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Party lifeline

Party lifeline

As New Zealand experiences a closely fought general election, technology might be as important as the policies and politicians in determining the final result. Darren Greenwood looks at the use of technology by the main parties and the people behind them.

Twenty-five-year-old Gavin Middleton has a lot on his plate this month. Not only is his party battling for parliamentary survival, the ACT Party ICT manager is also running for office himself. As party memberships dwindle in general and fewer activists have time for door-knocking, organisations increasingly turn to technology to get their message and their supporters out.

How do you attract the increasingly cynical and apathetic young, overcome a 'hostile' media, or ensure the 'party faithful' remain as such?

In the last few weeks, millions of dollars have been spent in New Zealand in campaigns, from fancy billboards, TV advertising, newspaper advertising, but also in a more 'hidden' campaign - one involving technology.

Former ACT leader Richard Prebble, in a recent "Letter From Wellington" called it "Submarine Warfare" - which he said is one reason Labour regained the lead at the start of the campaign."

Labour has a far better database of voter profiles than National and greater experience of how to use it. Their computer databases have the names, addresses and occupation of every voter in the country (available off the roll), their gender (done by matching first names) and their age, available only to political parties, (allegedly to enable party scrutineers to check for underage voting).

"They match census data of income with voting records of the nearest polling booth to predict likely voting intentions. Both ACT and National can do this. Door canvassing shows the system is reasonably accurate."

A full-time focus

Still, of the major political parties interviewed by MIS, only ACT appears to have a specific IT manager. Typically, as small organisations, political parties tend to outsource the bulk of their work, and anything related direct to parliament is carried out by Parliamentary Services. Thus, IT work is often carried out by several people, or IT is one of several responsibilities for someone.

ACT, says Middleton, sends out eight million 'communications,' including five million email, sent from a 13GB database. Middleton confirms their importance in electorates like the Auckland Epsom seat where ACT leader Rodney Hide needs to beat National's Richard Worth to guarantee ACT a seat in the new parliament, unless ACT gains more than 5 per cent of the party vote nationally.

"Canvass details are entered back into the CRM. We ask what voters are interested in and we look for Richard Worth supporters and persuade them to come to us. We always have a response form. That lets people tell us what they are concerned about. We enter that into our CRM and communicate."

ACT, like other parties, has relaunched its website, with Middleton claiming the new site offers a more 'community' feel, featuring comments from voters and allowing comment, instead of just being a party brochure. Supporters can also download flyers and other party material.

ACT recently staged a billboard design competition. It claimed getting 1500 entries, and plans to use some of the winning entries on actual billboards. In August, the party also called on supporters to help with radio and TV adverts.

Individual MPs likewise have their own sites, including MP Kenneth Wang, whose website is in Chinese. Local sites, such as aucklandcentral.org.nz, also show how policies affect individual areas.

Lessons from offshore

As part of their preparations, ACT checked out videos, websites and media articles on political campaigns overseas. Specific lessons included the value of community feedback from US Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean and importance of local electoral sites from the UK Labour. The officials also looked into the campaigns conducted by Australia's Labor and Liberal parties, and Britain's Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.

The internet has always played a central role in ACT's campaigns - even outside the election season. Some years ago, Prebble turned to Middleton, a freelance website designer, to come up with a quick and cheap way to fight Labour's Employment Relations Act. Middleton helped create a campaign website, started emailing people, and developed a way to submit online submissions to the relevant Parliamentary Select Committee.

ACT also claims New Zealand's first online petition, concerning tax, created in 2001. However, New Zealand law has yet to account for the technology, as parliamentary standing orders say online petitions must still be printed out three times for presentation.

For this year's general election, ACT has several online initiatives include "viral email messaging" and Flash animation cartoons. Text messaging campaigns are also planned, but Middleton says a text messaging fundraising initiative was recently thwarted because Vodafone wanted nothing to do with it, and Telecom wanted to charge too much. He says Hide is a big fan of open source and ACT will look at using it post-election.

Open source

The Green Party also leans towards open source. It's IT is managed by a small group including the party's parliamentary communications manager Pete Davis, a member of the Green's administrative and management committee, plus webmaster Stuart Young.

Davis is responsible for the MP's websites, plus press releases, speeches, audio and video-files, e-cards, the contacts database and related ICT issues.

The party uses Linux and Windows and is shifting towards open source. However, when developing a wiki and forum earlier this year, the open source software developed in-house was found to be 'clunky' with a poor interface. The forum then used off-the-shelf software which meant some problems integrating it with the Green's own in-built systems, but overall, Young says there were "more pros than cons" in its foray towards open source.

