My cunning plan…

I have pondered the electoral roll situation for the last few days. I believe I have come up with a suggestion for the Government that

a) is feasible (at least based on my wet finger estimates of what is involved)

b) doesn’t break any laws (as far as I can see)

c) might actually work (assuming we don’t let politics get in the way).

My plan is so cunningly simple that I might consider copyrighting, however as it is based on core principles of best practice in Information Quality Managment that I don’t think I’d get very far. What it doesn’t do is blow smoke up journalist’s wossits (thanks Simon at Tuppenceworth for point that out) while the deckchairs on the Titanic are rearranged in an unamusing game of ‘Find the Lady’.

My suggestion is as follows:

  1. Review the Electoral Register processes – look for the root causes of our whopping over statement
    • Is there a source of information for registered deaths to remove the dear departed from the list?
    • does the process handle the mobility of the population in a suitably robust manner? If not, how can that be addressed
    • Do people actually know the correct process to follow when they move house? If not, how can that be addressed (no pun intended)?
    • Does the current structure of Local Authorities managing Electoral Register data without a clear central authority with control/co-ordination functions (such as to build the national ‘master’ file) have any contribution to the overstatement of the Register?
      • Actually, if I’m not too busy over the coming weeks I might actually do some research and do this bit for the Government. If anybody wants it they can email me at daragh AT obriend DOT com.
  2. Modify the Processes and Information Architecture to address the Root Causes identified in 1) above.
    • What additional ‘data markers’ can/should be used to more uniquely identify people – PPS numbers may be a good candidate key, but other data markers (date of birth, mother’s maiden name etc) might also be useful to allow for matching on name + 2 other values
    • Could the Electoral Register process make use of a data source of people who are moving house (such as An Posts’s mail redirection service or How can that be utilised in an enhanced process to manage & maintain the electoral register? These are technically surrogate sources of reality rather than being ‘reality’ itself, but they might be useful.
    • Document the revised processes
    • Define new systems and database requirements based on those processes
    • Implement revised organisation frameworks (such as centralised ‘master file’ and a centralised Electoral Register governance board)
    • Change work practices in Local Authorities
    • Define stewardship roles and responsibilities for Electoral Register Data Quality
  3. Build the necessary culture, process, systems etc.
    • Update the Electoral Register Information Architecture to support the revised processes – process first then technology is the rule.
    • Invest in appropriate software tools to automate and support matching across datasets to build a “Single View of Voter” master file.
    • Invest in training of people (local authority staff, central government staff etc.) to use the processes correctly.
    • Instill a culture of quality with regards to our Election Register data
  4. Write to all individuals currently on the electoral roll (including the probable duplicates)
    • Inform them that the electoral register is being renewed in its entirety and if they do not re-register at their current address they will not be entitled to vote. Put a closing date on this well in advance of the election and the issuing of the draft register of electors for the election…
    • Re-registration could be by a paper form, an OCR scannable form or (if the processes are right) through an on-line registration function feeding the central Single View of Voter.
    • Much like the Sweepstakes – if you are not in you can’t win (hell, offer a holiday as a prize or something if necessary).
  5. Destroy the current electoral register & begin media awareness campaign
    • Once the mail out has been done, the current electoral register should be retired from use
    • TV, Radio, Internet, Information leaflets etc. should be produced to train/educate people on the process for registering to vote and maintaining your voter record if you move address.
  6. Monitor and control
    • The ‘Governance Board’ should insitute a monitoring and control check process using ‘surrogate’ data sources such as to verify the percentage of known ‘movers’ or  who are updating their electoral register details.
    • Likewise the Register of Deaths should be used to check the % of ‘ex-citizens’ who have had their details removed from the register
    • Census data might be used when available to do a full audit of the electoral register on a regular basis.
    • Where the percentage error rate for movers and/or deceased goes above a defined threshold per measurement cycle this should trigger a Root Cause Analysis review and may prompt a dump and refresh of the electoral register as proposed here.

