Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Making Online Branches Work - Making Labor a Platform for Progressive Organising

"The Internet" has long been held out as panacea for Labor's moribund membership structure. However, efforts to increase membership engagement online have comprehensively failed in practice over the past decade.The mistake that the party has made during this period has been to take a technology driven, "Build it and they will come" approach to promoting online engagement. When the Party gets serious about realising the potential of the internet as a platform for organising, campaigning and fundraising, it needs to start putting people, not technology, at the centre of its online strategy.

In the simplest terms, this means spending more money on people - online organisers and community managers - than on technology platforms. But in the larger sense, it means designing an architecture for participation for members and prospective members. This will mean asking some basic questions about people's incentives - about why and how people want to engage with the Party online.

My view is that if we look at campaigns that have successfully mobilised online engagement, people are now far more predisposed to organising around issues rather than party or ideology. Further, they are cynical about their ability to be 'heard' within a traditional party structure and want to be given the ability to directly influence outcomes through their online activities without being subject to hierarchical control.

I believe there's a way to balance these desires against the organisational needs of the parliamentary Party by adapting the Policy Action Caucus ('PAC') structure agreed to at National Conference as a vehicle for online engagement. Consider this proposal:

  • Full ALP members are entitled to establish online PACs around specific policy issues (eg "Labor for Ethical Live Cattle Exports", "Labor for Equal Marriage" etc) if they are able to initially sign up at least 50 Full Members to the group;
  • A subordinate class of Membership is created that allows individuals to join not the ALP proper, but a specific PAC for a nominal fee (eg $20);
  • PACs are given the right to move a platform amendment at ALP Conference if they can sign up at least say, 5000 members to their cause (subordinate or full ALP members) and agree a specific motion within the group;

Such a proposal would give ALP members and prospective members a strong incentive to engage in online organising (ie the potential to have their issue debated in a high profile forum at ALP conference and to influence policy makers) whilst also ensuring that existing party structures remained intact and the organisation proper retained ultimate control over the policy of the Party. It would open the party up to members of the community who may never have previously considered joining the ALP or direct political involvement of any kind (imagine the people a "Labor for NDIS" group could bring in). It would entice many fellow travellers to engage with the ALP, without requiring them to make the initial commitment required to become a full member - creating a large target pool of prospective members for the party's recruitment activities. It would create communities of interest that could engage in real world organising activities (eg you could imagine PACs arranging to staff the voting booths of MPs who agree to champion their issues). It would create a powerful micro-donations fundraising structure for the party to reduce the need for large scale donations. Ultimately, it would make Labor the primary platform for progressive organising once again.

All it would take is for the ALP to devolve a small amount of control over the policy agenda (not even control over decision making!) to the membership.


As far back as 2002, the Hawke/Wrann Review stated that it was desirable to “broaden the basis of membership activity, capacity for involvement in policy formulation” through online engagement. The review recognised that it was unhealthy that “vigorous debate on controversial issues is being avoided for the sake of a purely cosmetic unity” and stated that “Alternative processes must be sought to promote input from more sectors of the Party”.

In this regard the Review recommended the exploration of the formation of policy branches and online branches, noting:

“It may be possible to extend this concept to online branches, which are run nationally, and which encourage people to join the appropriate State branch. With such a scheme, it would be possible to offer online members the opportunity to belong to, and participate in, online policy forums. Again, it is not clear what the best way to do this is, and one of the first tasks of online branches would be to determine the rules for engagement and mechanisms to avoid online discussions becoming dominated by particular individuals”.

The intent behind this recommendation was admirable - as much for its humility about what it didn't know as for its optimism about what could be achieved. Unfortunately, in the decade since, little progress has been made in realising this vision. There are no "online branches", "online policy forums" or meaningful ways for members or prospective members to become "involved in policy formulation online".

