|Issue No 95||11 May 2001|
Interview with Peter Lewis
Two of the union movement's pioneers in new technology, Peter Ross and Mark McGrath, chew the fat about wired unionism and virtual politics.
How far down the track do you think unions are towards making the transition to being truly networked organisations?
Mark: I'd probably say a good 2 years away, judging by how far they have come at the present time and they have only made the preliminary first step so far for 80 to 90% of unions, and that is getting a public-web presence which is just the first step in becoming a networked organisation as far as using new media goes. What is required further down the track is for unions to use new media technology so it becomes part of their everyday communication workflow internally and externally, and we are only seeing the early adopter phase of that for probably 5 to 10% of unions that are looking towards taking the next step and that is in terms of using more advanced tools for new media - and that is not just websites and e-mail, but also mobile phones, SMS messages and integrating those technologies within the workflow of a union workplace.
One example of a union that is going down that track is MEAA, how has that union made that transition?
Peter: With the Alliance, we are finding that the use of their technologies - the mobile phones, the e-mail trees and the website itself are really where the Alliance has started to expand into using electronic communication tools. I think the cultural shift is the first, most difficult thing - to actually train the existing people, to convince them it doesn't have to be quite as time consuming. One e-mail can be sent out to many as opposed to doing the old culture of the mail out and the ring-around. For us to be able to do that is now becoming second nature, rather than thinking, all right, we have got to do a mail out, let's get a squadron of members in here to stuff envelopes. We will now go to an e-mail out, and without abandoning the old technologies we are using those things as secondary or third step tools.
If you could think of one killer app that the union movement should be taking up, what would it be at the moment?
Mark: I wouldn't nominate one single application, I would nominate a matrix or a set of applications that would be used together intelligently, and I am talking there about using different mediums to communicate the one message or a set of messages to their audience. For instance, using the website to enable 2-way communication between the union and its membership - and also between the membership itself, with different mediums, specifically: web to e-mail; web to mobile phone; and web to fax. There is the capability now for unions to produce one message and have it deployed through one technology that then gets distributed through different mediums, ie those I have just nominated.
So instead of replicating the message-making across those different mediums, you do it once and it goes out to all those different forms.
Some unions do some of that, but there is no union who has got that as a total solution.
The RTBU are building a Web-to-fax gateway, which is great, because they have got a lot of their delegates out there in the shops with faxes. Every delegate's shop has a fax. So they are keeping some old technology, but they are converging it, or they are merging it with the new technology - the Web. This is a smart way to go.
I am suggesting to the MUA that they consider developing a Web to SMS - Short Message Service - on mobile phones, because I am told that a lot of MUA members have mobile phones so it would seem a good way to distribute critical campaign information to these members fast.
Peter: I agree that it is horses for courses. Within the context of our membership, there are journalists who are lashed to the desktop, lashed to a PC, who have e-mail access. Similarly with the actors, we have got a lot of people who are time rich and asset poor. They have got time and they will sit there and they have taken up the new technology such as the Web, so they are using our Website, getting e-mail bulletins and communicating - feeding back into the organisation via e-mail. You can tell they've really taken up the e-mail. Every time we expand the amount of bandwidth coming out of our office people realise that it is more accessible for them, it is not long before that bandwidth is choked up again from people utilising that more.
What about some of the recent campaigns? For example, the workers compo campaign has been very much a web-based campaign. Being behind that site, what are some of the interesting applications?
Mark: It is probably the first, truly web-driven campaign that I have seen in Australia that has had a clearly identifiable result, in that the action of the campaign was precipitated by the Web, and primarily that is the targeting of local MPs - backbenchers, and you could see the effects of that action within a very short period of time. That was very impressive.
What was probably different about this campaign than others I have seen, is that there seems to have been a conscious decision by the Labor Council to use the Web as the prime vehicle for their campaign, so consequently a lot of resources were dedicated to the campaign Website. So very quickly we saw tools developed that had an immediate impact upon the campaign's target - namely the backbenchers and the front bench at Macquarie Street. So within one week we saw State MPs being bombarded with e-mail from concerned citizens and that was obviously sending a message that this is a hot issue that was having a lot of resonance out there in the electorate and it was obviously presenting a political liability to the Carr Government.