 The key to this is clear definition of process, and an acceptance that juggling with things in a half-baked way will not deliver the desired sustainable improvement in quality and reliability. Measurement is also critical – not in the context of setting quotas or targets but from the perspective of measuring if the process is performing as we expected.

It takes a bit more cogitation time than plumping to use Enumerators to do the work (although there is a potential role for the CSO and Enumerators in an ‘audit’ capacity for the electoral register in this context). However it is based on sound principles of quality management and will deliver a sustained increase in the quality of our core Democratic Information Asset.

To learn more about Total Information Quality Management, come and see Larry English at the Irish Computer Society/IAIDQ Information Quality Master Class in the RDS on the 5th of May.

Irish Times on an electoral roll…

Carl O’Brien in the Irish Times today has the shock(?) news that the use of enumerators could to compile a new electoral register might run into some legal and Industrial Relations kerfuffles. Summary is that Local Authorities are, by law, the agencies responsible for maintaining the Electoral register. To use CSO staff would require legislative changes and, if the driving tester fiasco is anything to go by, would be scuppered by the Unions.

Of course, no body seems to have grasped the biggest, most fundamental issue… currently there are a large number of enumerators in the field being paid by the CSO. On the 22nd of May these people will cease to be employed as their contracts run only to the 21st of May.

So, unless the Government can draft and pass legislation, get Union agreement for the changes in work practices and get the temporary part-time enumerators to sign new contracts and all by the 21st of May (less than 4 weeks) then this wonderful idea is going no where fast. Snowball…. hell… in… chance are words that you can rearrange to your heart’s content.

And even if it was – it is just a tactic for institutionalised scrap and rework. Where are the proposals for root-cause analysis? Where is the action plan to improve the Electoral Register maintenance processes to prevent this issue from occuring again?

This is a fundamental Information Quality problem. ‘Re-engineering’ the data through audit or scrap and rework will not prevent this from happening again. Re-engineering the process (including investing in new technologies if appropriate), investing in training (for Local Authority staff and for the public) and introducing a process to monitor, measure and control the quality of the electoral register is a crucial step that must be taken.

The checks and balances that may have existed previously have collapsed (as discussed in Saturday’s Irish Times) and need to be replaced – the process is broken and needs to be fixed to ensure a sustained improvement in the quality of the electoral register.

Check out for details on Information Quality Management practices to learn more.

The government acts on Electoral Reg issues… or do they?

Today’s Irish Times reports that the Cabinet is examining the option of redeploying Census Enumerators back into the field once the Census is complete. Apparently the coin has dropped that the “the names on the register are very different from those of the households”. Glad to see the paper of record is only 12 months or so behind the Tribune.

“The problem facing the Government is that action will have to be taken quickly if an accurate register is to be compiled in time for the next election. The census enumerators would supply a ready-made team to deal with this.”

But buried at the bottom of the article is the comment that the CSO believes that using Census Enumerators would be “too cumbersome”. Why ever would that be?

This brings me to the first problem with this solution. Most census enumerators have been employed on short-term part-time contracts with an end-date of the date of the 21st of May or thereabouts. Many of these part-time enumerators have other jobs. Many are buggering off on holidays as soon as the grind of 3 months of late evenings driving around housing estates is done.

The anecdotal evidence I have from talking to some enumerators past and present is that they would be unlikely to do the job again even if they were offered €10,000. Come the end of the Census, there may not be a standing army of enumerators to call on.

The second problem is that a push to “get the register in order before the next election” is simply scrap and rework. What are the government proposing to do to maintain a newly cleaned electoral register?

Once it is magically cleansed and restored to order, what will stop it rapidly becoming just as bad again? What controls are to be introduced into the process (technical and/or human) to prevent the data quality from decaying? What root cause analysis will be done on the current state of the register to identify what part(s) of our democratic process have failed to keep pace with modern Ireland?