Young, a lecturer in internet and websites at Unitec, is a part-time volunteer, like many in the party, while Davis has a full-time paid role, often working longer, as "a labour of love". Davis helped the Greens develop its e-cards and blog.

The site also has regular audio blogs featuring broadcast interviews of the Green MPs on the campaign trail. "Being able to have our MPs talk directly about our issues rather than turning them into words or pages seems like a good use of internet technology. Our MPs are really passionate spokespeople... doing it as an audio blog you can hear the human quality of the issue," says Davis.

The pair are also looking at using GIS to better identify and communicate with target voters.

"Elections make everything urgent and increase workloads in many areas. The focus for the website needs to shift to one that strongly highlights a few campaign issues, the candidates and upcoming events," adds Davis.

From the ruling party

Labour, on the other hand, is increasingly using IT in campaigns, such as audio, video, flash animations and SMS technologies, says David Talbot, party organiser, who is also in charge of the ruling party's IT requirements. Ministers like Trevor Mallard take part in live online chats.

Such methods, he says, streamline the campaigning processes and quicken the process of getting the party message out there.

The website is a main focus. Talbot describes the recent website upgrade as the party's most significant IT project of late. "It needed to fulfil a number of functions for different audiences; the public, party members and MPs for example. Back and front end were upgraded to allow for easier content control and better user experience."

He says the party is delighted with the result. "In the hours following the announcement of removal of interest on student loans, the site recorded 133,000 hits."

Talbot was a researcher at Otago University, then worked in electorate support for his local MP, prior to his current role which also includes responsibility for electorates, people and resources.

Because his job involves these issues, the election for him means less time for IT.

"I don't think an early election would necessarily have created additional challenges - all the parties have known for months the approximate time frames they needed to work in," adds Talbot.

The National perspective

National traditionally had an IT manager but he left several months ago and university student Kate Pullar was brought in part-time as IT co-ordinator, working with campaigns manager Steven Joyce.

During the campaign, all non-essential work will be put to one side, as party staff focus on supporting the website and using various databases to generate personalised direct mail.

Joyce says National has been upgrading and launching new websites such as Superblues, for older people; InterNat for expats; Nationaltv.co.nz featuring streaming video of speeches the 6pm news might miss, plus policy websites like www.buildroadsnow.org.nz. The main site has been overhauled too, with new functionality like the sending of e-cards, based on party billboards.

Joyce, whose background is in radio, says the internet is crucial in helping the party talk direct to voters. However, other campaign methods are still needed, such as newspaper and billboard advertising. None-theless, National Party ads will feature the website to encourage voters to visit the main site and read about National's policies.

National also plans text messaging, e-marketing, CRM and voter database initiatives. "Many projects have come to fruition at this time. We have had to lift our communications, not just for the election but thereafter. These initiatives will continue (hopefully) in government," he says.

New party on the block

The Maori Party claims the country's biggest party membership, at more than 20,000, but currently only its leader Tariana Turia is in parliament. The 15-month-old party relies on a nationwide network of volunteers, including party workers who manage its IT services, such as its website and database.

Projects manager Dr Helen Potter, who works in Turia's parliamentary office, co-ordinates such IT work, along with campaigns and fundraising.

"We have lots of people but no money. Technology plays a large part in holding us together," says Potter.

With the party and its leadership dispersed across seven Maori electorates, such IT systems like fax, email, internet, etc are vital in keeping the party co-ordinated, informed and focused on the party's strategic goals, like operating as a singular party entity.

"The website has been a particularly powerful tool in keeping members informed and in attracting new members to join the party," she continues.

The website has also just launched an online donation facility, followed by online party membership and the sale of party merchandise such as shirts and beanies.

Using membership databases for targeted mail-outs will be a main tool, plus text-messaging particularly to reach younger voters.

Potter admits that as a former scientist and statistician, she is not an IT person, but she knows what to ask for and who and where to ask for it. "The challenge is, as ever, to be able to determine what information is the really critical information to be using and how it might be accessed or produced - and on a budget.

One of the benefits of drawing from a wide volunteer network is the access it offers to a wide range of expertise and innovation."

Peaks and troughs

Regardless of who wins after September 17, John Preval, group manager, information systems and technology at Parliament-ary Services, faces a busy few months ahead. His organisation has two IT staff and provides basic networking computing services, like email, internet access and networking, to parties in parliament.

Network support, desktop support, help desk and server administration are outsourced to Axon. No services are provided to party HQs.

Election times, he says, see "temperatures rise" as politicians demand instant service, which raises the stress levels of his staff. Then, after the poll, they are busy handling the changed accommodation needs of the MPs, including the new members.

Once things settle down, Preval plans to install a wireless network across parliament to help the politicians and their officials be more mobile.

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