The Electoral Register (Here we go again)

The Irish Times today carries a story on page five which details a number of proposed changes to the management of the Electoral Register arising from the kerfuffle of the past two years about how totally buggered it is. For those of you who don’t know, I’ve written a little bit about this in the past (earning an Obsessive Blogger badge in the process donchaknow). It was just under two years ago that I opened this blog with a post on this very topic…

A number of points raised in the article interest me, if for no other reason than they sound very familiar – more on that anon. Other interest me because they still run somewhat counter to the approach that is needed to finally resolve the issue.

I’ll start with the bits that run counter to the approach required. The Oireachtas Committee has been pretty much consistent in its application of the boot to Local Authorities as regards the priority they give to the management of the Electoral Register. According to the Irish Times article, the TDs and Senators found that:

“Running elections is not a core function of local authorities. Indeed, it is not a function that appears to demand attention every year. It can, therefore, be questioned if it gets the priority it warrants under the array of authorities”

I must humbly agree and disagree with this statement. By appearing to blame Local Authorities for the problem and for failing to prioritise the management of the Electoral Register, the Committee effectively absolves successive Ministers for the Environment and other elected officials from failing to ensure that this ‘information asset’ was properly maintained. Ultimately, all Local Authorities fall under the remit of the Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government. As the ‘supreme being’ in that particular food chain, the Minister (and their department) is in a position to set policy, establish priorities and mandate adequate resourcing of any Local Authority function, from Water Services to Electoral Franchise.

The key issue is that Franchise section was not seen as important by anyone. A key information asset was not managed, no continual plans were put in place for the acquisition of information or the maintenance of information. Only when there were problems applying the information did anyone give a darn. This, unfortunately, is a problem that is not confined to Local Government and Electoral data however – a large number of companies world wide have felt the pain of failing to manage the quality of their information assets in recent times.

Failing to acknowledge that the lack of management priority was systemic and endemic within the entire hierarchy of Central and Local Government means that a group of people who probably tried to do their best with the resources assigned to them are probably going to feel very aggrieved. “The Register is buggered. It’s your fault. We’re taking it away from you” is the current message. Rather it should be “The system we were operating is broken. Collectively there was a failure to prioritise the management of this resource. The people tried to make it work, but best efforts were never enough. It needs to be replaced.”

W. Edward’s Deming advised people seeking to improve quality to ‘drive out fear’. A corollary of that is that one should not engage in blame when a system is broken unless you are willing to blame all actors in the system equally.

However, I’m equally guilty as I raised this issue (albeit not in as ‘blaming’ a tone) back in… oh 2006.:

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?

Moving on to other points that sound very familiar…

  1. Errors are due to a “wide variety of practices” within Local Authorities. Yup, I recall writing about that as a possible root cause back in 2006. Here and here and here and here and here in fact.
  2. The use of other data sources to supplement the information available to maintain the Register is one suggestion. Hmmm… does this sound like it covers the issue?
  3. 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.

    That’s from a post I wrote here on the 24th April 2006.

    And then there’s this report, which was sent to Eamon Gilmore on my behalf and which ultimately found its way to Dick Roche’s desk while he was still the Minister in the DOELG. Pages 3 to 5 make interesting reading in light of the current proposals. Please note the negatives that I identified with the use of data from 3rd party organisations that would need to be overcome for the solution to be entirely practicable. These can be worked around with sound governance and planning, but bumbling into a solution without understanding the potential problems that would need to be addressed will lead to a less than successful implementation.

  4. The big proposal is the creation of a ‘central authority’ to manage the Electoral Register. This is not new. It is simply a variation on a theme put forward by Eamon Gilmore in a Private Member’s Bill which was debated back in 2006 and defeated at the Second Stage(The Electoral Registration Commissioner Bill, 2005). This is a proposal that I also critiqued in the report that wound its way to Dick Roche… see pages 3 to 5 again. I also raise issues of management and management culture at page 11.
  5. The use of PPS numbers is being considered but there are implications around Data Protection . Hmm… let’s see… I mentioned those issues in this post and in this post.
  6. And it further assumes that the PPS Identity is always accurate (it may not be, particularly if someone is moving house or has moved house. I know of one case where someone was receiving their Tax Certs at the address they lived in in Dublin but when they went to claim something, all the paperwork was sent to their family’s home address down the country where they hadn’t lived for nearly 15 years.)

    In my report in 2006 (and on this blog) I also discussed the PPS Number and the potential for fraud if not linked to some form of photographic ID given the nature of documents that a PPS number can be printed on in the report linked to above. This exact point was referenced by Senator Camillus Glynn at a meeting of the Committee last week

    “I would not have a difficulty with using the PPS card. It is logical, makes sense and is consistent with what obtains in the North. The PPS card should also include photographic evidence. I could get hold of Deputy Scanlon’s card. Who is to say that I am not the Deputy if his photograph is not on the card? Whatever we do must be as foolproof as possible.”