 I note that Fiona O’Malley TD (she of “I was registered twice” fame) will be tabling a motion at the PD Annual Conference to introduce a new system based on PPS numbers (similar to US Social Security Number). This is a commendable suggestion in principle – an additional data marker would make the matching of names and addresss data more accurate. The general rule is name+address+1 other.  However, the capture of more information in a process that is broken without the necessary changes to processes (people processes and technology processes).

Is there a centralised electronic register within which the occurences of duplicate PPS numbers can be identified? Would the Data Protection Commissioner permit the use of PPS numbers for this purpose? What controls would be in place to ensure the accuracy of the pps numbers input (ie to prevent miskeying or transposition errors or simply incorrect PPS numbers being used)? Would all of this be ready in time?

As one of the key problems is that people are registered at multiple addresses perhaps the use of a question on a voter registration form about where the person lived before if they have been living at their current address less than 3 years would be a useful check moving forward. However in the absence of a PPS number or other additional data marker it may not be advisable to start matching people at old addresses against other regional electoral rolls.

 More data does not necessarily mean better quality information unless the processes that create, use and maintain that information are addressed to ensure that they too are capable of delivering a quality product.

What we are seeing could be described as tactics without a strategy. Deploying enumerators into the field to do scrap and rework on the data is a tactic. Without a strategy to improve, and to continously improve what W.Edwards Deming called the “means of production” – the process by which the register is complied and managed- that tactic will never achieve, on a sustainable basis, the capacity to meet or exceed the expectations of the citizens or the political classes.

If enumerators are available then they should be utilised. However they should be utilised in the context of a clear vision and strategy for the management of electoral register data.

 Some suggestions:

1) Assess the Information Architecture for the Electoral process

    • Are all Local Authorities holding data in the same formats?
    • Do all Local Authorities understand and call core concepts in the electoral process by the same name (ie voter or citizen – are they the same thing?
    • Map the processes for Electoral data management – do they make sense?
    • If the information is held locally, ask if the architecture and processes allowed for the information to be stored centrally would the risk of problems be reduced?

 2) Conduct a Root Cause Analysis on the current situation using TQM techniques

    • A ‘fishbone’ diagram is a useful tool to identify what the contributing factors to the electoral register issues actually are.
    • Efforts can then be focussed on actual causes rather than perceived causes and efforts can be prioritised by impacts
    • ‘Speak with data’ – measure the impacts of these potential causes and prioritise.
    • Institute Leadership to breakdown barriers between areas (what Pat Rabitte has called the “traditions” that prevent solutions being implemented).

 3) Clean up the historic problems, but at the same time fix defective processes to prevent recurrence.

    • Scrap and Rework is a non value-adding activity.
    • Cost savings, efficiencies and sustainable quality come about through tackling the ‘means of production’ to build quality in rather than inspecting defects out.

What role for the CSO in all of this longer term stuff? Once the processes are addressed to build quality in and the legacy sh!te data is cleaned up, regular measurement and control of the Electoral register will be required to ensure that the processes continue to function correctly. This is statistical process control, a well proven technique. A perfect role for statisticians.

As for the obstacles to all of this, Pat Rabitte of the Labour Party is right to point a finger at tradition and the civil service mindset of silo’d thinking. However there are certain other things such as the Data Protection Act and the Statistics Act that need to be borne in mind also.

Electoral Data Quality…. a follow up bloggage.

I did a quick search on the very nice (a lot nicer than what they had a while ago, so nice I could almost excuse the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly blurb at the top) to see what sort of writing they had been doing on the electoral register issue. The link to my search results is here. There are 33 results.

When you weed out the results that relate to those bastions of functioning democracy Zimbabwe (rock on Mugabe) and the US (don’t get me started…) and other foreign turfs there are 13 stories going back to 2002 that would be of relevance.

 The VAST majority of these relate to a crisis in the electoral register – which the Tribune described as such back on the 19th of June 2005.

Here’s the links to the various stories for your delight and delication. You will need to register to read them, but it is free for 30 days.

