This is a copy of a letter send to John Pullinger, the new Chair of The Electoral Commission.
Dear Mr Pullinger,
We would like to offer you our congratulations on your appointment as Chair of the Electoral Commission. Your background in the ONS and House of Commons library is especially interesting to us as there is a large overlap between those organisations and Democracy Club’s work.
Democracy Club is a small community interest company that helps people understand elections and voting in the UK. Our three main services are a list of all elections taking place, a profile for every candidate and a polling station finder. We deliver these services by harnessing our expertise in the electoral system and digital delivery.
We bring together a community of non-partisan volunteers who help us collect information on candidates and elections. We work closely with the AEA, each electoral services team, national governments and the Commission to deliver the polling station finder.
Since 2015, tens of millions of voters have used our services to get answers to basic questions about their vote.
As well as delivering our own services, we have excellent working relationships with partners from national newspapers to campaigns and charities. We also have a strong partnership with the Commission through their use and support of the postcode lookup information on their own website.
Hopefully this relationship will continue to grow over your five year appointment to this position, and it’s in this spirit that we’re writing to you.
We wholeheartedly agree with your comments in your interview with the Speaker’s Committee. You emphasised that a large part of the Commission’s role was to help inform voters. You also pointed out that there are many stakeholders in electoral management and regulation and that this can sometimes create a fragmented system that needs a strong advocate.
Over the last seven years of delivering services to voters we have come up against almost all of the challenges you talked about, so it’s with that in mind that we have some suggestions and comments that you might find useful.
The Commission should deliver more digital services that help voters take part in every UK election.
We know that the most common questions before an election are “where do I vote?” and “who can I vote for?”. These questions can be answered by visiting local authorities’ websites, but can’t be easily answered centrally. Even if someone visits their local authority website, the published statutory notices often don’t answer the questions.
This matters, for two reasons; first, people are used to finding information quickly using centralised services like search engines, print or social media. Second, if these organisations want to promote the elections, they need a single place to send all their visitors.
We think the information service the Commission should provide includes: information about every election taking place, who will be on the ballot paper and where people vote. This seemingly simple information is surprisingly hard to find and often leaves voters confused and mistrustful of the system. We see this play out in the feedback we get to our services.
We have come to this position after years of working with the Commission to run these services. The online information gap is large and disproportionately affects people who don’t actively follow politics. We have helped millions of people who feel like they should vote but don’t necessarily feel like they can make an informed vote. Or simply don’t know where or how to vote.
Over the next few years the Commission will have to grapple with the issues raised in the recent Online Harms White Paper. We think that simply working to remove misinformation might not be enough. People need a trustworthy source of good information.
Delivering these services is complex and isn’t just the responsibility of the Commission, however the Commission is well positioned to address some of the underlying complexities involved. For example, collecting information from each electoral services team is time consuming. Well designed reporting and data sharing capabilities could dramatically improve this situation and we think the Commision is the only organisation that can help with this.
We are suggesting that the Commission takes our products in house and uses them as a starting point to improve the systematic delivery of these services. We have started this process through working together to collect polling station data and in some initial development work on a new API for the Commission, but there is much more work needed in this area.
In order to deliver these and other services, we think the Commission should appoint a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) to the executive team and create an in-house digital delivery team. This is for two reasons.
Firstly, digital is as important a function for the Commission as regulation, electoral administration, legal or policy. It will inform all aspects of the Commission’s proactive and reactive work over the next five years. A CDO should be charged with setting strategy around everything from the response to online harms to how reporting from parties and electoral services teams is done. The CDO role isn’t simply about improved voting information or websites. It’s about leading proactive strategies in everything from systematic collecting of voting information to policies towards social media companies.
Second, the systems used by the Commission need to support the complex nature of UK electoral law. This means that off-the-shelf or commodity software won’t always be best suited to the Commission’s needs. Third parties should be used when the requirements are standard and well known, for example when making a content management system for a website. If a third party would need to build bespoke software and fully understand electoral law in order to deliver on requirements then it’s very possible the service is best delivered by an in-house digital team.
You will hopefully be familiar with these arguments from Parliament and the ONS, as well as other recent digital initiatives starting with GOV.UK.
Our focus and knowledge is centered around voter facing information before elections. However, we suspect that all aspects of the Commission’s work would benefit from a digital team addressing some parts of their work.
To conclude: our main point is that the Commission should take on the delivery of a polling station finder and database of candidates and elections. We think delivering these services, and others will require in-house delivery capacity managed by a new chief digital officer.
We believe there is scope for the Commission to enhance the information that it currently provides to voters under section 13 of the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act (2000).
We would like to meet with you to discuss these issues and share our experiences in this space over the last few years.
Once again, congratulations on being appointed to the position and we hope to continue our excellent partnership with the Commission in the years to come.