    This comment was supported by a number of other committee members.

So, where does that leave us? Just under two years since I started obsessively blogging about this issue, we’ve moved not much further than when I started. There is a lot of familiarity about the sound-bites coming out at present – to put it another way, there is little on the table at the moment (it seems) that was not contained in the report I prepared or on this blog back in 2006.

What is new? Well, for a start they aren’t going to make Voter Registration compulsory. Back in 2006 I debated this briefly with Damien Blake… as I recall Damien had proposed automatic registration based on PPS number and date of birth. I questioned whether that would be possible without legislative changes or if it was even desirable. However, the clarification that mandatory registration is now off the table is new.

The proposal for a centralised governance agency and the removal of responsibility for Franchise /Electoral Register information from the Local Authorities sounds new. But it’s not. It’s a variation on a theme that simply addresses the criticism I had of the original Labour Party proposal. By creating a single agency the issues of Accountability/Responsibility and Governance are greatly simplified, as are issues of standardisation of forms and processes and information systems.

One new thing is the notion that people should be able to update their details year round, not just in a narrow window in November. This is a small but significant change in process and protocol that addresses a likely root cause.

What is also new – to an extent – is the clear proposal that this National Electoral Office should be managed by a single head (one leader), answerable to the Dail and outside the normal Civil Service structures (enabling them to hire their own staff to meet their needs). This is important as it sets out a clear governance and accountability structure (which I’d emphasised was needed – Labour’s initial proposal was for a Quango to work in tandem with Local Authorities… a recipe for ‘too many cooks’ if ever I’d heard one). That this head should have the same tenure as a judge to “promote independence from government” is also important, not just because of the independence and allegiance issues it gets around, but also because it sends a very clear message.

The Electoral Register is an important Information Asset and needs to be managed as such. It is not a ‘clerical’ function that can be left to the side when other tasks need to be performed. It is serious work for serious people with serious consequences when it goes wrong.

Putting its management on a totally independent footing with clear accountability to the Oireachtas and the Electorate rather than in an under-resourced and undervalued section within one of 34 Local Authorities assures an adequate consistency of Governance and a Constancy of Purpose. The risk is that unless this agency is properly funded and resourced it will become a ‘quality department’ function that is all talk and no trousers and will fail to achieve its objectives.

As much of the proposals seem to be based on (or eerily parallel) analysis and recommendations I was formulating back in 2006, I humbly put myself forward for the position of Head of the National Elections Office 😉

2 thoughts on “The Electoral Register (Here we go again)”

  1. “voice crying in the wilderness” seems to apply.

    Time to ask the question – why no movement on the subject? It seems likely that the main reason is that the present ‘arrangements’ enable TDs, Councillors, etc., to arrange that their people get registered and floating people don’t. That probably suits the status quo.

    As someone like yourself who has spent a lot of time on IQ and related issues, to me it is obvious why the IQ issue is critical. However, the cynic in me understands why it isn’t fixed…..

    I did ask the franchise office in Cork CoCo how you got off the register – there being quite a few people around here who are on the register but don’t live in this electoral district any more, and the nice girl who answered the phone said she had no idea…..

    Bye, Barry

  2. Barry,

    Oh dear. You’d think that they’d at least have directed you to or some dead-end like that.

    To answer your question, there are many reasons why there hasn’t been any action and most of them boil down to the priority given to information as an asset in most organisations, particularly information that is only applied every once in a while (such as every 5 years). As it’s a low priority, work practices have become fragmented, approaches and understanding of the ‘rules of the game’ have atrophied and quality has declined. The same root cause affected PPARS… local variations in work practices affected quality and delivery times. The plus side for the electoral register is that to fix the data and iron out the divergences you aren’t dealing with people’s contracts of employment (although I’m sure that the PSEU or IMPACT might argue otherwise.

    A cynical view is that it suits the politicians to have it like it is. I don’t subscribe to that view because if the register is f*cked an inaccurate then local politicos end up wearing out shoe leather chasing down voters who are gone away. What is more likely (based on my experience and the experiences of others in the IQ world) is that there is a white-knuckle fear of admitting that the problem is complex and the solutions are both simple and complex.

    Also, the real reason is that it isn’t sexy. No politician gets re-elected because he made the register better. If he opens a hospital or stops one being closed, or doodles a new logo for his Department then the ‘sexy’ factor might help his chances. It’s just like how in businesses the front-end systems and the sales people get the lions share of development budget and other resources and the ‘backoffice’ or ‘information processing’ areas are left on the hind tit because they don’t go ‘bing’ or flash things on the screen.

    That culture is changing though. But the fact that the nice girl who answered the phone to you couldn’t put her hands on a process map or website where you could get the process or forms is testament to the fact that there is still a long way to go.

    Where have you done your IQ work by the way? I’m always interested in meeting fellow survivors.

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