The tragedy of this situation is that it is not for a lack of attention from the Party. As the the 2010 National Review recognises, the Party has invested enormous sums at both State and Federal levels to roll out infrastructure for online engagement:

9.4 Recently the Party has begun investing in a new infrastructure to facilitate this. The new LaborConnect function as part of www.alp.org.au is powered by Australian developed software ‘Community Engine’. This function enables Labor supporters to comment on articles, join affinity groups and participate in online discussions on policies or campaigns. The potential for this tool to be expanded and used to assist party building activities should be obvious. Further resourcing of this area should be considered by the Party nationally. 
9.5 The creation of the online ‘Think Tank’ function on www.alp.org.au has also assisted with feedback from members and supporters. This Review was the first major Party consultation to have benefited from the new function. Over 3500 members and supporters participated, the largest single interaction during the Review process. The ability to post brief, targeted contributions seems to have inspired many people to participate.

The Party has built world class platforms for ALP members and prospective members to engage with the Party and each other over the preceding two years. But when you log onto these platforms, you can see the digital tumbleweeds everywhere you look. 

The two most popular groups on LaborConnect, the Labor Environment Action Network and Young Labor, have both had only one wall post from users in 2012.

The Labor ThinkTank which is designed to capture policy contributions from members hasn't had a new 'issue' added since October 2011.

Even worse, it's not clear that there's ever been a real world event organised by a user through the site.

A new Party member joining LaborConnect to interact with the Party and other members is in for a frustrating experience. There's literally nobody there to interact with.

Despite this demonstrable failure, the 2010 National Review recommended that further Party resources should be spent expanding these platforms. In addition, US based vendors have been hovering trying to gull the Party into investing even more money on new campaigning platforms. Even Laurie Oakes was at it on the weekend, insisting that:
"Gillard and ALP national secretary George Wright should immediately send a team to study the Obama operation".
Frankly, the Party shouldn't spend another cent on online infrastructure, study tours or high priced American consultants until it learns the basics of online organising. In this respect, lesson number one needs to be: Online Organising is about People, not Technology.

Technology might provide people with a new and easier way of engaging with each other - but it won't give them a reason or an incentive to engage with others. As the geeks have been saying for more than a decade now, regardless of the technology, online communications is a conversation. Unless your online engagement is able to satisfy the basic prerequisites of a conversation between two people, you won't even be able to start building an online community.

What are the basic prerequisites of a conversation?
  1. At least two people at the same place at the same time;
  2. At least two people with a shared interest;
  3. At least two people with a reason to talk about the shared interest.
Labor's online engagement fails these requirements at every step. There are not enough ALP members online at LaborConnect at any time to sustain a conversation and even if there were, there would be no reason for members to talk to each other. Ultimately, because LaborConnect is completely isolated from both the organisational and policy making functions of the ALP, there's nothing you can do there that you couldn't do much more enjoyably on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or the local pub. Online members are just as disenfranchised from the mechanisms of power of the party as any other member. In essence, many of the same obstacles things that make attending branch meetings unappealing to people apply equally to the Party's online engagement.

A Better Idea - Online Policy Action Caucuses

There's good news and bad news about what the ALP needs to do to promote genuine online engagement. The good news is that it won't cost the Party another cent in IT infrastructure and the party has already agreed to creating the structures that could support it. The bad news is that is requires the ALP to devolve some degree of control over the policy agenda (but not decision making) to online members - something that in the past, the Party has found to be even more difficult.

Policy Action Caucuses

The 2011 National Conference resolved in the Grass Roots Policy Structures chapter to both establish a National Online Policy Branch and a new policy structure called Policy Action Caucuses:

