Political Technology: Europe v US
Traditionally the US has led the way in the development and application of political technology. The US is a large, self-contained market for political campaign professionals and for political software companies that allows human capital and ideas to move around easily. For Europe to mimic this, it would likely need to work as a federal state with one political tradition, and for there to be a dominant language.
Europe encompasses many different political traditions and, of course, languages, that act as a barrier to the free flow of political industry professionals. The US has developed incredibly detailed systems around voter targeting and voter contact, as well as being at the forefront of political technologies to assist in these. All of this takes place in a data protection environment that is considerably more forgiving than that of Europe.
Now, however, we have come to a point where Europe is beginning to assert itself in the political technology department and individual countries are adding different expertise and angles to the way in which campaigns engage with voters. Though there is no central hub of technology development, the overall environment in Europe has created tech with a very distinct focus from the US.
Speaking with Brett Kobie of FleishmanHillard recently he indicated political technology is an imperative, “I think Europe has suddenly realized that being behind the times in political technology is a serious risk. People are now seeing the real influence digital and social can have on making change happen – they’re realizing that if they ignore technology, then they are basically stacking the deck in their opponents' favor.” Some recent notables on the digital/social front include the Labour Party social media campaign in the 2017 UK election, the speed with which the political order in France was overturned by the En Marche campaign, and the arrival of GDPR legislation with all its implications for campaigning.
The US model and why it is not sustainable
Voter data for sale
In the US model of political campaigning, there is a reliance on traded voter data in order to do voter outreach work. Data companies sell data to candidates for use as a database for targeting voters. Party organizations build centralized databases that are fed into by multiple candidates. This type of practice goes against the prevailing climate of increasing data privacy for citizens. The recent scandal involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook shows that voters are not comfortable with their data being traded to political organizations for the purpose of influencing them in the run-up to an election. Time may not be up just yet on these loose data privacy practices but it seems that the US is increasingly the outsider internationally in terms of their regime around data protection.
Deep pockets win elections
It is a given in the US that the campaigns with the biggest budget or the best fundraising machine will ultimately win out. This is in clear contrast with European practices that are far more restrictive around political donations and where the political traditions tend to frown upon large-scale spending on election campaigns. The estimated spend on political campaigns in the 2016 election cycle in the US was in the region of $12 billion, a figure that dwarfs election spending norms in Europe. The problem with such a direct causal link between the ability to raise funds and the likelihood of being a public representative is clear. Money shouldn’t buy elections. Leveling the playing field by restricting budgets allows campaigns to be fought on issues. It also disincentivizes large-scale spending on political advertising that seeks to influence groups of voters.
Partisan technology development
The partisan nature of US politics has led to partisan technology companies and consultants that tend to become either progressive or conservative early on in their development. Both Republican and Democrat sides have the problem of one technology company being too dominant for their market. This is stifling the natural development of the industry, affecting price competitiveness and ensuring that access to technology is being restricted. This happens not just on partisan grounds but also within partisan structures in order to favor some candidates over others. The lack of plurality in US politics is greatly restricting its ability to deliver for the candidates and subsequently for voters.
Shorter election cycles
Finally, a point that may seem counter-intuitive. The election cycle in the US is far shorter than in Europe with most offices elected every two years. This system, on the face of it, seems more accountable and democratic in the sense that politicians are frequently answerable to the electorate at the polls. However, the effect of it, as compared to a 4 or 5-year election cycle elsewhere, is that US politicians tend not to do the ongoing engagement and constituency management work that is common in Europe. Relationship building with voters and accountability to voters through constituency clinics are a necessity in longer election cycles, and where European politicians fall short of expectations in that period, they are always subject to snap elections. In fact, average election cycles in Europe are much shorter than 5 years, indicating that voters are given the opportunity to bring governments to heel regularly.
Europe and why it might be the future of political tech
So what is it about the European model of political campaigning that is so instructive at this time? Why is burgeoning political technology in Europe developing new methods of engagement and campaigning?
European politics reflects international politics
Firstly, it should be said that European political campaigning and politics, in general, is much more indicative of the way things operate internationally. For this reason, there is a better chance of European technologies and methods being adopted across the globe. When technology is set up for a particular system or outcome, as US political tech clearly is, then it is very difficult for it to gather momentum outside of there.
GDPR and voter data
Secondly, Europe is leading the way on data security and data protection for voters. The GDPR legislation covering the 27 EU states provides a far greater level of control for citizens over the data held on them by organizations including political ones. It institutes the concept of ‘consent’ from a voter in order to hold their data and to use it to do any marketing or campaigning to them. This model of data protection is likely to become the norm internationally in the next decade as practices spread quickly in a globalized economy.
Plurality not partisan
European politics is based on a wide range of points on the political spectrum from far left to far right and everything in between. Within the 200-300 parties, big and small across the continent, party structures can dictate what individual candidates and politicians say and do. Campaigning operates at both grassroots level and at a national level. In this way, a plurality of voices are heard but are contained by the party structures. The effect of this plurality is that technology does not get bracketed into partisan structures, which creates a more even playing field for all parties.
Grassroots as a building block
Finally, and most importantly, the grassroots infrastructure of a political party is critical to its overall success and so parties are intent on developing this. For this reason, political tech in Europe has a different focus than it does in the US, the focus is on building party structures (and assuming these structures will interface with voters) rather than building means to communicate directly with voters. What European parties seek is technology that creates a type of ‘neural network’ rather than an efficient megaphone. Brett Kobie again, “Understanding and harnessing technology in a way that can help point would-be activists and voters in the right direction is an absolute must, it’s definitely one of the focus areas of our EMEA Digital Public Affairs practice at Fleishman-Hillard. Building and scaling technology-driven methodologies and tools to nurture grassroots communities in Europe is not straightforward but we’ve got to keep pushing until we get this right – some would even say the future of Europe’s liberal democracy depends on it."
Everyone in the political industry is aware that this is a time of change for politics. On the one hand, technology is finding its way to digitize and disrupt all industries and therefore it is hard to see anyone continuing with traditional methods beyond the next two election cycles. On the other hand, there is the pressure for change coming from a widespread disaffection with politics (resulting in populist upheavals all over the map). This pressure is forcing parties to address the gaps in their understanding of voters and in their ability to communicate effectively with them, whether that is through social media or face-to-face canvassing.
Technology is certainly capable of making politics more dysfunctional but it should also be seen as a force for positive change. The direction of political technology and digital canvassing techniques internationally is likely to continue to be heavily influenced by the US but Europe has a lot to offer to the industry as a whole and it will be interesting to see how that plays out in the next few years.