From the Minister’s Mind…

I have just come across Dick Roche’s website (www.dickroche.com). It’s not bad as politico sites go. I was particularly interested in his post re: the Electoral Register issues. To an extent it is more telling in what it lacks than what it contains.

1)      The use of Census Enumerators or other temporary personnel to support local authorities in preparing the next Register as part of an intensive registration campaign to be conducted this summer“.

It is May now. As per my previous posts, Census Enumerators cease to be employed on the 21st of this month. I haven’t seen or heard any adverts recruiting for Electoral Register data gatherers. Irrespective of the lead times involved, recruitment of additional people to run the process is simply scrap and rework and will not deliver a sustained improvement in the quality and control of our Electoral Register. Unless the deficiencies in the processes are addressed any cleansed register will rapidly degrade in terms of its quality. Scrap and rework is not quality improvement, it is not value-adding. It is just scrap and rework – a costly exercise in standing still at best.

2)      Additional ring fenced financial resources will be made available to local authorities to update the Register“.

Excellent. Money will be available to throw at the problem. But in order for that money to be spent wisely, there must be a clear strategy across the local authorities and the Dept of Environment & Local Government as to how that money should be spent. Leadership is required. My suggestion for a quick hit:

·        Select a standard Information Quality toolkit to perform standardisation and matching within local authority datasets and match local authority Electoral registers against the register of Deaths and also the Register of marriages.

Standardisation on a single toolset allows for greater reuse of common functions (such as the standardisation of Irish addresses), the development of transferable skillsets between Local Authorities and economies of scale when negotiating with vendors.

This process can then be automated and an initial level of quality scorecarding can be put in place. However, updating the Register is only the start. It is still Scrap and Rework, albeit with some fancy toys in the mix to improve efficiencies. What is required is the expenditure of resources to identify root causes, assess and improve processes and in general conduct a root and branch overhaul of our Electoral Register processes to bring them to a standard that meets the expectations and needs of 21st Century post-Celtic Tiger Ireland.If the core processes are not addressed, everything else is just scrap and rework which will need to be redone again in a few years (if not months).

3)      Updated and consolidated guidelines to ensure all Local Authorities work to the same template

Standardisation of Information capture processes and procedures is an important first step. Reducing variation in the process is important. This is the nearest thing to a Process Improvement initiative that the Minister has mentioned thus far. But it isn’t enough. It addresses one potential root cause for the dismal level of quality in our electoral register – what are the others?? Will the consolidated guidelines make provision for people who want to update their name without moving address?

Fixing the templates without examining other root causes and reviewing the process and information architecture simply means that the scrap and rework will be better structured. Scrap and rework is non-value adding and does not improve quality in a sustainable way. Repetitive cycles of scrap and rework are costly exercises in admitting failure of governance.

Does the Minister propose here to establish a consolidated Governance Board to ‘own’ the standards around templates, toolsets, Information Architecture design etc. or is this just a memo that will be issued? If it is the former – then this is a positive step. The latter is just lip-service to Quality.

4)      An early start to be made to the local Authority Register Campaign for 2007/2008

Data-cleanse early, data-cleanse often. No matter how early you start your scrap and rework or how much time you allow for it, it remains Scrap and Rework unless there is a review of processes to remove sources of error and root causes of non-quality.

All this proposal does is push the ‘cycle time’ for an Electoral Register refresh out a bit and increase the cost of doing so. That is fine as a once-off to establish a baseline level of quality in your data, but should it become the ‘way things are done around here’ it is simply institutionalised scrap and rework.

Where are the Minister’s proposals for a strategic, long-term plan for continuous improvement of quality in the Electoral Register?

5)      “Local Authorities have been instructed to make use of relevant databases to cross check the Register; Councils in particular will be encouraged to use their own databases more effectively than they have to date;”
Cross-checking = matching. Matching of data between datasets requires an investment in tools and techniques to standardise the data and then match on name-plus-2 identifiers.

If the existing databases that the Councils have were not designed for the purposes of matching against other datasets, they may not hold sufficient data items to support a match. In addition, they may not be complete as surrogate views of reality – for example I don’t think Wexford County Council have any record of me living at my current address as my wife pays the Bin Charges and the car is in her name.

Additionally, the quality of these ‘surrogate sources’ for reality might also be questionable in terms of completeness, consistency, conformity, accuracy etc. and could lead to false positive matches or false negative matches.

Data Protection issues come into play here also and could land Councils in legal bothers if they use a data set for a purpose for which it was not provided.

