Funny. When I attended the Politics Online conference a few weeks ago, I never thought I'd find myself:
- Writing an essay length piece for a thinktank
- Doing a blog entry for a thinktank
- Doing a podcast with a thinktank
- Attending a panel run by the 1-2-3 mentioned thinktank on, of all things, "CRM and Politics."
But I am, I am, I am and I did.
The thinktank I have this high regard for is the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet (IPDI), a small, brainy, progressive outfit tied directly to and run through the George Washington University School of Political Management. They are based here in Washington D.C. - which is of course the home of good thinktanks a.k.a. thinktanks; and crappy thinktanks a.k.a. stinktanks. IPDI is good because they have a perspective that defines CRM as something needed for constituent engagement and they see that the new tools and media out there are of a real benefit for that dialogue. Progressive, smart, thoughtful and a part of a very good university.
In fact, the conference/panel seemed to also be the release "party" - coffee and breakfast pastries, juice - for their new compendium/book: "Constituent Relationship Management: The New Little Black Book of Politics" - a mixed group of essays on different aspects of CRM in the interests of public service. I haven't had the time to read it yet, but will and I'll get back to you on it.
If IPDI had ANY problem at all with CRM, it might be that they overemphasize the technology too much when they speak on it publicly, but conversations with Carol Barr, their now departing Director, Julie Germany, their Deputy Director and Ed Trelinski, their Events Manager who is also doing graduate work at GWU, their indicate that their actual understanding goes to the real heart of CRM- as a strategy for constituent engagement.
Given what I saw as the state of Congress and a few others when it comes to CRM, they are far more forward thinking than most of the rest of the pack.
The Panel: The Datapoints (He Said Ironically)
The panel discussion was chaired by Julie G. (very well I might add). It included three panelists:
Kathy Goldschmidt, Congressional Management Foundation (CMF), which claims to want to create a "constituent service culture" in Congressional offices.
Greg Roney, Housecall IT, an IT services company that focuses on the Hill
Ken Ward, Adfero Group, a software provider with an on demand CRM solution for Congress that I'm going to take a look at in the next few weeks
All of them were articulate, smart, people who wanted to be helpful - speaking to a packed house of around 65 interested advocates, and Congressional staffers and other parties.
But what I heard from some of the panel and from the audience (with a notable exception or two) was enough to both puzzle me and freak me out.
What's It All About, Congressman: The Two-Factor Framework
Perspective and context are table setters for expectations.
What I mean by that is that I've been immersed in the CRM world and the Web 2.0 world and the corporate/commercial side of CRM and when it comes to government the agency side of CRM for ages - too many, oh, so many. The perspective I've evolved on CRM comes from the contextual fields I've run my bare feet through over the past decade plus (okay, decade plus 6. Damn you.). Thus, all my expectations around the subject matter I'm supposedly an expert in, come from the environment and the perspective on that I've had.
"My So-Called CRM Life" has been based on the strategies, cultures, programs, processes and technologies, plus the industry and individual philosophies, states of mind, and outlooks that my peers have had for all that time. The peers are analysts, journalists, practitioners, vendors, consultants, teachers, authors, students, you name it who have some interest in CRM.
I've been IMMERSED in that for a LOOOONG time.
THAT is one major factor that governs how I'm thinking and what I'm expecting.
The second factor that sets my expectations is a sense of fair play and social justice. I'm driven by it. I'm consumed by it to the point that I'm a crappy business person because the need to make sure that everyone is happy and the world is just plain right (as in in alignment with the Good, not ideologically right okay?) just dominates my life. One way or the other. Its the only reason I like CRM as much as I do and why I shoot my mouth off. CRM seems to be the only part of business that actually attempts to work with human beings to provide useful and valuable interactions between the varying "sides" of business - and this applies as well, or even more to politics and government, through constituency-offices/agencies relationships.
In other words as I often say, CRM is the attempt to create a science of business from the art of life. So, if done well, it not only is profitable and valuable to both customer/constituent and company/office but encompasses fair play, ethical behavior, equity, equality of opportunity and the realization of social and economic justice. But only if done well, which is less often than not.
I'm passionate about that more than anything and that sets my expectations too.
The river that runs cool underneath all these factors is also something that drives every human being - the desire, actually, the need for use to have control over our personal existence - to own our own life experience which includes how we do what we do with other people. The use of technologies that exist and that are subsumed under CRM and Web 2.0 make this a bit easier to accomplish - though as I found out, Congress doesn't seem to think that way.
The CroMagnon Jetsons: Congress, CRM and Avoiding Constituents
When you hear about politics, you hear about Barack Obama and his 900,000 friends on MySpace or his social network or community approach. You hear about Howard Dean's campaign in the last election using the 'net to become (as Barack O. did with MyBarackObama.com) the surprise campaign heavyweight for a little while. You hear about the geeks who are starting to inhabit the campaigns, or the self-organizing, or the Wonkette and Daily Kos blogs that are extraordinary examples of how to become a political power. You hear that 49% of all Congressional staffers (though only 12% of all Congresspeople) are monitoring blogs and you think, "hey, Congress and the Jetsons are right there, dude."
