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How Canadian Progressives Can Win

12/17/2013 08:50 EST | Updated 02/16/2014 05:59 EST

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren opened Rootscamp in Washington, D.C., last week by saying she likes to hang out with people "who get things done."

It was the annual gathering of the New Organizing Institute (NOI), one of the pieces of progressive U.S. political infrastructure that has emerged over recent years to reinforce the culture of winning that we've seen in the two Obama campaigns, and increasingly in a range of other political races and issue campaigns by NGOs.

There were a handful of us Canadians at Rootscamp, but overall the experience underlined that we are at least five years behind our U.S. counterparts in applying the lessons of organizing, testing and data. The silver lining is that political campaigns and NGOs in Canada who are early adopters of these lessons can carve out a real competitive advantage given our delayed uptake.

The 2,000 or so attendees took in workshops on distributed organizing, online tool development, mathematical modelling to help voter targeting, leadership recruitment and development, and on a range of U.S. political issues. Stories of successes and failures were shared in a culture of honesty about what works and what doesn't, so that a common rising progressive tide can lift all boats.

NOI Executive Director Ethan Roeder described the approach best in his introduction to Rootscamp 2013:

"There's a name for the combination of evidence-driven, effective advocacy and relationship-based organizing: unbeatable. This is not a strategic advantage that can be erased with cash; not a tool that can be eclipsed by a bigger, badder tool; not a secret gem of knowledge that can be discovered by an opponent. It's a culture. It's our culture. It's how we win."

It's apparent that the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns served to turbo charge this movement in the U.S., with personnel, tactics and tools flowing from there into other campaigns and back again. We have nothing like that on the Left in Canada, with divided political parties and nothing like the massive budgets spent on winning the White House.

We've yet to see even one breakout progressive political campaign in Canada that uses good data to inform a robust and integrated ground game, other than perhaps certain riding level campaigns that buck HQ. And, there's a danger that some Canadians see the data piece as a silver bullet, without wanting to do the necessary heavy lifting of using data to inform personalized face-to-face conversations at scale.

So, what will it take for Canada to catch up? Well, it appears that unhelpful tribalism will dominate our divided progressive political parties for the time being, precluding meaningful leadership from that direction. Instead, civil society actors -- NGOs and unions -- will need to provide the innovation.

There are signs that this is starting to happen. Some NGOs have fully embraced the culture on display at Rootscamp, notably groups like the Dogwood Initiative and Leadnow.ca. Unions have at least begun to realize that something needs to change and are trying some new things, like Unifor's community chapters.

Our challenge is now scaling. How do we encourage many more Canadian entrants into this space? How do we find more organizations willing to hard-wire good organizing, good data and a culture of testing into everything they do?

And, how do we then start sharing our own Canadian lessons? Maybe there's a seed there for a Canadian version of Rootscamp -- "RootsCan" perhaps, in 2014. Be in touch via Twitter if that's of interest to you.