Furthermore, continuous clashing of multiple data sets doesn’t improve the source processes – it is just another flavour of scrap and rework unless it is in a clear process context. Conducting these clashes using ‘traditional’ IT approaches will likely be costly and time consuming. This raises the need for a common “Second Generation” Information Quality management toolset across Local Authorities that can standardise and match across multiple data source types. There are a number of such tools on the market.

6)      “The possibility to allow local authorities access other databases to cross check the Register is now under consideration”
Access to more data does not lead inexorably to better quality Information. A clear process for what information is to be used and how is needed. Furthermore, technical issues about getting access to the data and integrating it into an Electoral Register master file would need to be considered.

Again – this raises the question of process purpose and function and the tools that would be available to Local Authorities to conduct the processes.

It smells like a Process Improvement, but unless the additional information can be used to address an identified Root Cause of process failure and Information Non-quality, it is simply information for information’s sake and would be another non value-adding form of scrap and rework.

7)      “Approximately 30,000 deaths occur each year: new arrangements to delete deceased persons from the Register have been agreed”
This is a process improvement piece that, at first glance, would address another obvious root cause of error in the Electoral Register.

What are these arrangements? Do they address the technical challenges of standardising data and matching across multiple data sets, particularly given the ‘interesting’ nature of Irish addresses?

Do the arrangements include recommendations on toolsets, techniques and processes for standardisation and matching of data?

If the arrangement is simply to share “electronic files” of data without addressing the process of making use of this information then we return to the point that access to more data does not lead inexorably to better quality Information.

8)      “An intensive information campaign will be mounted later this year”
What information will be given in this campaign? Will the Minister spend taxpayer funds educating people on an Electoral Register process that would seem to have some key deficiencies?

Will the Minister be conducting a Root Cause analysis and Process Improvement project to identify and address deficiencies in the Electoral Register process before engaging in “an intensive information campaign”? If not, then we must accept that we may simply be teaching people how to operate a broken process more efficiently.

Yes, an information campaign is required but in the absence of a review of the processes to identify and address root causes the information campaign would be unlikely to lead to significant sustained improvements in the quality of Electoral Register information.

9)      “Better ‘on-line’ facilities to help  people check the voting Register, including an additional on line facility through the Department of the Environment website”

What are the processes that would sit behind these on-line facilities? How will citizens be able to correct their Electoral Register data through these on-line facilities? How will on-line facilities serve to improve the quality of Electoral data?

One of the lessons from the Business world and initiatives such as customer relationship management (CRM) is that bolting a web front end on defective processes simply exposes the defective processes and information to your customers and the public.

There are any number of technical and detailed questions on the proposed information architecture for these on-line facilities that I could ask… but my reader’s eyes are probably glazing over a bit already…

10)  “A strengthening of the controls at polling stations at election time. New guidelines in this area will issue before the next Election”.
 The focus of quality management and quality improvement should be on building quality into the process, not inspecting defects out. While an improvement on the controls at the polling station is to be welcomed, a root and branch reform of the processes and governance for the Electoral Register would deliver more sustained quality improvements.

Catching someone personating on the day is good. But denying them the opportunity in the first place is even better. A statistical report showing the continued increase in accuracy of the register is a nicer headline than a report of the numbers of persons caught in the act of corrupting our democracy. Apart from anything else, the question people will ask is how many weren’t caught for each one that was?

The Minister pats himself on the back for his practicality, sense and realism. I question the completeness of the thinking and the long-term sustainability of any quality that would arise from his proposals. Nothing that is proposed looks to identify and eliminate root causes of error. Nothing that is proposed seems, to my reading, to amount to anything more than reactive scrap and rework.

Minister – prove me wrong.
 

Sampling of Constituency shows 90% error rate

Vote loss scandal as 90% names are ‘wrong’ (requires registration with www.unison.ie)

OK, I am taking this headline with a small pinch of salt, not having had any visibility of the methodology used, sample size taken etc. There are lies, damn lies and statistics after all. 52.5% of cats surveyed said that they knew that ;-). Also – what is the definition of “wrong” in this case?

However – if it is representative of the trend in the Register nationally then a whopping great problem exists that needs some sort of concerted plan to be put in place to address it.

My question is this… what study has been done to identify the potential root causes of this error?

One anecdotal cause I have heard about just today concerns people who are changing their names for reasons of marriage, divorce or other. The only form that is issued is a change of address form (or so I’ve been told). But if you have been co-habiting and have then married, you will not necessarily be changing address. Therefore if you opt to register in your married name (Ms. Jones becomes Mrs Smith at the same address) the process throws, for want of a better term, at total wobbly and it is possible that Ms. Jones would remain on the register while a new entry for Mrs. Smith is created.

