Evidence-based policies from University of East Anglia Research
Although elections are commonly run to a very high standard, concerns about the quality of electoral management have been raised in many countries. There are a number of evidence-based tactics and tools that can be introduced to improve the quality of electoral management based on University of East Anglia research. Although caution should always be exercised drawing lessons from country a to country b, policies can be transferred to improve performance, if there is close attention to local context.
It is commonly thought that an electoral management body that has formal-legal independence from government is the best form of organisation to run elections because it has the freedom to implement/propose reforms that benefit the electoral process, rather than the government of the day. While there is much to this claim, the evidence doesn’t always back that up. At least, there is much more to it than that.
One explanation for why some EMBs are successful and others are not is that it is about the leadership skills of those in charge of EMBs. Giving EMBs greater powers does help them, but those in charge have to good managers of large organisations and politically strategic. Network theory is used to support this claim in the forthcoming book on Comparative Electoral Management.
To what extent should local electoral officials be given discretion to decide how to implement elections? Should there be close central directions from a central electoral management body? Or should they have freedom to make elections work in their own locality?
Research shows that the advantages of having a system of central control and directions are that:
- they produce more consistent services
- can cause errors to be eliminated
- can educate electoral officials about new ways of working
- ease the implementation of elections.
The disadvantages are that they:
- can reduce economic efficiency in some areas
- overlook local knowledge
- staff time can be lost trying to comply with central directions, rather than respond to local concerns
Whichever system is used, the evidence is that moving from one system to the other can affect staff morale, job satisfaction and cause a souring of relations among stakeholder organisations. The process of making organisational change therefore needs to be managed carefully.
Performance benchmarking is commonly thought to have its origins in the commercial sector, where it involved ‘the search for industry best practices that lead to superior performance’. In the public sector it comes in many forms. One is the identification of best practices across units of organisations that undertake the same role. Having identified these practices, central planners can identify methods to roll out that practice through various tools.
A system of benchmarking was used by the UK Electoral Commission after 2008. This declared certain practices to be ‘best practices’ and then published information about whether every local electoral official was meeting this. Research shows that this was an effective tool for bringing about change and ensuring compliance. Unsurprisingly, local electoral officials were concerned about their personal or organisational reputation – especially among peers. What was less clear was whether these practices were ‘best practice’ in the first place.
Knowledge about the quality of electoral management is vital for problem diagnosis. One way of trying to measure the frequency of any problems, and by implication identify the necessary policy fixes, is through the regular use of poll worker surveys. By asking those on the frontline of democracy, we are provided with new information about the extent of electoral integrity. Although there are commonly many blockages in the policy process which prevent evidence based policy, poll worker surveys can make evidence based policy more likely. Surveys increase the transparency of how EMBs function, and reveal the extent and nature of any frontline problems in electoral democracy. They also increase the accountability of governments and EMBs because the public dissemination of this information can help civil society contest claims made by these actors and dislodge any myths and claims about electoral integrity peddled by rival political elites.
This argument is made in a forthcoming book chapter (with Alistair Clark) which uses a poll worker survey in Britain as an example. A poll worker survey at the 2015 general election revealed that although the election was well run, there were problems with voters being turned away from polling stations. Two-thirds of polling stations turned away at least one voter.
A key decision for legislators and electoral management boards is how to compile the electoral register and how to allow people to cast their votes. Should registration be done on a household or individual basis? Should voter ID be required at polling stations? What about postal voting?
Research shows that it is essential to consider the effects of these reforms on voter turnout as reforms such as voter ID can reduce participation, while individual electoral registration can reduce the completeness of the electoral register. Yet, they can improve vulnerabilities for electoral fraud.
Somewhat less noticed are the effects that they have on back-office business processes. Running multi-channel elections or changing registration procedures can be expensive, difficult to organise and have unintended effects such as on staff morale.
Poll Worker Recruitment and Training
Election day would not work without the help of thousands, perhaps millions of people, staffing polling stations and counting the votes. In some countries these officials are volunteers who might even be unpaid. In other countries they are state employees. Emerging research (with Alistair Clark) based on poll worker surveys are beginning to show what motivates poll workers to serve and the form of training that helps them.
Human Resource Practices
Scholarship from management studies suggests that human resource practices can have an important effect on whether employees are motivated and, in turn, organisation performance. But is there one set of ‘best’ human resource practices? Or is it context dependent? A new research project is investigating this issue. Check back here for the findings in due course.