17 - Grass roots policy structures
(a) The National Secretariat should establish a National Online Policy Branch. 
(b) Attendance at the National Online Policy Branch does not satisfy attendance requirements for voting in Party elections, unless a state or territory branch’s rules expressly provide that it does. 
(c) State and territory branches must investigate new grass-roots policy structures. 
(d) State and territory branches are encouraged to provide for the establishment of a ‘Labor Policy Action Caucus’ or ‘Labor PAC’ where a group has: 
(i) thirty financial Party members (or some other number as determined by the relevant state and territory branch) 
(ii) a patron from both the state and federal parliamentary caucuses, unless otherwise determined by its Administrative Committee 
(iii) a statement of its name, objectives and rules, approved by its Administrative Committee.
(e) Labor PACs should enjoy the same level of support from state and territory branch offices that constituent units enjoy in that state or territory. In particular, they should be permitted to: 
(i) promote policy forums in Party publications and bulletins 
(ii) put motions directly to Party conferences, the National Policy Forum, and state and territory branch policy committees 
(iii) convene meetings and functions. 
(f) Labor PACs should in no way supplant local branches, many of which continue to provide Labor with a vital link to their communities. Rather, Labor PACs should be a complementary initiative. No powers or resources should be given to Labor PACs that are not also given to local branches. 
(g) Party officials should support these new arrangements. As PACs mature and become part of the party’s structures, party officials should: 
(i) list Labor PACs on application forms for membership (so new members can sign up to them immediately) 
(ii) provide administrative support for elections and the maintenance of membership lists, as they do for local branches. 
(h) The administrative, financial and fundraising regimes that govern Labor PACs should be determined by each state and territory branch.

The idea of providing an outlet for membership engagement on an issue specific basis is a good one that would better allow the ALP to compete with competitor political groups organised on this basis (eg single issue groups like Amnesty, Greenpeace etc and multi-issue campaigning organisations like Get Up!). For better or for worse, the potency of broad ideology as a focal point for motivating political organising has been in decline for at least the past 30 years. PAC style party structures to enable issue based engagement is a sensible response to these changes.

However, while these proposals are well intentioned, as currently defined they are unlikely to succeed for many of the same reasons as outlined above. By folding PACs into the existing organisational hierarchy they fail to address the lack of incentives for members to participate in these structures.

Making Policy Action Caucuses Work - Decentralising and Taking Them Online

In order to make PACs work, they need to be taken out of the party hierarchy and given the ability to directly achieve outcomes without the fiat of the Party organisation. Both the organisers of PACs and their members need to be given both individual agency to organise in the advancement of their issues and a genuine incentive to do so. Merging the PAC concept with the National Online Policy Branch and then linking these structures directly with the floor of National/State Conferences has the potential to create a workable model that creates real incentives for members to engage online and organise.

The characteristics of such a model might be:
  • Full ALP members are entitled to establish online PACs around specific policy issues (eg "Labor for Ethical Live Cattle Exports", "Labor for Equal Marriage" etc) if they are able to initially sign up at least 50 Full Members to the group;
  • A subordinate class of Membership is created that allows individuals to join not the ALP proper, but a specific PAC for a nominal fee (eg $20);
  • PACs are given the right to move a platform amendment at State or National ALP Conference if they can sign up at least say, 5000 members to their cause (subordinate or full ALP members) and agree a specific motion within the group;

  • Membership Benefits - This proposal would dramatically increase the incentives for individuals to engage with the ALP and ultimately to become members. Creating an issue-based, subordinate category of ALP membership will lower the barriers to entry to the Party for prospective members. It provides a new way of channel for participating in the ALP for individuals who are passionate about a particular issue and are sympathetic to the ALP, but may not yet ready to join the ALP. The structure of this proposal also creates incentives for ALP members to go out into the community and recruit those with an interest in the issue in question to further the objectives of the PAC. This pool of individuals who take the initial step of signing up for a subordinate membership would also be fertile ground for ALP organisers seeking to encourage people to take the next step and become full members.  It would be a tangible organisational step towards achieving the target of adding 8000 new members to the ALP. 
  • Campaigning Benefits - A major benefit of this proposal is that it creates a platform for organising that PACs are free to do with what they wish. Given the incentives for growing the size of the PACs, recruiting activity would be an obvious focus. But it's likely that PACs would also undertake further organisational activities designed to increase the chances of their motion being accepted by Conference and ultimately implemented by a Labor Government. For instance, you could easily imagine PACs organising campaign volunteers to assist MPs who had committed to supporting and speaking in favour of their motions. If a PACs motion had been adopted by the ALP at a party conference, you could equally see PACs organising general ALP campaign volunteers (ie for shopping centre stall, handing out how to votes, door knocking etc) in the name of ensuring the election of a Labor government to actually implement the policy. Consider the support that a Labor for NDIS group would provide the party in the lead up to the next election had Conference accepted a PAC motion to implement a NDIS. 
  • Fundraising Benefits - The creation of subordinate memberships would obviously create a new and potentially lucrative source of small scale fundraising for the party (on the figures above, by the time a PAC motion reached conference floor it would have raised $100k for the Party in memberships alone). In addition, by creating a motivated and engaged pool of members and supporters, the PACs would also represent a promising group to target to seek online micro-donations. Again, once a PAC's motion has been adopted by Party Conference, all members of the PAC will have a strong incentive to contribute to the election of a Labor government to implement their motion.