This process probably worked fine back in pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland where people co-habited less than they do now before marriage. However it has failed to keep pace with the expectations of the Information Consumers and other actors in the process.

To the political classes… please stop playing political ping pong with this issue. Take action NOW to identify the root causes of these errors, address deficienies in process.

One good starting point would be to attend the Master Class on Information Quality that the Irish Computer Society and the IAIDQ are hosting in the RDS on Friday… http://www.ics.ie/expo/iq/index.htm

Short term actions that could be taken:

1) Invest in software (ideally a standard software tool across all Local Authorities) to clash Electoral register data with the Register of Deaths and the Register of Marriages to cut out noise and reduce the incidence of dead men voting or blushing brides voting early and often. This investment in a standard toolset could leverage economies of scale and would also standardise approaches across local authorities while supporting reuse of clean-up processes. Examples of such tools would include Informatica Data Quality (formerly Similarity Systems Athanor) -which is a IRISH made product (nice Celtic Tiger success story there).

2) Commence a root cause analysis review across ALL Local Authorities under the management of a central governance board to identify the process failures

3) Fix process gaps, introduce standardisation, amend processes, work practices, information management approaches etc. to enable the process to deliver a product that meets or exceeds expectations.

To build the business case for this work, I would call on the statistically minded politicos to work out what the cost to the State is from process failures in other areas that rely on the Electoral Register – for example the Jury Duty process – how many letters are sent to people who are dead or no longer exist at an address each year.

From the data complied by Ogra Fianna Fail in Trinity up to 90% of the spend in that downstream process could be wasted.

What is the COST to the Exchequer of doing nothing to improve the quality of these processes on a continuous basis?

The Week in Politics…

I caught some of The Week in Politics last night. The video stream of the discussion can be found here (requires RealPlayer).

What interested me was Noel Ahern, Junior Minister for the Environment (and sibling of our Prime Minister) seeking to distract attention from the electoral register fiasco by implying (please note that he didn’t actually say that it was happening) that there was nefarious activity on behalf of Sinn Fein registering people without their knowledge whilly-nilly.

Very “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for”… but unfortunately Junior Minister Ahern’s comments further highlight the need to do more than just scrap and rework our Electoral Register. If there is the potential for such abuse and manipulation of our Electoral Register then there is a further compelling case for a root and branch review of the processes for collating, maintaining and updating our Electoral Register to improve the accuracy of the register, reduce the scope for malicious abuse of the register and ensure that the information on the register meets or exceeds our expectations.

The revelation during the week that different Local Authorities were using different format templates for capturing Electoral registration data apparently came as a shock to the Minister. I would ask WHY? The report by the C&AG into the PPARS implementation cited divergences in work practices and basic formats for information capture as being a key element in the Information quality issues that contributed to the massive cost over runs there.

This is a symptom of the same issue -divergence of work practices arising from slio’d processes and an absence of co-ordinated governance and control.

The roadmap to a solution is simple – assess processes, seek root causes, use statistical data to measure and prioritise root causes, refine processes to address root causes and institute leadership and governance to ensure quality and a focus on continuous improvement of process and information quality to meet the needs and expectations of the electorate.

If certain political parties are taking advantage of control deficienies in the Electoral Register process, then that is disturbing but unsurprising. The solution is not to foist blame for the overstatement on to these parties but to refine the processes to improve the controls and quality of the processes and to protect our democracy.

 Minister Ahern… yup, them’s the droids we are looking for.

 For any media persons looking for a piece based on my posting to date – please leave a request in the comments and I will respond.

For anyone looking to learn more about Total Information Quality Management, check out the IQ Master Class on Friday 5th May at ICTEXPO

Irish Electoral Register… a reprise

OK. It looks like somebody in the Dept of the Environment is either thinking things through or reading this blog or a bit of both.

In the Dáil (Irish Parliament) yesterday the statements from the Minister Dick Roche were interesting:

  1. Local Authorities had recently been given regular access to electronic files linked with the General Register Office containing information on deaths in their areas.
    • OK – so that addresses one of the points I raised in my last post on this topic. However, do to the files that can be accessed contain sufficient information to allow Local Authorities to accurately match against their electoral register data? Access to data is half the battle. If that ‘raw material’ input to a process does not meet the needs of the process then it is worse than useless because it gives the impression of meeting a need without meeting the need.
    • Do the Local Authorities have the resources (people/technology) to manage a process of clashing these data sets? What is the process?
  2. The Minister called on Local Authorities to make a concerted effort to improve the electoral register in their areas. He stated that “updated and consolidated guidance” was being given on how to do this.
    • In an earlier post I called on the Minister to provide refreshed training to Local Authorities and to provide leadership. To an extent this is starting to happen. However, improved training and guidance on the operation of a process that is broken simply means that the broken process will be followed more accurately.
    • Admonishing the ‘workers’ is not an approach to managing Quality – Deming clearly shows this in his “Red Beads” experiment. See here for a good description of this experiment.
  3. The Minister also indicated that arrangements to delete names of the deceased…
    • This one puzzled me a bit because the earlier point (1) would suggest that that was already being done? Again – Access to data does not equal Information until the data is acted upon through some process. tsk tsk Minister – those are exactly the droids we are looking for!
  4. A proposed Information Campaign was mooted by the Minister
    • Again this is something that I’ve been pushing for in most of my posts on this topic – Deming advises managers to ‘invest in training’.
    • However, training people in a defective process is not likely to improve the quality of the final deliverable. What is broken Minister? What needs to be done differently to improve the process – I refer you back to the Red Beads. If the process is set up in a way that does not ‘build quality in’ then no amount of incentivisation or training will improve the quality of the outputs of that process.
  5. The use of Enumerators in the short term seems to be getting pushed off the agenda
    • Obviously somebody has realised that there will be a lot less enumerators after the 21st of May.
    • The preparation of the next Register for 2007/2008 is being mooted as a time for their deployment – this is good. It gives time to fix the rest of the processes that may be broken and get a sound understanding of the root causes so that once the register is cleaned to a baseline level of completeness and accuracy the ‘data drift’ can be controlled to prevent the current need for a total scrap and rework of the register.
    • The fact that an early start will be taken is also commendable… however starting without first looking at the processes that have produced this level of non-quality (10% to 20% of the population – a large error no matter what way you cut it).

The Minister resisted calls for a Watchdog organisation as requested by the Labour party. Now, at the risk of being hung drawn and quartered by my family…. I agree with the Minister. A new organisation is not needed.

However I disagree with the Minister’s dismissal of a need to change the governance model. The ‘stovepiped’ model that currently exists (with Local Authorities responsible for their patch) is part of the problem. A General Register of Electors managed by a centralised authority may be required to consolidate our ‘single view of voter’ and manage the issues of population mobility etc. Furthermore, a function would be required to monitor the statistical trends in the data for error trends (completeness, consistency, accuracy, breaches of business rules – like “dead men can’t vote” etc). The role of Local authorities may need to change – rather than being the ‘data owners’ they may become ‘data stewards’ responsible for the capture of information from their areas and ‘on-the-ground’ spot checks and audits for accuracy.

None of this requires a new organisation. It requries a cross functional governance model that breaks down the traditional stove-pipe view of the world. The General Register Office could be the ‘owner’ of a centralised Electoral Register. The CSO could provide the analysis and measurement function. The Dept of the Environment could perform the co-ordination function with representation at a steering board from Local Authorities and personnel skilled in Information Quality Management principles.

So I call on the Minister..

  1. If your department has been reading my blog, let me know – quote me in the Dail, something to show you care.
  2. Learn from the Red Beads experiment (if you want a live demo, let me know -I’d do it for free as part of my civic duty as a citizen)
  3. Start putting in place some leadership and a clear strategy to continuously improve the processes around and ergo the quality of our Electoral Register and the governance for this critical information asset.

To Opposition TDs, please stop taking easy potshots. The low hanging fruit is easy to pick but rots quickly. Now that the Minister is setting out a longer term stall (because the quick fix isn’t feasible) the opportunity is there to start driving an Information Quality Management based approach – to ground the artillery barrages in dail debates in clear strategy and proven methodologies. And if you’ve been reading my blog… a mention in Dail dispatches would be nice!

 

Come and see Larry English, world thought leader on Information Quality Management at the ICTEXPO on the 5th of May

 

Enough beating up on the Irish Government…

Channel 4 news are reporting today that the British Home Office failed to deport over 1000 ‘non-national’ prisoners once their prison sentences had been served.

The analysis to date, it would seem, has found that key information is missing or incomplete.

What is most interesting is the Home Secretary’s stance on the whole thing.

  • It is a systemic problem
  • The processes failed to scale with an increase in volume

Under pressure from John Snow on the 7pm news, there was strong resistance about threatening people or point the blame at people.

Not a nice situation, but the focus on the process and the need to improve the process and breakdown barriers was a refreshingly mature response from a politician.

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 newaddress.ie)? 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 newaddress.ie 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 www.iaidq.org 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 http://www.tribune.ie/ (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 tuppenceworth.ie – 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?