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Iowa Could Have Avoided Its Digital Fail with KM Best Practices

Iowa Election

Monday’s Iowa Caucus vote-counting disaster feels like the most predictable failure in recent history. Admittedly it’s early days yet, and a full autopsy of the people, process, and technology mistakes involved in the fiasco has yet to be assembled. But from early reporting, the Iowa Democratic party seemed woefully naïve about what it would take to infuse new digital technology (an app) into a long-established process (caucus vote reporting).

Any knowledge management, process improvement, or digital leader worth their salt can tell you: This kind of digital transformation is harder than it looks. Getting it right requires technology that not only does the job, but is straightforward and intuitive to use. And even with good infrastructure, a successful rollout hinges on a proactive, multi-channel change management strategy that educates end users about what’s coming and coaches them every step of the way.

Those in charge in Iowa appear to have missed three of the biggest lessons learned from enterprise digital transformation efforts.

1. Technology must be designed with the user in mind.

Digital initiatives can derail in many directions, but successful ones fulfill two basic criteria. They focus on a clear problem, and they are designed in partnership with end users to align with their needs and preferences.

The Iowa Democratic Party’s vote-reporting app seems to have met the first condition, but completely missed the mark on the second. The intended purpose was to make it easier for precinct chairs to report vote counts at the end of each caucus. This is fair enough, especially since chairs now must report three different vote counts instead of one. But developers did not fully understand their target user group or the situation in which they would be operating.

The Iowa Caucuses are run by more than 1,600 volunteers, a large number of whom are retirees (aka not Digital Natives). Many users found the app cumbersome to download and use—in fact, some gave up during installation because they could not get through the complex security measures or were afraid that the software was installing a virus on their phones. Others were plagued by poor Internet connectivity at caucus locations.

In retrospect, expecting volunteers to install software on their personal phones and test it for the first time during a loud, high-pressure caucus night seems like a big ask. If developers had used an approach like design thinking, they might have done a better job empathizing with users and working through the potential roadblocks. For example, could the party have assigned tech-savvy precinct co-chairs to take charge of app reporting? Could each precinct have been issued a tablet with the app already installed and a wifi hotspot to ensure accessibility? I have to believe there were better options.

2. Email is not a change management strategy.

Whatever the design flaws of the app itself, the most glaring error seems to be the woefully inadequate change management. The app wasn’t covered in the required training for precinct chairs. Nor were there any “super users” or on-the-ground tech support to help people get comfortable with the new tools. Instead, the party sent precinct leaders an email containing app instructions.

Anyone who’s ever been involved in a technology rollout can tell you: Email is not a change management strategy. Early adopters may respond to email messaging, but the vast majority simply ignore it. Change must be conveyed through many channels, and those most in need of help require a high-touch approach—a person who can talk them through the benefits of the change and then hold their hand as they get familiar with the new technology. Remember, a lot of the volunteers are older, and many are not that comfortable with apps. Without good coaching and support, it’s unsurprising that many precinct chairs simply ignored the rollout altogether. One party leader said 7 of his 10 precinct chairs didn't even try to download the app.

Which brings us to the third problem…

3. Most people won’t change unless you make them.

Although the party was highly invested in its new app, precinct chairs were informed that the traditional system of reporting vote counts—calling them in via a hotline—would still be available. If they had any trouble, they could simply revert to the old process.

This kind of backup system was both prudent and necessary. But organizers seem to have been unprepared for how many users would fall back on the old, established way of reporting vote counts. As a result, the phone system was overloaded, leading to long hold times and disconnections. In short, the party left its old system in place without resourcing that system to handle the load it would be carrying.

One of the biggest lessons learned from enterprise digital transformation is that people don't adopt new ways of working unless you force them to. If, for example, you build a new digital workplace for content management and leave your old shared drives in place, people will continue to save files in the same place they always have. I’m not saying that Iowa should have gotten rid of its hotline—obviously that would have been an even bigger disaster! But if you leave your old process and technology in place, you should be prepared for almost everyone to take advantage of that safety net (especially if you haven't done your due diligence on change management).

The Bottom Line

I found Monday’s mess disheartening for many reasons, but the biggest is that it seemed so avoidable. Leaders across the public and private sector need to learn the hard lessons of Iowa and embrace better practices for technology development and rollout. The tenets of successful digital transformation are well-known, but they only apply if we apply them.