Steve Westly - All Style, Little Substance

Tuesday is the big day for candidates in the California gubernatorial primary. The winner gets to take on Arnold in the November general and the campaigns are fighting it out down to the wire. Online, the campaigns are employing varying degrees of sophistication to gather, organize, and mobilize their supporters.
I’m taking a look at the Angelides and Westly campaigns and then will turn to the man they hope to dethrone – Arnold “Kindergarten Cop” Schwarzenegger. As a reminder, the six scoring criteria are:

• Appearance
• Communication
• Depth of Content
• Mobilization
• Technology
• Usability
Angelides is doing some interesting things online with a sophisticated online action center and the ability for volunteers to organize themselves with tools online to call and walk. Unfortunately, his site’s visual appeal is lacking and many visitors may not look past the rough exterior to find the quality within. What does Westly offer? Let’s take a look.

Of the major candidates for Governor, Westly probably has the best looking site. It’s clean and attractive. The color combination struck me as odd, at first, but it grew on me over time. It’s apparent, especially when compared to the Angelides offering, that the site was created by a good design firm.
The few issues I have with the site’s appearance also relate directly to the usability score. They concern the navigation. I’m a big believer in horizontal navigation, as it frees up space in the well for a lot other content. This site, however, overdoes it a bit. The presence of four separate horizontal navigation bars is distracting. Add to that the use of drop down menus on the lowest of the four, and the navigation quickly becomes a burden rather than an aid to the user.
On the navigation front, there is one other problem as the site stands at the time of this writing. The site currently contains a YouTube video message from Steve Westly. That control, on the page, appears above the navigation layer, so the drop-down menus are hidden from view.
The final comment on appearance I would make relates to my “above the scroll” rule. I contend that the three components of your campaign – message, money, and mobilization – should all appear above the scroll. While Westly has text links for the three in the navigation, the giant graphics in the center of the home page actually prevent him from attracting supporters because the site does not give them specific requests to get involved.

Appearance rating: 


Depth of content: 

Like Angelides’s offering, Westly’s site contains a good deal of content. It’s one of the first I have seen that makes content available not only in English and Spanish – the minimum these days – but also in Chinese. Unfortunately, that effort actually costs them points on my scale because they do it poorly. Like many campaigns, they do make all of the actual content available, but instead use Chinese characters to link to English language versions of many pages.
If you’re going to provide a multi-lingual website, then go all the way, and make sure that every link on a second language page links to another page in the same language. It’s insulting to the users you’re trying to attract if you lure them into a section of the site supposedly in their preferred language, then keep linking them to English pages.
Like Angelides, Westly has a expansive issues section, but unlike Angelides, any individual issue has minimal material behind it. Westly’s health care section, for instance, contains only four paragraphs on an issue that generally ranks as exceptionally important to Democratic voters. In this primary fight, that could cost him votes with comparison shoppers.

Depth of content rating: 



The site is really sort of a mixed bag of usability. As mentioned above, it gets low marks on navigation because of the multiple bars and the hidden drop downs. A lot of sites are using multiple navigation items in the banner space, but this site goes a bit overboard because all of them are quite large. Rather than being smaller icons, they’re fairly obtrusive making the banner look cluttered.
Another thing that stands out on the site is the lack of “alt” tags on any of the images. It’s clear that Westly isn’t very concerned about visitors using screen readers. Alt tags are a minimal addition to make a site more accessible, but the Westly site left them behind.
Further, there are links to find out what great things Steve did for California, but clicking on them takes you to the website for the California franchise Tax Board. Rather than telling the Westly story on his own website, he drives traffic to the site for the state bureaucracy he heads up. It’s confusing to get dumped off to a state website, and raises a couple of questions about the appropriateness of such linking. Is Westly using the state site to promote his campaign agenda? He’d be better off recreating some of that content locally and citing it rather than making his official office look like an extension of his election effort.

Usability rating: 



Other than extensive use of Flash, there really isn’t a lot of technical innovation in the Westly offering. The options offered to activists looking to get involved are fairly limited and stick mostly to the “forward-to-a-friend” and eCard variety. There isn’t much behind the curtain on this site and most of the options for interacting are limited to the blog and e-mailing friends. The action center lists an option for helping to get out the vote, but once clicked, that option leads to a volunteer form and survey of what you’d like to do. Unlike Angelides, Westly offers no self-service options for those looking to call or walk on their own schedule.
The one semi-shining example of good use of technology is their leaderboard, but even that gets it only half right. The campaign has created Rally Alley to award points for action, but most points are earned for commenting on the blog or signing up a friend. Simply signing up put me just outside the top 20, and with as little as three e-mails I would move into 14th on their overall standings. Even the “leader” hasn’t broken into the second tier of activism (a “Rally Organizer”) and the point system actually encourages people to hang out online (quick points for blog comments) instead of driving them to offline action (calling, walking, writing, and so on).

Technology rating: 



Like Angelides’s site, there doesn’t seem to be a coherent message on the site.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the site is the list of the “Top 8 Reasons to Vote for Steve Westly.” Given they are the best reasons to support the candidate, I would expect them to be more prominently located, but instead, they are buried at the bottom of the home page. If I were an uninitiated visitor to the site, I would guess that Westly was a teacher, not the state controller. His issues seem to focus on education, the environment and healthcare, but I’m only guessing that because they’re the top three options under his issue pages. As mentioned above on the content scoring, the issues information is fairly limited as well, so even a long read of his positions doesn’t tell you much that’s useful.

Communication rating: 



This is where the site really falls down. If I had to take a guess, I’d bet that Westly’s web guy/team reports to the communications staff and doesn’t interact with their political shop very much. The site is mostly message driven, despite not having a clear message. It offers very little from a volunteer perspective.
The Internet is a powerful medium because it lets you interact based on your schedule. It’s your life on your terms, not based on the limited hours that the campaign is open for business. Having to fill out a volunteer form and then sitting around waiting to be contacted (if ever) is a waste of the time I am willing to give you. You have me when I sign up. I have registered with your system and want to be involved, but you’re going to make me wait on you. That’s really a poor customer service system. Would Amazon be where it is today if once you registered the site made you wait until a customer service rep called you back to actually take your order? It’s a poor way to do business online.
Westly could, quite easily, set up a system where his volunteers could ask for a script and a list of voters, make calls at the moment that they’re deciding to help, and report back on the result of those calls. Out-source your phone bank to people who want to get involved online. That doesn’t mean you don’t have other paid and volunteer efforts for calling, but give your online activists something to do beyond “asking a friend” to join – especially in the days leading up to an election.

Mobilization rating: 



If Angelides’ site is all substance, and little style, then Westly seems to be all style with little behind it. Westly’s site is the polar opposite of Angelides’s online effort. Angelides provides the opportunity to engage and interact, but wraps it all in an aesthetically-challenged package. Westly provides a traditional campaign offering – a limited message and ways to regurgitate it to friends, but not much that excites.
Based on nothing but their online offerings, I would hope that Angelides would win. His site offers a lot more, even if it’s hard to look at. Westly appears to be a typical top-down candidate. He’s offering the same sound bites and tired methods that used to win elections. Whether that sort of empty-suit approach will carry him to victory is unclear. What’s certain, however, is that his web presence came up lacking.
Next up, I’ll dissect the Governator’s effort and see if the big man has the goods under the hood for his re-election bid.

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