The Obama Campaign’s Distributed Organizing Structure

October 13, 2008

Lately, I’ve benefited from a lot of long thought-provoking conversations about the Obama campaign with Gene Koo, one of the many wonderful fellows at the Berkman Center.

Most recently Gene passed along this article by Zack Exley about the Obama campaign’s organizing structure that appeared in the Huffington Post a few days ago.

Like Obama’s campaign itself, Exley’s article frequently gave me the sensation that there really is something qualitatively different about this election and about this candidate’s ability to design and mobilize an massive volunteer-driven force.

Exley visits campaign offices throughout Ohio and finds something he had never seen before in years of participating in and writing about politics in this country: dedicated, everyday people delegating responsibility and cooperating to achieve their goals:

“After visiting my fourth or fifth team, it was painfully clear that an enormous amount of power is unlocked by this incredibly simple act of distributing different roles to people who actually feel comfortable taking them on. And I say “painfully” because I couldn’t stop thinking about all the union and electoral campaigns I’ve worked on where we did not do this.” (emphasis added)

With numerous examples, Exley depicts an organization led by people who have discovered the power of distributed collective action. Only four years after the Kerry campaign (indeed, less than 12 months since the Obama folks set up shop in Ohio) comparisons are painful indeed:

“The Ohio campaign is attempting to build teams in 1,231 campaign-defined ‘neighborhoods;’ each covering eight to ten precincts. They are targeting virtually every inhabited square mile of the state. The campaign claimed to have teams in 65% of neighborhoods when I visited in early September. That’s risen to 85% coverage at press time—and they are shooting for 100%. In contrast, the Kerry campaign effectively wrote off rural counties, and completely abandoned them in the final few weeks of the campaign in a last minute all-in shift to the cities.”

According to Exley, the “secret” to this exponential growth lies in the ability of the team’s leaders to build a cellular organization from the ground up, absorbing anyone with the time, talent, and ability to make a sustained contribution. In addition, the leaders have demonstrated an impressive level of dedication to their goals and values, passing them along to subordinates through long and personal training sessions as well as extended periods of collaboration. When the time is right, leaders pass on responsibilities to veteran team members and then move on to building the next team. The results are a steadily growing pool of experienced leaders who have internalized the organization’s ideals and developed the skills and relationships to achieve their goals.

Exley’s most comprehensive assessment of the significance of the Obama campaign’s transformative distributed structure comes in the second paragraph:

“Win or lose, ‘The New Organizers’ have already transformed thousands of communities—and revolutionized the way organizing itself will be understood and practiced for at least the next generation. Obama must continue to feed and lead the organization they have built—either as president or in opposition. If he doesn’t, then the broader progressive movement needs to figure out how to pick this up, keep it going and spread it to all 50 states.”

The extent to which this analysis echoes the thinking of Markos Moulitsas Zúniga’s in his most recent book Taking on the System (2008) is unsurprising. In contrast, Zúniga credits the progressive blogosphere and other outsiders with spearheading the effort whereas Exley lays the credit with creative young organizers like Jeremy Bird (Obama’s Ohio General Election Director) and wise elder statesmen like Marshall Ganz (Harvard lecturer and political organizer par excellence). In thinking about this distinction as well as the substantive overlap between Exley’s and Zúniga’s work, I got to to wondering about the network topology of political campaigns.

Network topologies are everywhere – if you’ve ever looked at an organizational chart of any kind, you’ve seen one. With the growth of electronic and digital communications networks in the last 100 years or so, the impact of both poorly and well-designed networks has never been more apparent.

For example, the Internet represents the result of the most impressive large-scale network design in recent memory (at least since the telephone).The insight the facilitated the creation of the TCP/IP networking protocol that forms the basis of the Internet was the architectural advantage of a distributed point-to-point network. In contrast with “star” or “hub and spoke” networks, true point-to-point networks scale costlessly and are almost insusceptible to congestion or failure.

a point-to-point network (from cc-by-nc-sa

redundancy galore: a point-to-point network (from cc-by-nc-sa

Some Network Topologies (from Wikipedia, licensed under the GFDL)

examples of typical network topologies (from Wikipedia, licensed under the GFDL)

How does this relate back to politics? My (largely unsubstantiated) suspicion is that most political campaigns are designed as hub and spoke networks (or, at best, as trees). The implications of this design decision are relevant to the broader question of how the Internet has changed politics as well as the future of political organizing in a pervasively networked environment.

It is not an accident that most political organizations are hierarchical affairs, involving a relatively small number of well-connected and informed folks at the center who serve as common points of access for masses of less integrated nodes. Political elites derive a great deal of their power from their structural position (insofar as it grants them control over resources, jobs, and wealth) and the long life of hierarchical political institutions has made them appear almost natural.

The result, in structural terms, is a lot of inefficiency and vulnerability. In both tree and star networks, the failure of any hubs that connect the top or the center of the organization with its edges can be catastrophic for the survival of the network as a whole. This is part of the reason why, in organizational settings, the individuals or groups that occupy these strategic positions tend to accumulate power out of proportion to their rank (think of middle managers).

In the history of modern electoral democracy and political bureaucracy, the costs of these vulnerable and inefficient organizational structures have been deemed sufficiently low to justify the benefits of consolidated leadership and authority. If life on the Internet is any indication, that may be undergoing a subtle, but perceptible change.

All of this brings me back to Obama and to Exley. It’s important to underscore that the Obama campaign has not turned its back on hierarchical structures or centralized networks. The campaign is very much a national affair and the core organizers (such as state directors) continue to operate as potential choke-points capable of undermining the organization’s effective operation.

The key innovations observed by Exley and implemented by Obama’s personnel have to do with the means by which the branches of the tree are expanded, and not with the underlying structure of the tree itself.

At the same time, Exley describes an explicitly “viral” mode of assimilating volunteers, as well as the ability of the organization to scale its local staff exponentially throughout the summer. Both of these characteristics suggest that we’re looking at something other than a prototypical hierarchy-based organizing model.

The Obama campaign has effectively retained its hierarchy, but in the process it has ceded a tremendous amount of autonomy to its middle managers in an effort to build a more dynamic and scalable operation.

This strategy has been inspired by examples of distributed cooperation and political mobilization online, but it falls far short of embracing truly radical alternatives. What will be interesting to observe in coming years is whether the non-hierarchical approaches inspired by the point-to-point design of the Internet gain any traction in political organizations. In theory at least, nothing prevents a more decentralized organization from transmitting the ideas and tactics necessary to a political campaign. The problems arise in directing such distributed efforts towards a common goal in an effective way. For the time being, that is what the Obama campaign appears to have achieved to an unprecedented degree.

2 Responses to “The Obama Campaign’s Distributed Organizing Structure”

  1. […] already wrote about Zach Exley’s breathless HuffPo piece in which he observes the distributed recruitment and […]

  2. […] There’s more about the “disruptive” model of the Obama campaign here, in a post Aaron Shaw wrote just before the 2008 election. […]

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