 Fears of fraud as vote register out by 800,000 (19th of June 2005)

The flaws in the electoral register that threaten our democracy (19 JUNE 2005)  

Government must act to avoid vote fraud (19 June 2005)

Election chaos: ‘I was on register twice’, says Fiona O’Malley TD (19 June 2005)

Electoral register wide open to abuse (15th October 2005)

Electoral register out by 860,000 (26 February 2006)

Shambolic electoral register must be reformed (26 FEBRUARY 2006) 

The 800,000 opportunities for voter fraud need to be sorted now (05 March 2006)

Inaccurate register ‘suits government’, Labour TD suggests (19 March 2006)

And these are just from the FIRST Page…..

One from a later page on the search is

100,000 may not be eligible to vote (02 May 2004)

Which suggests that if you sum up the overstatement and the understatement, there is a bigger problem again!

Write/email your local Councillors and TDs (especially the ones from the government parties). Ask them what is going on. Make it clear to them that the current state of the Electoral Register does not meet or exceed your expectations as a citizen – that it is simply NOT acceptable quality and that a managed approach to ensuring the total quality of our electoral register is needed to help restore faith in our democracy.

Electoral Register in Ireland

I am a data/information quality nerd. Yes.. I admit it. However, increasingly I find that the awareness I have of Information Quality best practices gives me a different insight into items in the headlines. Recent coverage by the Sunday Tribune (an Irish sunday newspaper) about the problems in the Irish Electoral Register is one example. Simply put… there are more people registered to vote in Ireland than would meet the criteria to be voters. A lot more people. 800,000 is the estimate put forward in the media.

 This is a topic I’ve touched on before over at – albeit in a slightly different way and a long time ago.

 In the papers, the Minister in charge – Mr Dick Roche, Minister for the Environment, described the work of some local authorities (the local administrators of the Electoral Roll) as being “less than satisfactory”. My Information Quality senses pricked up at that because it belies a misunderstanding of how to ensure quality in a process, in particular an information process.  W.Edwards Deming put it best in his 14 points of Transformation for the organisation when he called on managers to institute leadership (not, as the minister has done, pass the buck down the food-chain), to instill pride in workmanship (not, as the minister has done, criticise the workers), to stop managing by slogan (not, as the minister has done here by pointing to some workers and holding them up as an example of what is to be achieved) and most importantly of all to seek constantly to improve the means of production (not ignore the problem).

 A suggestion for the Minister:

  • Take time to talk to the Local Authorities to see how they are doing the job. Seek to adopt/promote those practices that produce a ‘good’ electoral register across those areas that are less good. Do not do this on a blame & shame basis but on a collegiate basis to promote the ‘greater good’.
  • Look for variations in approach that might lead to differences in quality – standardise the process and invest in training for data administrators and the public where appropriate
  • Examine the process for managing the Electoral register. Is it still ‘fit for purpose’? Does it cater properly for such things as population mobility (it is estimated that up to 30% of the population might change address each year – I’ve move address 3 times in the last 6 years). If the process cannot handle changes of this nature (ie, it will allow a person to be registered in more than 1 location at at time) then the process does not meet the expectation of the legislature, the Constitution or the People (not to mention the Marketers who buy sections of it) and should be changed
  • Do not dismiss the issue as being a problem for other people. You are the minister in charge who sets the strategic ‘tone-at-the-top’ with regard to Local Authority matters. Your role should be to lead and provide the mechanism to co-ordinate.
  • Don’t immediately assume that the solution to this problem will be costly – most of the initial work will not require external consultancies or new IT systems. The initial steps will invariably require people to stop and look at what is being done and will require a statement that this is an important issue that the minister has a personal interest in and wants to start putting a strategy together to address.
  • Don’t keep siloing the problem – that may even be one of the reasons we have an overstatement on the electoral register of nearly 25% of the population.

The existence of ‘orphan’ records on the electoral register – people who are registered to vote in more than one location is a clear and present threat to our democracy, particularly given the declining trends in voter turn out. There is no legitmate reason why elected officials within our democracy would not want to act on this issue. The minister needs to provide leadership on this – what has he got to loose by being a leader defending the quality and integrity of our democratic processes?