At the national level, large political campaigns have grown accustomed to throwing millions of dollars behind sophisticated online tools that help strategists manage massive e-mail lists and set up local events. But while these are the campaigns that typically dominate the country's attention, few organizations can afford the top-tier services used in presidential and congressional races.
That's where a set of free tools being developed for progressive groups comes in. The Corporate Action Network — a left-leaning group sponsored by some of the nation's biggest labor unions — has announced that it has launched the Action Network, a software package for individuals and small organizations.
It's all part of a nascent movement to democratize political organizing. The idea, advocates say, is to turn what was once a domain for big-name strategists into a universe filled with amateur organizers — each of whom might be running his own e-mail list, database and petition site by himself.
If it takes off, the so-called "federated" approach to campaigning could connect like-minded political advocates on an ad hoc basis to tackle new niche issues. E-mail lists — which President Obama famously used to powerful effect in the last electoral cycle — could be combined and applied even by people with little to no advocacy experience, said Evan Sutton, a spokesperson for the Washington-based New Organizing Institute.
"There are a lot of folks with an advocacy pedigree," said Sutton, "but I can see many people building an organizational list outside of any organizational structure."
The Advocacy Network tool set is composed of a mass mailer, an online petition generator, an events manager and a handful of other items that have become the core of any modern issue campaign. But it differs from existing tools in several respects: From the e-mails to the petitions, every product built using the tools comes out as an embeddable widget, meaning the software takes little technical expertise to operate; campaign leaders can create "groups" and pull in allies to collect e-mail addresses and take other actions on the leader's behalf; and everything is free for individuals and small organizations.
Action Network joins a crowded field. Elite services include the likes of Blue State Digital, which emerged out of Howard Dean's 2004 presidential bid and has been active in Democratic strategy ever since. Most progressive advocacy organizations rely on less expensive alternatives such as NationBuilder and Salsa Labs. But neither service comes for free; NationBuilder charges between $20 to $1000 a month (or more) depending on the size of a group's database. A group with 40,000 e-mail subscribers might pay as much as $5,000 a year for access to NationBuilder.
"You can't hire staff for that, but if you're a non-profit with no staff, $5,000 prints a lot of T-shirts and lawn signs," said Gregory Billing, advocacy coordinator at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Switching to a set of free tools means "you can spend less on your organizing tools and more on your mission delivery."
Action Network vows to give organizers ownership over their own data — a key question in digital politics when databases are being updated by more than one group or shared in other ways. Under the federated advocacy model, a group owner that enlists the help of allies will own all of the data that his allies collect, in addition to the data the initiator collects himself. The allies, meanwhile, will have ownership over only the data that they bring in individually.
In the nation's capital, a proposed moratorium on liquor licenses for U Street businesses attracted the ire of YIMBYs — Yes In My Backyards who wanted to promote local bars. Since taking on the liquor license ban, the YIMBYs have gone on to challenge the D.C. government on Uber and the Height Act that prevents high-rise construction in the District.
Such a group would benefit greatly from a free set of organizing tools that connect D.C. residents on urban issues, Billing said.
If the tools are free, how does Action Network plan to fund them? Partnerships, mainly. Action Network has struck deals with the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Another agreement with the National Education Association is forthcoming, according to Action Network spokesperson Levana Layendecker.
Conservative advocates who want in will be out of luck; Action Network will only be available to progressive causes. That decision was a direct result of NationBuilder's recent decision to accept right-wing clients, according to Layendecker.
"As far as other tools in the organizing world that are more agnostic about causes," she said, "that was certainly a factor in our decision to make this tool set. We felt strongly compelled to make this a tool for progressive organizing and to be exclusive about that."
The democratization of advocacy holds some risk. When everyone is armed with an e-mail list, e-mail could become less effective as a way to move citizens to action.
Either way, Action Network could have tremendous effects.
"The tool will be disruptive to all of the [customer-relation management] providers in some way or another," Sutton said.