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Andrea Siodmok: Electoral engagement requires innovation

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On election night, I invariably settle in for a long night awaiting the counts from every part of the country. 

This May was no different, despite my area, Cornwall, not having its local election until 2021. I’m transfixed by the theatre of our democracy in action – from the Instagram Dogs at Polling Stations to Professor John Curtice’s charming all night commentary.

But more than this, I’m fascinated by the apparent simplicity, that a single pencil mark in a box can be aggregated to a collective decision at a national scale. I have a strong voice and I deeply value my right to vote. Yet I am not representative of many people who forego their vote.

Over the past few years we have seen record numbers on our electoral register. But what is vital now is that we understand who the people on the list really are – and more importantly who they are not.

So how can we reach those people who are not on the register, the people from groups who are largely under-represented? How can we ensure our democracy is both healthy and open to all?

The passion of electoral administrators for the democratic process is truly inspiring. Just up the road from me in Devon, one cold Sunday evening in February, members of Plymouth City Council’s electoral services team were demonstrating just this. They had been working at a local Soup Run to educate and inform homeless people about registering to vote. They were collaborating with shelters for the last few months with the aim of softly establishing a relationship with this under-registered community. So how did the local authority instigate the programme? They just emailed the organisation and asked if they could be involved. It’s collaborative, human-facing and entrepreneurial campaigns like these that help ensure we continue to live in a representative democracy.

Five years ago, Policy Lab was founded on the belief that government can develop better policies by being more open, more human and more collaborative. Since then we have worked on over 50 policy projects for government departments on subjects from the future of ageing to social housing.

Over the last few months we have been working for the Cabinet Office on democratic engagement, working collaboratively with the electoral community to help them remove barriers that prevent frequent movers and people who are homeless registering to vote. But we did not want to jump straight to wizzy new tech solutions. Our approach was to start with the people on the ground, to understand the barriers they face today and to reach out to those already working to improve things.

Getting the right people in the room

To do this we had to be open and collaborative, we had to be willing to test new ideas and fail, and we had to be more human centred. Without the right people in the room we wouldn’t have been able to understand the nuances in the current system and how they work for different people. We collaborated with a range of partners from the start including local authorities, charities, the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Scottish Assessors Association.

Working together we reviewed the existing evidence, developed a shared ‘challenge’ question, defined the under-represented groups that might benefit from future changes, and generated fresh ideas. The open approach built empathy between organisations and identified the levers available to change and improve the registration process.

I was struck by one observation that some people register to vote in January in order to boost their credit rating after the financial pressures of Christmas. It reminded me how important front-line knowledge is in policy-making and how real insight from different places can fuel innovation.

Test ideas

I often say it is better to fail quickly than to fail slowly. With new ideas it is not always obvious which ones will survive contact with reality. Our approach built more space to test and explore multiple avenues, prototyping a range of possibilities, before taking a step back and seeing which one worked best. Designers at Policy Lab developed a number of prototypes to test with the public and the electoral community.

For example we tested a poster campaign that had a phone number that homeless people could call to register without needing to fill in a form. When testing the idea with residents at one shelter they pointed out that any service needed to be a free phone number and that we hadn’t targeted the poster at homeless people. Such insights are obvious in retrospect, but they can be the difference between success and failure.

Beyond the usual suspects

Whilst experts from across the system accelerated our work, we also wanted to hear directly from the people affected, to get fresh perspectives and experiences from new people on the ground. To do this we have been using video ethnography; where social researchers go and spend extended periods of time with individuals to understand their motivations, attitudes and behaviours in relation to a particular policy area. For this project we followed six electoral administrators, frequent movers and homeless individuals. Plymouth’s practices are just one of many that we have captured and can share.

As part of a nationwide capability building programme Policy Lab will be making much of the research available to the electoral community. This will provide the tools for electoral administrators to design their own, tailored, approaches.

One of the great things about working in the Policy Lab has been the permission to work differently and try things out. The process of co-design gave us both confidence and genuine insights that helped identify where we could test new ideas. It also speeded things up using existing networks, to test and validate ideas.

And whilst there is still much to do, taking the principles of being open and collaborative, an experimental mindset and a focus on the human needs, has also of course, led us to find amazing people and practices already happening around the country. That’s why I’m excited to see what comes next as new practices emerge to boost national electoral engagement for 2021 and beyond.

By Dr Andrea Siodmok, deputy director of Policy Lab UK, Cabinet Office

To see the tools and research visit: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/democratic-engagement-resources

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