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Tracey Lee: How Plymouth rebuilt confidence after electoral failure

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After electoral errors prevented 200 people from voting, Plymouth City Council reviewed and fixed the problems, with broader benefits for the council’s services.

 

  • Project: Electoral Services Improvement Programme
  • Objectives: To rebuild stakeholder confidence in the electoral process, delivering a successful city election in May 2018 and build capability, rigour and resilience in electoral services
  • Timescale: Timescale: June 2017 to May 2018
  • Cost to authority: Delivered within existing budgets through redeployment of staff
  • Number of staff working on project: Five FTE elections staff plus support from communications, policy and intelligence and transformation
  • Outcomes:
    • Maintained percentage of registered postal voters at 18%*
    • Voter turnout increased by 4,471 electors*
    • Restored confidence in system as evidenced by qualitative feedback from stakeholders
    • 100% accuracy of ballot paper account from polling station staff (due to training)
    • Increase in number of calls dealt with at first point of contact in our customer services centre rather than electoral services
    • Decrease in complaints from 89 in 2017 to one in 2018
    • Reduced number of clerical errors on day of poll from 45 in 2017 to five in 2018
    • Use of unique property reference number by council tax which gave us 13,000 data match results for our canvass activities, compared to 1,200 last year. This led to a cost saving of £12,300 plus overheads
    • Use of data-matching and cleansing email addresses resulted in increased response to household enquiry form from 49% in 2017 to 58% in 2018
    • Intelligent and targetted canvass led to a decrease number of properties to be door knocked from 37,000 households in 2017 to 15,000 in 2018.
    *comparison 2016 local election to 2018 local election
  • Officer contact details: Glenda Favor-Ankersen or tel 01752 398073

As both chief executive and returning officer, my experience of our general election issues in June 2017 was direct and personal. But our subsequent recovery helped me identify lessons that apply across the organisation. As a result, the council is better placed to face future problems.

The snap general election in 2017 with three parliamentary seats in Plymouth – two marginal – became a perfect storm of errors and process failure, leaving disenfranchised voters and a clear breach of trust with our electors.

For us, it was electoral services at the centre of our service failure, but its causes will be familiar as they are faced by councils up and down the country across a whole range of services.

Many will recognise the scenario: a highly-trusted, long-serving manager takes a ‘heroic’ approach to managing the service, inadvertently creating an insular culture where systems and procedures are not fully documented and are only understood by a few. There’s a national shortage of suitably experienced managers – so what happens when that manager leaves?

We sought to mitigate the risk to our electoral service by making changes in what should have been a fallow year in our city election cycle. We brought in consultants to cover roles while we tried to recruit and planned to update our outdated computer system. The chances of a general election after just two years seemed slim, having been ruled out by the prime minister.

What followed shows how a series of small but critical data errors, combined with heightened sensitivity around a snap general election, can cause a perfect storm.

But we are an organisation that learns. I was determined that our recovery would start the day after the election.

I immediately commissioned an independent investigation to help understand exactly what had caused the problems. I wrote to every single voter who contacted us with an election issue, explaining what happened in their case and inviting them to give evidence to the review. I also engaged with candidates, agents and our newly-elected MPs to understand their experience and listen to their views on improvement.

I viewed this as an opportunity to bring elections into the heart of the council and develop stronger relationships with all our stakeholders. A cross-party councillor group was formed to meet regularly with officers, following our improvement and challenging us.

A communications programme was developed to reassure our staff, councillors, voters, partners, candidates, agents and MPs that we were going to rebuild the electoral service.

I thought we would only regain people’s trust if we were open and transparent with our failings and what we would do to improve. The independent investigation report was taken to our full council, debated in public with a full webcast and shared openly with media.

The improvement programme gave us the chance to muster talent from across the organisation. It had the dual benefit of showing problems to fresh eyes and ensuring we could apply the solutions developed across our services.

Project managers, data analysts, staff managers, communications and HR staff, business continuity experts, and IT support helped take apart and rebuild our whole electoral service.

I was also clear that we needed a more robust approach to recruiting a new electoral service head given the competitive market for this key role. We actively headhunted to secure a top professional.

External challenge and review were also critical. We looked at best practice, seeking advice from other councils and the Electoral Commission. We wanted to ensure our approach to improvement was robust, so we engaged local partnerships to set up gateway reviews. We also added governance structures to hit key improvement milestones and focused on managing risk.

A strong electoral registration campaign increased our registration rate, as well as rates in previously under-represented wards. Postal voting rates remained at the same levels, despite concerns they might fall.

New videos were created jointly with the Electoral Commission so people knew their voting options. Full use was made of the commission’s products, such as the Elections for All guide and the Got 5 campaign toolkit.

 

 

Events for those thinking of becoming a councillor and for candidates and agents attracted record numbers and were welcomed as part of a more inclusive approach.

The new team, now led by an excellent head of electoral services works on a modern electoral system with rigorous data checking and quality assurance procedures.

On 3 May 2018 we delivered a successful citywide election.

But it doesn’t stop there. The lessons we have learnt are being applied across the whole council. We have reviewed and are eliminating single points of failure in other services. We are exercising our business continuity plans more than ever. We are working on a systematic process of succession planning and bringing on the next generation of talent.

Ultimately the turnaround has helped us build better relationships with other councils, our stakeholders and the local media.

And what has changed for me personally? I’ve had the opportunity to see how brilliant my staff and organisation can be. They have shown the way we work at our best: pulling together as a team, stepping up to a challenge and delivering in spades. I couldn’t be prouder.

Tracey Lee, chief executive, Plymouth City Council

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • Sounds like leadership at its best. Wish that approach and attitude were more common across the piece. Congratulations to Plymouth.

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