The Republican National Committee has hired a new head of tech in the hopes of crossing the chasm between it and the more tech-savvy party to the left. The GOP has hired Andy Barkett, former infrastructure and engineering exec at Facebook and self-proclaimed "nerd-herding" specialist, to broaden its digital and data capabilities. Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee has yet to name a permanent tech director to replace the one who left in April to work for the Obama campaign's outside data services firm, according to sources familiar with the situation.
While at Facebook, Mr. Barkett "was in charge of dozens of engineers on six production engineering teams responsible for thousands of servers and scaling systems in mobile infrastructure, messaging, advertisements, newsfeeds, platforms, and payments," according to an RNC statement.
"He's the first hire in our complete overhaul of our tech, digital and data and how it's integrated throughout all departments," GOP spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski told Advertising Age. "His first priority will be setting up the systems and architecture so we can build out the rest of the team."
In politics, technology is intertwined with data and the platforms that make it work for fundraising, organizing and getting out the vote.
"It's essential that the Republican Party has the resources to drive voter turnout as we look toward the elections of 2014, 2016 and beyond," noted Mr. Barkett in the statement. "Silicon Valley welcomes the party's efforts to be more creative and innovative, and I look forward to helping the party accomplish these goals."
During the 2008 election, President Obama's campaign got attention for working with Facebook wunderkind Chris Hughes to develop My.BarackObama.com, a social platform for campaign volunteers and supporters. Whether the RNC's dip into the Facebook talent pool will garner the same amount of praise may not be known until at least 2014.
"I think it's a great first step; it's a commitment to technology, and his success will be predicated by where things go from here," said Zac Moffatt, digital director for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign.
It's been half a year since the presidential election, which inspired a great deal of introspection within the Republican party following criticism of its data and technical setup, as well as the Mitt Romney campaign's maligned approach to tech. The Romney camp came under fire for the failure of its mobile voter turnout app, Project Orca, for instance.
It remains to be seen if GOP is already too far behind to sharpen its technical chops in time for the 2014 midterms. Indeed, whether Barkett-and-co will choose to ramp up for the midterms or take a longer term approach by looking ahead to the 2016 presidential election and beyond is not clear. Either way, observers will be watching for signs of investment in technical resources, staff and infrastructure -- including the use of outside vendors and services -- to show the GOP is serious about competing with the Democrats and the technical prowess they've amassed during the Obama years.
Second time around
The Republicans have been through this before. After the 2008 election, a group of digital entrepreneurs formed a loose coalition known as Rebuild the Party: the aim being to foster technical innovation within its campaigns. The project fell flat.
What's different this time around? During a panel at the Data Crunched Democracy conference at Annenberg School of Communications in Philadelphia last week, GOP data and digital ad execs including Alex Lundry, VP-director of research at TargetPoint Consulting, and Peter Pasi, VP of Collective Political, suggested the 2012 election was a true catalyst for innovative change among Republicans. In 2008, party wonks chalked up President Obama's win to his "Hope and Change" movement, not a failure of the GOP's data and tech infrastructure.
Today, especially acknowledging the Obama 2012 campaign's larger investments in tech and data resources and staff, the GOP just may be in the right frame of mind to make real technical progress, they said.
The Democrats may not be quite as staffed up as needed. Former DNC director of technology, Bryan Whitaker, left in April to become COO at NGP VAN, a voter contact database and platform used by the president's Organizing for America group and the DNC. According to sources familiar with the inner-workings of the DNC, Andrew Brown, previously national data director at the DNC, remains in the acting CTO role there that he took on to replace Mr. Whitaker. Most likely he will be named CTO when the DNC names a new executive director, possibly later this summer.
The DNC did not respond to requests for comment.