Voter issues are a core element of local politics. Being in touch with voters often defines whether a candidate sinks or swims during election. Fixing the potholes on Main St. or ensuring infrastructure for the local area are key bits of business that need to be done in order to be an effective representative. Issue tracking and management though is easier said than done. What is really required is voter targeting, a term which sounds technical but which is really about understanding voter’s concerns at as granular a level as possible.
In an article in MIT Technology Review, the Obama campaign of 2012 was analyzed in detail and one of the key learnings was their use of data to make national politics local in outlook. According to David Simas, the Director of Opinion Research, “What [data analytics] gave us was the ability to run a national presidential campaign the way you’d do a local ward campaign”.
The challenge for all campaigns is to make campaigns local. A key step in this process is issue management. The article showed clearly how campaigns need to build on the success of past election victories. It is not sufficient to simply wage each election as a ‘point-in-time’, hoping that you can master the issues and resonate with your voters.
Bridging from one election cycle to the next with a commitment to issue tracking mirrors the best campaigns and representatives. It embodies the idea that voter outreach is cumulative, a way of doing business that builds a representative to a point where their track record of getting stuff done means that their campaigns are built on very solid ground come election time.
How to plan for issue tracking
There is a great scene in the satirical political comedy, “In the Loop”, when a Cabinet Minister returns to his constituency office after a briefing on going to war in the Middle East. With matters of state heavy on his mind he finds he has to deal with a constituent who is irate about a wall that has been built adjoining his property. Besides satirizing the blown up egos of some politicians it shows the need for representatives to be able to switch gears from national to local issues at a moment’s notice. For this reason it is important to have a plan in place for issue tracking.
Creating a framework for engagement and knowing the limits of your resources allows you to be effective in your issue management work.
Define the extent of your resources. How many staff do you have and how much of their time can be given to constituent issues?
Don’t get bogged down in issues you cannot help with, don’t be afraid to say no or suggest alternative sources of help to the constituent.
Understand your strengths. Know what types of issues you are good at resolving. Every representative has a certain network that can be leveraged so understand yours and don’t be afraid to use it to get things done.
How to do issue tracking
So now that we understand the importance of issue tracking, see its value in the context of multiple election cycles and we have a plan in place to engage with it, how do we actually go about managing it?
Communication. Issue tracking is about communication, or more precisely, maintaining open lines of communication between your team and voters/constituents. The various channels for this are well established for most representatives: social media, constituency clinics, public meetings, email and outreach all provide an interface for communication.
Database. A clear repository to track the issues and to maintain an accurate record is essential. This might be a set of folders on your computer, a software system for issue tracking or just a regular old filing cabinet!
Outreach. It is important to remember that voters and constituents should be actively reached out to on an ongoing basis to see how issues are changing over time. It is easy to get a skewed perspective on constituency issues if you simply wait for issues to come to you. Human nature being what it is, it is likely that you will hear a lot from a small number of vocal constituents on their particular issues but perhaps not hear from the silent majority of constituents who may have a very different set of issues. Outreach work is therefore critical in testing the waters through the term of office.
Whether in an election cycle or during your term in office issue tracking will need to be one of your core activities. A clear commitment to the process will help you greatly in bridging from one election cycle to the next and build a reputation as someone who gets things done for their electorate. More importantly, it strengthens the communication between representative and constituent leading to a fundamentally more democratic society.