Party looks to the US for new election database software

Excellent news from the Federal Executive this week with the decision to appoint a preferred supplier for a new election fighting computer database. Voter Activation Network, the US firm which services many Democrat Party candidates, has been selected with a view to signing a multi-year contract shortly.

Amongst the other bidders were the party’s long-running suppliers EARS (though they may still have a role to play as data suppliers, especially given the team’s expertise and experience in dealing with different electoral register formats).

EARS has provided a valuable service to the party for many years, but the old model of individual databases on separate computers has been overtaken by the development of web-based tools and the need for software that smoothly interacts with a wide-range of other services. I don’t know the full details of why VAN won out over EARS in the end, but I’m sure that VAN’s ability to invest millions in software development courtesy of the large US campaign budgets will have given it a significant edge over the much more home-grown EARS set-up.

The VAN product even as of a few years ago, when we looked at it during my time working for the party, was extremely impressive. For a variety of reasons matters did not progress then but, assuming that the contract negotiations proceed successfully, it’s a very significant step forward that’s been taken this time and the people involved deserve praise for that.

Since the last general election, I’ve done many events with former staffers from both the Conservative and Labour Parties, and from the bits of information you pick up at such events, it’s been clear that whilst the party’s IT set-up used to be significantly better than those of the other parties, it has in recent years fallen significant behind. (Michael Ashcroft’s book on the general election gives some details of how their IT setup benefited Conservative grassroots campaigns.) The need to modernise the party’s IT setup was one of the major conclusion of the Campaigns & Communications Committee’s general election review and it’s good to see that is turning into practical action.

Another piece of good news from the FE this week is its decision to support significant relaxations in the restrictions on campaigning in internal party elections, something I’d lobbied for. We’ll cover that in more detail later in the week.

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15 Comments

  • Bring back Polly 🙂

  • Chris Keating 30th Mar '11 - 12:12pm

    Nick – we are a long, long way from worrying about which mobile platforms our campaign database runs on. 😉

    Will be interesting to see how this develops.

  • All the Tories I know never stop moaning about how inadequate their Merlin system is?

  • Were Shuttleworth given the chance to tender?

  • Roger Whyborn 30th Mar '11 - 1:39pm

    If its web-based it could be very slow, so a downloadable non-undatable version could be a necessity; the last you you want on election day is to have you internet provider down – or the like.

    I like the idea of using the EARS team in its implementation.

  • Just make sure you have a good lawyer look over the contract. Web-based databases do work well, but I know organisations who have had to sue the software company to get it implemented correctly.

    But great news – sound like the party staff reorganisation is really paying off.

  • I am happy with the EARS product. The EARS organisation is an integral part of the party and is ‘home grown’. What will happen if this software is not as good as EARS, is there a path back to EARS.

    If someone is planning to sign a long term deal they should be accountable if it turns out to be a mess. If we must use this software let’s have a pay as we go agreement. A long term deal will be a bad move and will come back to haunt us as the costs will start to mount and we would not be able to exit.

    If this goes belly up people will say “they can’t sort their own software how can they run the government”. EARS does not carry this risk so we should be VERY careful about changing.

    Lots of enthusaiasm for an untested product and a long term contract we can’t get out of . This is how software ‘horror stories’ start.

    Ed Joyce

  • Colin Rosenstiel 1st Apr '11 - 2:04am

    What worries me is how much a US software house will understand the significant differences in electoral nuts and bolts over here. They don’t do door to door canvassing or even leaflet delivery is the US as we do (mail boxes can only be used for US Mail).

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