  • Media Management - The most obvious challenge posed by this proposal is that it would break every rule of modern media management. By creating nodes of organisational activity outside the direct hierarchical control of the party the party the Party obviously cedes some degree of control over its ability to set the media message of the day - particularly during National Conference. Frankly however, in the new media environment, the ability of any one actor to control the public agenda for anything more than a news cycle is already dissipating. Relinquishing some degree of control is unavoidable if members are to be given an incentive to engage in organising activities of their own accord. Further, forcing the Parliamentary party to argue the case for why the Party ultimately is or is not accepting a position being advocated by a PAC would be a useful communication discipline. It would remind the Party of the need to constantly explain itself to the public and to demonstrate how its actions are consistent with its values instead of resolving internal conflicts behind closed doors and without explanation. 
  • Conflict Between PACs - Another obvious objection to such an arrangement is that PACs will inevitably be established with objectives that are in direct conflict with each other - the obvious one that comes to mind would be a Labor for Forrests PAC and a Labor for Forrestry Jobs PAC. Again, many in the Party will be uncomfortable with this kind of open policy conflict in the Party. However, as discussed above, forcing the Party to have these policy debate publicly will improve the quality of the Parliamentary party's communication with the general public by acting as a constant reminder to make a persuasive case publicly. Further, competition between PACs would act as a useful motivation for the PACs themselves - providing further incentive for the groups' recruiting, fundraising and organisational activities within the party.
While a change of this nature will inevitably bring with it a number of challenges for the Party, on balance the benefits that it would bring in the form of a growing and re-energised membership would far outweigh the costs.

One More Thing

Finally, for the online PACs proposal to be truly effective, the Party needs to employ some organisers tasked exclusively with performing the old fashioned (and largely forgotten) functions of organising in the online environment. Organisers who are able to perform the Community Manager function that every Australian corporate with any kind of online presence now has as a matter of course. Organisers who are able help those setting up PACs with training about online coms and outreach. Organisers who are able to put promising PAC organisers in touch with the relevant Ministers and their staffs. Organisers who are able to identify the most active and promising members of PACs and try to encourage them to take the next step and join the Party proper. Organisers who are able to help educate PAC members about the policy making processes of the ALP and how they can participate in them and influence outcomes on their areas of policy focus.


  1. Excellent ideas. You need to get together with @davidahood and teach them how to do it!

  2. Nice work Tim. It seems to me that ALP membership has been whittled down to ALP employees, aspiring politicians and a small group of deeply engaged activists. It does not welcome or engage new people, except at fundraising events. So, I think that you are spot on that to maintain relevance the ALP needs to find ways to broaden the membership. Good luck!

  3. Much food for thought - I have been disappointed by the Labor connect web site and get more political connection with like-minded alp members via facebook - and used my personal blog:

    I have proposed to my branch in the rural part of Blair - Wivenhoe Qld branch, we have a web-page via facebook to connect with other branches and community interaction, and maybe attract some campaign workers and//or members. Being a rural branch we may be able to connect with more people and have them at our branch meetings live on skype - we are also mobile physically too. If you have any advice or experience with branches online do share.