Until you hear the actual reasons for this from the panel discussions and the audience discussions.
You realize that not only is Congress at the CroMagnon stage when it comes to thinking about CRM technology, but the level that they are at when it comes to the programmatic, philosophical, strategic and cultural core of CRM is downright primitive. Their actual interest is not constituent engagement, but constituent avoidance or constituent deflection. (Kissingerian policy? Kidding...). In fact, I spent the day yesterday in Boston with Denis Pombriant, who is one of the leading CRM analysts in the world, and he called it, while chuckling, "Defensive CRM" - good for driving, not CRM.
How do I come to this conclusion given my limited intimacy with the offices of Congress. Some talking points from the panel and discussion:
The primary topic of discussion was how to manage email - which is hardly CRM in any way - note, BTW, that I said, managing email, not answering email.
Much of the discussion of "how to use CRM" was around how to avoid constituent interaction and deal with the email "load." They showed a chart that said there were 182 million emails in 2004 to Congressional offices. Most congressional offices for some reason think that its not a good thing to answer email with email which is a cultural issue that is fairly prevalent apparently. Another "problem" was dealing with the "penpals" - the persistent constituents who "insist" on writing more than one email on more than one issue possibly (or multiple times on a single issue) - in other words the problem of having constituents who actually might care and not care in the way that the office wants them to. The solutions?
One showed a total lack of understanding of the minds of the constituents - since those constituents are the same people fully empowered by the Internet as a means for peer-to-peer communication in the consumer world too - same people, not different, Congress. The solution was to develop a tweakable mass email that's targeted to constituent groups - in an era where the constituents are demanding personalized attention and conversation at every other level of their life and the success of that approach is almost a given everywhere else - do you think they can't see past a mass tweaked mailing? Give them some credit for intelligence and perception.
The second "suggestion" which focused on dealing with the "penpals" was actually appalling and shows the VAST cultural divide between Congress and the very people they are there to serve. The CMF suggests that to deal with penpals, you put a donotreply header on the email and create a REAL donotreply box for those who attempt to reply and then the office simply doesn't respond.
In other words, take those constituents who are passionate and maybe advocates and avoid them like the plague and throw them into the donotreply garbage. Managing email is more important than engaging constituents.
It was at the point that Kathy G. the CMF panelist said this, that Alan Rosenblatt, the Executive Director of the Internet Advocacy Center piped up with what was easily the best comments of the day (this guy is a true mensch). He made the incredibly important point that pushing off the constituents and ignoring them in this way both will mean that they will at some point down the road turn into enemies (though he didn't use that term) and, even more importantly, Congress and its offices had to remember that the constituents had the unlimited right to engage with their representatives. He used the word "unlimited." I made a point of meeting this guy , who coincidentally, was sitting next to me. He gets it bigtime. I'll be following up with this guy. Already have.
The third idea seemed pretty good until I realized the context. Phone up the serial emailer and deal with him in a five minute phone call. That seemed like a good idea and generically it is a good idea. But the purpose was to get the constituents off their back so that hopefully they'll stop constantly writing. They seem to equate serial emailers with serial killers. The idea of a phone call is good but because it is a way to actually address the concerns of this passionate constituent, not to get them to shut up.
This gets to even a higher level when it comes to organized passionate constituents with agendas a.k.a. advocates. There were constant references to the "war" between the advocacy organizations and the Congressional offices. That was astounding too. CMF wants to be the peacemaker and kudos to them for that. But why is there a war to begin with?
Before I get into some more of the thinking, let me outline some more of the discussion.
Greg Roney, a very good guy who's being doing IT for Congressional offices since 1997, mentioned with some real ironic tones, that Congressional offices when they do surveys are more concerned with harvesting the constituent data (e..g email address, demographic information) than the survey answers. Another astounding comment. Think about it. First, I would think that a Congressperson was there to serve his/her constituents which means the answers to the surveys would be pretty important, dontcha think? Second, since when is the answer not data? That seems to come in part from the same place that the definition of CRM as a technology comes from. A misinterpretation of the purpose of data. Data is not an end unto itself. The data's value is in the increased customer knowledge, which means that better decisions can be made in how to serve that customer - THAT customer, not ALL THOSE customers.The individual. The single concerned citizen. The customer who purchases your stuff for themself. The constituent who casts their single vote for you and might influence others to do that. One. Uno. Un.
The BIG Problem With All This
Okay, so you have something of a mosaic on what was said and some of the to the point thinking on it. But what's the big problem here - because there is one - and its one that will not only slow but KILL Congressional wholesale adoption of CRM for sure - but even kill it for the most part in most individual offices - unless there are some changes and some revamping of outlooks and culture and what seems to be the need for an epiphany or two.
There is a massive cultural disconnect (diss-connect) between Congress and its constituents - office by office not always - but on the whole - from what I heard - dramatically.
It is becoming an increasing given that customer control the business ecosystem. More and more of the Fortune 1000 and business leaders as a whole are recognizing this.Take a look at the President of NBC Universal, Beth Comstock's statement of a week ago or so in Fast Company:
How are viewing habits changing?
