Friday, October 10, 2014

Scientific management for election campaigns in India

by Viral Shah.

From 2010, I worked in the Aadhaar project for three years. This helped me learn how Government works and how it does not. The one big takeaway from my experience of working with the Executive arm of the Government was that to bring about true and lasting change, to restructure our defunct institutions and build new ones, one needs to engage with the Legislative arm, with politicians.

Politics in India is a cottage industry. Everybody loves to talk about it; most are cynical; very little is known about how things actually work. The professional ways of working -- which are found in business, science and slowly in government -- are least visible in politics. In particular, the crucible of politics -- the election campaign -- is just black art. In the last 20 years, we have seen family businesses get shaken up, professionalise, and embrace technology and process engineering. We have seen some parts of government do the same. We have seen a transformation of some parts of academiaa. The one place which has seen the least change is politics in general and election campaigns in particular.

This suggests opportunities for achieving important change. Shankar Maruwada, Naman Pugalia and I started a company -- FourthLion Technologies -- to provide professional services to political campaigns. Over a couple of campaigns, we have slowly learned how elections in India work. We have looked at an array of data from various public and private sources, and developed tools and technologies to aid election campaigns in multiple phases.

Elsewhere in the world, election campaigns are run through scientific management. In the US, both the Democratic and Republican parties have voter databases, where one can search for any voter by name. Through a variety of analytical methods, campaigns know fairly well which voters are likely to vote for them, and which ones are marginal, and on which groups of voters, no resources should be expended. Starting with such databases, every voter contact is recorded (a volunteer knock, a telephone call, a letter sent, an email, or a tweet) in the same way companies manage customer services through a CRM system. It took a decade of work for the machinery of election campaigns in the US to get to this stage, to transplant ideas which were well developed in the world of business.

When thinking about election campaigns in India in a professional way, there are many challenges. There are multiple parties, many races are multi-cornered, and with first-past-the-post elections, a candidate can win with as few as 20-30% of the votes. The voter lists are very poor in quality, with every possible error of inclusion and exclusion. They do not capture the large scale of urban migration and are often tampered with. Although the Election Commission of India has made great strides in conducting free and fair elections over the last several decades, much more remains to be done, and the quality of the voter list is perhaps the weakest link in Indian democracy today.

Every election has three natural phases: Registration, Persuasion, and Turnout. A campaign should start 6-12 months before voting date, by registering voters. Three months before the election, voters need to know the candidate and be persuaded, and finally the last week is focussed on "Get The Vote Out", or Turnout. At each stage of the campaign, one has to focus on the message and mobilisation. The message is all about what the candidate says and does, and mobilisation is about execution on the ground, in the digital sphere and in the media. Each stage as a distinct methodology for scientific management, and the problems faced can be quite surprising. As an example, it is not uncommon for 2 to 3% of the population of a constituency to be working for all the candidates, put together, in the last 2-3 weeks. This calls for the processes of large-scale management.

We provide tools and technologies for different parts of the campaign, starting with coalition dynamics, seat selection, analysis of past elections, formulation and testing of messages, calculating the reach of every channel (hoardings, TV, radio, print, etc.), managing call centres, and a control room for the turnout operation and voting day. We use data, analytics, and technology at every stage of a campaign to aid decision making and efficient deployment of resources. Traditional politics often deploys resources in a "Spray and Pray" manner, while we try to combine all available information and intuition so as to use resources more effectively.

In our experience, an incumbent who has a good chance of getting the ticket has a head start as he is able to do preparatory work for the campaign well ahead of time. As emphasised above, the campaign should really start 6-12 months before the voting. All too often, in India, candidate selection is left to the last minute. This makes it impossible to mount a serious campaign, and generally plays in favour of the incumbent. Once we start thinking of an election campaign as a systematic project, this induces the discipline of a minimum time period that is required to execute all the steps, just as is the case with all well planned projects.

On one hand, our thinking about process improvement for election campaigns consciously draws from successful techniques of scientific business management which have been perfected in the worlds of business, science and government in India. Along the way, we have seen that the speed, agility, and scale required in political campaigns in India is something unique when compared with the worlds of business, science and government in India. To some extent, we are seeing innovations in the field of election campaigns that can usefully inform, and sometimes get directly transplanted, into the other three worlds.

We are learning how our democracy works. The accountability is jarring, as any politician will tell you: voters make every possible demand, and speak their mind to the candidate, in as direct a way as can be. Millions of micro-deals are struck with candidates by individuals and groups of people. These are genuine deals about actions of the State and not bribery or corruption. These micro-deals bubble up into the processes of government and ultimately shape policy. It is a rough and tumble world which clashes against our dreams of representative democracy, but it is also astonishing how much this is about representative democracy.

1 comment:

  1. Very true, You have brilliantly wrote the points and all sounds contemplative. Although comparing directly to USA seems a little harsh on us, as United states is an age old democracy, it has matured a lot, have seen ups and downs and obviously, have voted more than us.
    We at the other hand represents country of deep diversification in blood and language, moreover our democracy isn't that mature now, we are struggling to provide very basic needs at distant corners of cities and countries at the same time . A country who was always been ruled or dictated by endless dynasties is now bubbling to out from all those phases. Yes, we are not that perfect, but that motivates us to look for improvements and execute them. World is moving ahead and so does we will.
    Hopefully, the targets that you are looking at while writing, shall be achieved soon.


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