4 Tech Rollout Lessons From the Iowa Caucuses Disaster

Whether it was a busted app or a lack of training, the Iowa caucuses ran into severe problems Monday night when the Democratic party used a mobile app for the first time to report results. The saga offers lots of lessons on training, planning, and vendor management.

All eyes were on the Iowa Democratic caucuses on Monday night. And as of Tuesday afternoon, they were watching and waiting for results from the first votes cast in the party’s 2020 nominating contest.

The problem appears to come down to a poor technology rollout, in which precinct volunteers had trouble downloading and using an app for reporting vote counts, and backup solutions weren’t sufficient to handle the demand that emerged throughout the evening.

While all the details of what went wrong are still unclear, the saga highlights the challenges that organizations can face when rolling out new technology tools—especially in a high-pressure environment like a live event. Here are a few things associations can learn from Iowa’s epic caucus fail:

Make sure all your staff members are well trained. Your new tech tool won’t do you much good if the people who are going to use it aren’t on board and thoroughly trained. “It doesn’t matter if you have the best technology in the world if you don’t have the ability to align the solution with the actual needs of the end users,” Larry Wolff, president and COO of Ouellette & Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in the human side of technology, told Associations Now in 2018. Communication, pilot testing, and collection of feedback from the intended users are key steps in development. Then, training is crucial—and was apparently insufficient with the caucus app rollout.

“When you have 1,700 precincts in one state, it should be a couple-month-long process of training folks, testing out the app, making sure it is downloaded, and that wasn’t happening here,” said Polk County Democratic Chairman Sean Bagniewski, according to CNN.

Make sure your volunteers are part of the conversation. The Iowa caucuses rely on an army of volunteers who manage operations and count and report votes in each precinct. Many were in the dark Monday night about how to use the app and what to do when it failed. To avoid a similar fate with your volunteers, devote plenty of staff to volunteer support and management. A 2016 study by the ASAE Research Foundation found that while 20 to 25 percent of an association’s work hours are supplied by volunteers, associations often dedicate few staffers to coordinate them (a mean of 2.5 full-time equivalents). And often those volunteers don’t have a clear picture of what work they’re supposed to do.

“We have people who raise their hands, but if we haven’t developed jobs they can do, regardless of how many staff we have to support that, it’s like they raise their hand and there’s nothing for them to do,” Peter Houstle, the CEO of Mariner Management, which assisted with the research, told Associations Now in 2016.

Make sure you vet your vendors and monitor their work. Vendors provide expertise and skills that associations need, but choosing one carefully and providing close oversight are critical, especially the first time you a new one for an important project—as was the case in Iowa with the firms that developed the caucus app.  A failure to monitor projects and partners closely can lead to big headaches down the line, as in a 2014 case where the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out that numerous police departments had handed out safety software to parents that was riddled with vulnerabilities. Do your homework and stay engaged with your chosen vendors while the project is underway.

Make sure you have a workable backup plan. When precinct volunteers ran into problems reporting vote totals with the new app on caucus night, the alternative was to call the results in. But the party’s phone system was inadequate to the need, and a flood of calls meant many volunteers couldn’t get through. If you’re trying something new, make sure your plan B is up to the task.

(adamkaz/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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