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What's the future of the UK's Electoral Commission?

by

.. The Electoral Commission's blog post calling for responses

The Electoral Commission is the UK institution that both regulates political funding and spending, and ‘supports well run elections and referendums’.

Following the busy May elections and busier June referendum, they’re taking the opportunity to review their work and how it will or should change over the next decade.

In late August, they opened a consultation. You can see our submission below. The headers refer to the guide questions from the commission.

(Apologies for not having the time to share this earlier. We had hoped to put up a draft for comment, but ran out of time. Hopefully the review is an ongoing and open process, and we’re meeting with senior folks from the EC soon, so we can continue to feed more stuff in.)

And lastly, thanks to Tim Green for stepping in at the last minute to ensure that we met the consultation deadline!

Our response

Executive summary

  • The Electoral Commission should set standards and create tools for maintaining Open Election Data.
  • We believe that the Electoral Commission must make ongoing voter research a central part of its working culture.
  • In order to best serve its own needs, and the needs of voters and third parties, the Electoral Commission should create a new Digital Team.

1. Engagement with elections

Democracy Club believes that democracy in the UK faces a number of challenges.

  • Public trust in the electoral system may decline if voters are unable to receive the information they want quickly and easily; and if voters don’t understand what elected representatives do.
  • Voters, especially younger people, will increasingly find the lack of excellent digital services around elections unusual, because they will increasingly experience good digital services and design in all other aspects of their lives.
  • Government leaders are themselves highly familiar with their corner of the political system, and so find it hard to empathise with voters who are not. This can lead to an electoral system designed for the “perfect citizen”, rather than the vast diversity of voters that actually exists.
  • The lack of digital services for elections does not only affect ‘digital natives’. There are many potential efficiencies to be gained from better digital information concerning elections. For example, Citizens Advice Bureau or local government staff could help citizens engage with elections more easily if they have rapid access to good information. In addition, the Electoral Commission already gathers a list of elections, spending, campaign messages and party accounts in the execution of its usual regulatory role and so would benefit from sharing and shared data.

Democracy Club therefore believes that the Electoral Commission should take a more proactive role in gathering and publishing Open Election Data about elections from all public bodies who run elections in the UK.

We believe there are strong opportunities to build and use Open Election Data to allow a wide range of partners to get better information and serve different groups of people while also serving the needs of the Electoral Commission and local government.

We believe that the main challenge to the publication of Open Election Data is that it is owned at a local government level and the resource and skills do not exist equally across local authorities of the UK. We outline our proposal for a Digital Team at the Electoral Commission in a following section in part to answer this problem.

In engaging with voters, who themselves are engaging with elections, the Electoral Commission should seek to go where the voters are and work with third parties much more, while maintaining its neutrality. The Electoral Commission should chair a group that includes Twitter, Facebook, Google and other large internet organisations in the UK, each with millions of daily users and greater reach than any other form of media. (Facebook, for example, has over 25m active UK users). Each member of this group already has innovative user-facing activities around elections, and this group should work together to plan a co-ordinated set of messages to the public around elections.

2. Voter Priorities

We believe that there is a risk in making assumptions about the behaviour and priorities of voters, particularly given that most people involved in policy and administration have an above-average understanding of the political system.

We believe that the Electoral Commission must make ongoing voter research a central part of its working culture. Research today may not provide an accurate picture of voter requirements in 2020, so ongoing field research should constantly be fed back to the EC to help guide the rest of its work.

One important source of information on voter priorities that we do have is Google search data, whose top search queries around election day shed light on voter priorities. This reinforces the opportunity to work constructively with third parties such as Google. This knowledge will confirm the demand for the provision of impartial information on aspects of voting such as candidates and the location of polling stations, or will show changing voter priorities over time.

The Electoral Commission has at most three years to ensure digital infrastructure is in place to meet voters priorities before the next General Election.

3. Leading Development of Ideas and Policy

We expect that voters will increasingly expect to vote online. However, we think that the concept, while attractive, carries significant risks to the integrity of elections while carrying only marginal benefits. We thus believe that the Electoral Commission should anticipate demands for online voting by ensuring people understand the risks and evidence base for and against it.

In its capacity of monitoring campaign finance, the Electoral Commission should also build systems for real-time Open Data on political donations and loans data. This will ultimately enhance public trust in elections and the political system.

We would also support calls we expect others to make in favour of improving voter information services about democracy and the democratic process more widely, such as citizenship education for people of all ages.

Key proposal: A Digital Team for the Electoral Commission

The active role of the Electoral Commission in Open Election Data should be to set clear technical standards for the publication of pre- and post- election information. It’s right that local administrators of elections should manage most elements of their election, however this doesn’t mean they need to administer elections in isolation from each other.

The Electoral Commission should extend its guidance to local administrators to include a digital first approach. This means that local administrators should work towards using common systems that are digital and open by default. We believe this approach can improve services for non-digital service users as well, by improving the overall performance of the system.

To give a concrete example, it should be possible for the public to access all the information that goes on ballot papers at a time still useful before an election. The timetable should be driven by the voters’ and third parties’ needs rather than any specific legal timetable. To do this in a digital way means having structured Open Election Data on elections, candidates, parties (including emblems and descriptions), contested seats, boundaries and so forth. The Electoral Commission should take the role of aggregating all of these datasets to create a set of APIs and data feeds that respond quickly when elections are called, or candidates are nominated.

The origin of the data should always be the local administrators, but the Electoral Commission should trial reporting tools that help administrators to do their job. To do this the Electoral Commission should learn from other parts of the state, notably the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service (GDS) and Parliament Digital Services (PDS).

The Electoral Commission should create a small in-house Digital Team of researchers, designers, content designers and software developers. The Digital Team should learn about the challenges faced by everyone who interacts with the Electoral Commission by creating prototype software and iterating on it. The Electoral Commission should adopt the “Digital By Default Service Standard” written by Government Digital Service, including the service assessments and open source elements.

The Digital Team should work closely with the existing Communications functions of the Electoral Commission, but not directly for the the Communications team. Digital should not be seen only as a tool for marketing or engagement, but as a vital tool for every part of the Electoral Commission to uphold its legal duties. For example, while not mutually exclusive, it should assist local election administrators in doing their job just as much as it helps the public interact with elections.

The Digital Team should be started as a trial for six months, and should be expected to create a body of research and a set of prototypes that explore future areas. It should not assume anything about existing ways of working, or take on existing functions of the Electoral Commission in these first six months, but should be allowed the freedom to explore the questions in this consultation fully and properly.

The irregular nature of elections poses a natural barrier to the development of better services and technology, but opportunities existing in iterating around by-elections and different regional local elections.

Let us know if there’s anything we missed!