Similarly, the back-bench members could see that there was a hell of a lot of heat out there on the issue and more pointedly, they were seeing that if they weren't going to support workers via the Labor Council's position, that they were going to be picketed by various unions through that targeted campaign.
That was very, very clever use of the Web in concert with coordinated offline action, or on-the-ground campaigning. So I think the lesson there is that you are not going to win a campaign just with a campaign website, it's got to be coordinated and complemented by what is happening on the ground as well. And if they can work in tandem you will get a much better success rate.
What is an example of some of the campaigns MEAA has run through he Web?
Peter: I think the beauty of the new, emerging technology is the immediacy of what is going on, because the moment you put something out there, you are getting feedback straight away. We will post a bulletin. I can get responses from some members within five to ten minutes, which can be sometimes quite frightening, from the point of view of content provider. For example, during the Olympics campaign, when there was some debate over the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and the amount of performers who were primarily our members. Just by constantly publishing bulletins it enabled us to certainly place pressure very early in the piece and get an immediate response
And I guess that is the area that we haven't really examined. I think that with the Web stuff we need to qualify the fact that the new bandwidth revolution is where some of the new technologies are going to come into their own. As the bandwidth gets bigger we are going to be able to do some cleverer things. Your multi media; your web radios; your broadcasting screen; and videos and the like.
But I think we can't forget that the main constituency aren't necessarily going to be early adapters. People who are interested in technology are greatly ingrained with it, but there is a lot of people who will still be on 56k dial ups or 28k dial ups, and we can't forget about them as well.
Mark: I agree with Peter. Although the Web offers fabulous new opportunities for unions to organise and engage people on and then recruit new members and revive themselves, we shouldn't kid ourselves.
It is only going to reach its full potential once we get an expansion of bandwidth, that is faster access and easier access to the Net, and also - and this is a related factor - that expanded bandwidth and cheaper bandwidth will enable greater take-up. Because at the moment it is only the more white-collar based, office based unions that can truly justify throwing a lot of resources at a Web strategy for their union because they have got a high rate of connectivity.
People like teachers, journalists and so on, and the public service workers that do have ready access at their workplace to the Web. For the other unions that are more industrial based or based on manufacturing work or outside of an office environment, we are relying on home access for the Web, and at the moment home access is less than 50% of the population. And I dare say if you broke that take-up rate down by demographics, I think you would find it even less for lower paid workers.
This is a Federal election year. What would a really wired political party be doing with their Web at this point in the cycle, and what sort of Web applications would you like to see being used in a campaign at the end of the year?
Mark: In broad terms I would be trying to replicate their offline campaign strategies and migrate them to an online environment.
What does that mean? That means developing contact lists of the public, broken down per marginal electorate; broken down per issue - so that they can narrowcast. What you are doing with direct mailing and electoral tracking data bases that can define audience groups by areas and interests, you should be doing that via a website as well, with a smart e-mail strategy. Whatever is going in the letterbox offline, should be going in the inbox online.
So, what should a political party be doing to achieve that: They should be building the infrastructure to allow them to do that, come the Federal campaign. That is sophisticated data base technology that begins to grow within a Website, but takes quite a lot of lead time to develop. You would have to be developing this now, rather than waking up the day that writs are issued for election and wanting to build this within a couple of weeks. That would be my advice to major parties.
Peter: The first thing that we should not do would be hack the Opposition's Website because past experience has shown that isn't an effective campaigning strategy. I agree with Mike in that the niche targeting of firstly sending out text based - e-mail messages, not HTML, e-mail messages - keeping the technology as simple as you can in terms of e-mail - not trying to send out glamorous corporate logos and photos of the local member and trying to do the glossy brochure approach, because that will just backfire. You will lose a lot of people. A lot of people have the kind of technology at home that HTML e-mail, is kind of a bit rude a lot of the time now.
Going on from what Mark said, you can get a really niche and target market, and you can do that with e-mail because it is so cheap. It really is. To send out an e-mail specifically closely targeting a particular area, that is really where the strength of the technology is.