We've had 60 million streams [of TV shows] at NBC.com. A lot of those are repeat viewers. Others are time-shifting. They're place-shifting, too, with iTunes or on phones.
And does that work for you?
It has to. If consumers are in control, they're going to figure out how they want to watch. We have to find the right solution.
Think about it. She's understanding that consumers are in control. The constituents in the "C" of CRM for public service are those same consumers. What makes the Hill think that those consumers who are in control in their personal and business worlds are going to want to relinquish that control or stand for the arrogance of avoidance or deflection from the people they elected to represent THEM? The consumers/constituents simply won't and they'll recognize quickly that the conversation they want with their representatives is being deflected or avoided.
The reason? The culture is that of a technophobic old boys network that includes old girls now too. This stuffy, outdated culture trickles to the organizations and staff that serve the Congressional offices too. For example, while it really is a problem, when was the last time that a CRM discussion was focused around email management?
In the 1990s.
Now that said, this is something that has to be "handled" so that there are effective engagements between the parties. But this is a decade or more old discussion - legitimate or not - its been solved in part in the rest of the world and has long ceased to be the core discussion around CRM.
So not only is the focus wrong, the thinking screwed up, but even the discussion is not on target with the 21st century requirements of empowered constituents who ARE net-savvy, who are engaged in peer-to-peer conversation.
Further Irony, The Crescendo, The High Level Solution and.....
The irony here is that, if anything, the Hill has seen the incredible effects of the empowered constituents through the political blogs like the Daily Kos and Wonkette. Bloggers are now accredited press. The offices monitor them. Not only that, do they think it was a coincidence that the most savvy presidential candidate and the one with the most positive constituent connection, Barack Obama, has been the surprise powerhouse in this campaign. Its not that Senator Obama is that personally savvy, but his staff are those 18-26 year olds who spend more time on the Internet than watch TV, according to Forrester Research in 2006. They have tapped into what has to be apparent to Congress since while a freshman Senator, Barack Obama is one of them, after all.
What amazes me is that with the evidence in front of their eyes and with the tools long existing in the marketplace, they still see CRM as something akin to somewhat improved case management - at best. They see it as a tool for operational efficiencies and not as a strategy for constituent engagement that uses tools and processes and technologies that can improve the relationships they claim to desire.
"Oh, but...," says the Hill mavens, "you don't understand. Our biggest problem is handling the increasingly large amounts of email that we get. We can't answer them all. The advocacy groups are using the tools to flood us with stuff and this is a problem we can't handle."
While I'm not pretending to know the ins and outs of handling the constituencies that Congresspeople have to handle and I know they have specific processes (like the franking authority) that I don't know anything about, I do know CRM and how it applies to public service.
As a homeowner in a district, I expect that my representative will make what I need to participate in presenting my thinking and my voice available to me. I'm old enough and rational enough as are most people, to know that there is no way that the Congressperson is going to be available at my beck and call. I'm not the only constituent. I may be self-concerned but I'm not so self-absorbed as to think that my Senator needs to be consulted or consults with me on every single thing I'm concerned with.
Want me to be happy, give me the tools I need to make an impact. I don't need you. I need your capacity to give me a voice.
That means that if I take the time to fill out a survey, I don't need sophisticated technologies on your end to provide some succor. I need to my Congressman's office to treat my answer as more important than my age and email address. That doesn't take CRM the technology. That takes CRM the tool for common communication.
Lets get onto the 182 million emails. That's emails. Citigroup has 250 million customers - not total emails. Proctor and Gamble reaches 2 billion people with a stated goal of reaching 6 billion. They ain't crying over the volume. They welcome the challenge. You're crying over what's a piddling number to a company like CitiGroup or P&G. Well, not piddling. I don't mean to mock you here - but they have a lot more to manage than you all do IN TOTAL.
Ultimately, Congressional problems don't revolve around email loads. The problems of Congress revolve around a culture that thinks that citizens engaging enmasse is a problem.
So, here's some solutions at a high level since I'm not your consultant nor do I want to pretend that I understand all the nooks and crannies. Take these as suggestions coming from someone who knows a. CRM and b. human beings.
The Answer Is....
- Change your culture - which means in effect, that media kit production to please 30-40 journalists is far less important a use of time than answering your constituents.
- Provide tools - learn something from the advocates and perhaps from Barack Obama's campaign. Create communities of interest online and you'll have virtual communities for the participation of the voters who live in your actual community. Don't worry, they'll use the tools and if they're too rigid or old, they and you can use the old direct mail and phone tools.
- Recognize that the purpose of CRM in the interest of public service is to attain the trust and maintain the faith in the very institutions that you are members of. That means that as you, as the representatives of a republic that is lucky enough to have citizens who give enough of a damn to write you.
- Remember that CRM isn't to manage, avoid or divert your constituents - its raison d'etre is to engage them.
- Learn something from the commercial world and how they practice CRM. There are lots of success stories that are out there that have dealt with much larger "customer" bases than you have. In fact, they've solved many of the problems that you're considering contemporary - though not all of them.
Madame Chairperson, I'll sit down now.