What can social innovation learn from the Obama campaign?

The recent Obama campaign has been heralded as one of the greatest community organising efforts of all time. Now that we are seeing the benefits of involving citizens more in services and decision making that affects them, what can we learn from what Obama has done to galvanise individuals and communities?

How can we use these techniques to stimulate greater social innovation here in the UK, helping to tackle challenges as diverse as supporting an ageing population to reducing reoffending and crime?

Much has been written about Nate Silver, the seemingly genius blogger who disrupted punditry as we know it, and a lot has also been written about the use of big data and social media to attract donors and voters alike. But having spent the past few weeks in the Obama-Biden campaign office in Richmond, Virginia, it was striking that there is much to be learnt from the campaign field effort, where tens of thousands of volunteers (many of whom had never volunteered before), gave up their time, their homes, their cars and food, to get out the vote on 6 November 2012. But how did they do this? The answer is data and people.

First of all people were never asked to volunteer. Instead they were invited to come along, have fun, and help get the president re-elected. How enjoyable campaigning is was constantly stressed. And it wasn't a ruse. Canvassers would be encouraged to bring friends along, phone banks would be supplied with coffee, pizza, cakes, or arrays of other food. On Wednesday nights a local high school would come in and chat and catch up. But crucially, these people would then make calls and knock doors to millions of potential voters.

The many phone calls made and the millions of doors knocked weren't done randomly. Instead volunteers used a script which had been evaluated using randomised controlled trials (RCT). One question on this script asked people what time of day people would go to vote. A seemingly odd question, but past studies have found that this prompted people to then go and make a plan for Election Day, increasing likelihood of them actually going to vote.

The campaign staff also knew how many times they needed to interact with each person. And the magic number was six. We were told that once there have been six interactions, we knew with some certainly that people we spoke to were more likely to go and vote.

We were also aware that personal contact was highly influential. People were deemed 2% more likely to vote if we spoke to them by phone, but 6% more likely if we went and chatted on their doorstep. 

The data collected through phone calls and door knocking over months and months was continually fed back to a team of data analyses to crunch – in most cases this data was entered on the same day (and the majority of data entry done by volunteers), producing live lists of key stakeholders to be targeted. This meant that on Election Day we had lists of known Democrats who don't always vote. This ensured our energies were well spent targeting those people who just need a little encouraging, who may not know where to go to vote, or required a lift to get to the polls, rather than spending time knocking on the doors of people who would have voted anyway, or worse still, were voting Republican.

Yet you may be thinking that Obama has become such a celebrity that it's easy to galvanise such an army of volunteers, that it's much harder when you have a less glamorous topic, issue or problem to involve people in. But many people had never volunteered before. And although Obama was an important factor, he was not the only reason why people were involved. The common strand that ran through them all was an emotional impetus and a sense of collective action.

All of this combined to make the Obama re-election campaign one of the greatest community organising efforts of all time. From the way people were approached and recruited to volunteer to how people were encouraged to go to vote, at each step the mechanisms for getting Obama re-elected were tried and tested. At Nesta we are now doing something similar with our Innovation in Giving programme, through an RCT we plan to test what mechanisms are effective in recruiting volunteers here in the UK to support a variety of different causes, from assisting older people in their homes to reducing bullying in schools.

It's fair to say that the world of social innovation may never have the resources of an election campaign, yet we can learn a lot to ensure the ways we work are as evidence based and data driven as possible so that resources are well spent – helping ensure we have the biggest impact possible.

*Image courtesy of Daniel Schwen


Ruth Puttick

Ruth Puttick

Ruth Puttick

Principal Researcher - Public and Social Innovation

Ruth was Principal Researcher for public and social innovation. Ruth joined the Nesta policy and research team in 2009, working on a range of projects across innovation, investment and…

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