Mark: It might take you $40,000 to do a direct mail to an electorate. If you had the equivalent number of e-mail addresses it would only cost you less than $100 for distribution and certainly well less than $40,000 for the permananent infrastructure to run this application over and over again. The economies of scale are quite vast. There is great benefit, from a campaign point of view online, as opposed to offline. I'm not saying you should replace what you are doing offline, but it is potentially a very powerful medium to use in a campaign, especially e-mail wide, because unlike the Web, people are prompted to read e-mail. You can put something up on a Website, but unless you have got an e-mail coming into someone's box saying: Hey, this is new, read this! They are not necessarily going to go and view it. But with e-mail, people tend to check their
e-mail on a regular basis, some people even have e-mail checked all day. They are online all day, or at night time, so as soon as something arrives they will get to see it.
Are Websites going to play any role in this election campaign? Or a better question: What sort of Website would you need to actually have an impact in a Federal election?
Mark: What I think you need is something beyond brochureware. Something that engages the voter, that allows them to actually take action and that includes having their say, being able to ask questions and get answers, being able to join a campaign team, being able to make a donation, getting access to the people that they may vote for, and getting some personalised responses. In other words, getting access to the people that in previous campaigns, people don't usually get access to. In other words, if they are not going to get door-knocked by their local Member or local candidate, there should be some way, via the Web, to have some sort of similar experience.
Peter: I would agree with that and I would be inclined to think that the average voter isn't a stupid person. To have access to proper policy documents and to be able to examine them themselves. To be able to download and get the actual text, rather than the spin doctors' versions they are going to read in the media, depending on what paper and what their agenda is. For people to actually be able to see the proper policy documents for themselves, well for a lot of voters I think it would give them a lot more confidence in the process as well.
Mark: If I was a candidate running a campaign, I would want a campaign Website that would make me available to the electorate in terms of live chat, bulletin boards. I would be having enquiry forms on there where I would be responding personally via e-mail - or my office - not just with generic messages but actually addressing personal responses, the same as in an electorate office if there is a phone call that comes in people get a personal response by that phone call. They don't get a form response - they don't get a robotic response. So you should be aiming to do the same thing via e-mail and then up on the site as well.
Plus, I would be using it as a campaign vehicle internally. I would be using the Website to recruit campaign team members and coordinate campaign team members. I think that has got a lot of legs. Why? Because as a lot of people in the Labor movement experienced over the last generation, it is getting increasingly harder to get people outdoors and to meetings and to participate in collective events. The Web is one way around that dilemma where people can participate in collective actions, without having to go outdoors, and still have an impact.
A final question: How many years do you think we are off, until the Web will actually decide a Federal election.
Mark: I think that question means to me that "When do you think the Web will become more important than TV?" Maybe I could answer that by saying: When the Web becomes TV. Or when the TV becomes the Web.
Peter:And the way we are going, that could be longer rather than sooner.
Mark: That's right. And that issue of convergence is a whole debate on its own. Whether the Web and TV will merge. Putting on my futurologists hat, I don't think they will ever truly merge into one entity, but I think there will just be a strong overlap between the two. We will have TV broadcasts over the Web, and we will have Web TV as an application for you to view on your TV, but there will still be TV channels doing current affairs and there will be debates every Federal election on TV. You probably will be able to view on the Web, which would be a good thing, because then you could get live, direct user feedback on the debate.
I don't know if I should be revealing this in an interview - but one of my little pet ideas for a Web election campaign is to run the worm on a Website that hijacks a debate broadcast, so that whilst the TV networks would like to ban the worm, there is nothing to stop anyone setting up a Website, running in parallel with a debate that runs the worm on its site. That is a great technology that the TV hasn't got, because you can get instant viewer feedback.
Peter: I think the data casters would argue the fact that it has got to be sooner rather than later - the convergence of the technologies. I essentially think that there is going to be 2 different markets anyway. The TV will always be around - some more interactive version. There are a lot of people who just don't want to take it on. There are still people who listen to radio and read newspapers, no matter what we think.
Mark McGrath is the union projects manager of Social Change Online. Peter Ross provides IT services to MEAA and the NSW Labor Council.
Interview: Geek Guys
Two of the union movement’s pioneers in new technology, Peter Ross and Mark McGrath, chew the fat about wired unionism and virtual politics.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005