerization of IT has citizen IT as the public sector parallel to provide for convenience.

But the public sector and the ancillary offshoots of the major parties’ apparatus are not as attuned to how to go about DT, and this is why the process on full display to the nation’s political junkies last night looked more like a cigar blowing up in Moe Howard’s face.

Here are the basics of the implementation plan rolled out by the Iowa Democratic Party to its caucus site captains:

  1. The caucus captains were told to download the app on to their phone.
  2. The download had a caution that the app could alter the phone, asking the volunteer captains if they wanted to proceed. Some opted not to proceed given, well, they are volunteers and did not want to run the risk of harming their personal property in the process of giving their time.
  3. Some captains who opted for the app could not figure out the app because there was no formal training provided on its use.
  4. The backup system — or the old way of phoning results back to a centralized location — was not adequately staffed, resulting in volunteer captains sitting on hold for as long as several hours to provide the results. Part of the challenge in that process was also that the rules on the ground had changed, so the captains were also phoning to ensure they had made the correct calculations for the new training.

To recap: No formal user training for a body of 1,700 volunteers of varying ages and technology comfort. No tutorials that could have been done on the volunteer’s own time ahead of the caucus. No live testing of the process to ensure there was adequate capacity, and inadequate fail-over infrastructure in the event of go-live difficulties.

This disaster could have been avoided with some investments in change management and technology consulting. Iowa party leaders didn’t know what they didn’t know, and now Iowans will likely pay a steep price for this technology hubris.

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