Voting is now open

In the first of a series of articles examining digital services, Tim Gibson explains online voter registration – a new IT system lying at the very heart of our democracy.

By Tim Gibson

22 Jul 2014

The UK’s democracy has many problems. Important among these is the fact that swathes of the population don’t exercise their right to vote – something that’s both a consequence and, less directly, a cause of the growing public disenchantment with our political leaders. In the last general election, for example, turnout was just 65%; in May’s European elections, it was a paltry 34%. 

There are many reasons behind these low figures – and some of them, at least, have their roots in our electoral system. As the Coalition Agreement was being drawn up in 2010, the Liberal Democrats inserted a referendum on the Alternative Vote system of PR. This was soundly lost: they had accepted a timetable which ensured the referendum would coincide with both continued recession, and expanding austerity. But another electoral reform has survived: the shift from household to individual voter registration.

The principle of this reform enjoys broad support. Our current system assumes that the head of the household will provide details of any resident who is eligible to vote – a paternalistic approach that is open to error and abuse, diminishing the accuracy of the government’s data and undermining confidence in the electoral register. The coalition’s solution is the Cabinet Office’s Electoral Registration Transformation Programme (ERTP), which involves moving to an Individual Electoral Registration (IER) model. But there are fears that many registered voters will disappear during the transition: back in late 2012 Wayne David MP, then shadow minister for constitutional reform, told CSW that the Cabinet Office’s approach could lead to a dip in electoral rolls in poorer and inner city areas. Any further disenfranchisement would, of course, create further disillusion – and could also have knock-on effects if the new electoral rolls are used by a future government to redraw constituency boundaries.

It is, therefore, essential that the new system makes joining the roll as easy as possible, creating the lowest possible barriers consistent with security against fraud. A key part of this accessibility is the ERTP’s online registration service, and this has now gone live.

Creating the service has demanded partnership working between the Cabinet Office, the Department for Work & Pensions, and local authorities – making it a crucial test case for the kind of collaboration that is at the heart of the public sector’s digital future. The result is an automated process that will populate the new rolls by cross-referencing councils’ electoral rolls with DWP data. Where they match, voters will be added to their local roll without the need for any action on their part. 

The process of comparing local authority data with that held by the DWP will be conducted over the Public Services Network (PSN), providing an example of how the nascent network can aid collaboration. Piers Harris, digital director of ERTP, says the use of PSN should quell fears about the security of citizen data when it’s transferred between government organisations. And besides, he says, “the transmission of data is kept to a minimum, and always takes place at an appropriate Impact Level” – meaning that it enjoys end-to-end protection on a common set of protocols. Moreover, he adds, “the information is only ever stored by the local authority, as is the case now.” In other words, the move to IER is not about the government accruing a large central database of voter information; it’s simply about ensuring the veracity of a local authority’s data, so that it has a clear picture of who is registered to vote.

In a dry run of the data-matching process last year, 78% of local authority electoral records matched the DWP database. That sits neatly within the Cabinet Office projections that 70-85% of records would match, but still leaves about 10m people who will need to register to vote from 2014 onwards. The system must also cope with the 5m or so who register each year, perhaps as a result of moving house or reaching the age of majority.

Colin Dingwall, ERTP’s programme director, explains that the online voter registration service will make this process as straightforward as possible. “We’ve developed a digital service that is accessible from a range of devices, such as smartphones, tablets and PCs,” he says. “[That makes it easy to] get on the electoral register – in fact, you can do so in two to three minutes”. Applicants have to provide identification information such as their National Insurance number and date of birth, but the hoops applicants must jump through have been kept as wide as possible.

Dingwall’s team has been running pilots ever since 2011, testing out the quality of current data; trialling new initiatives to boost the size of the electoral roll; and inviting people from all kinds of user groups to use and critique the new system. They’ve even tested out different sizes of paper for electoral registration forms. Meanwhile, they’ve been working with the Government Digital Service to help all 380 local authorities to build electoral roll IT systems capable of accepting online registrations, cross-referencing data on national insurance numbers and dates of birth, and absorbing the first swathes of data generated from the old rolls and the DWP’s information. 

Over time, the online voter registration service will save money, because it’s cheaper to process an online registration than a paper-based one. Principally, though – as Cabinet Office minister Greg Clark said when launching the service – it is about bringing “voter registration into the 21st century and [making] it easier, simpler and faster for people to register to vote.”
Theresa Grant, chief executive of Trafford Council – which has been closely involved in the ERTP – says that civil servants have tried to understand the issues on the ground, helping to ensure that the system will work in practice. “We have been well supported by the team from the Cabinet Office, who have made a real effort to engage councils and to listen to our concerns,” she says. “More importantly, they have also adapted their plans to respond to our feedback.”

At the ERTP, Harris points out that working with public and private sector partners on a complex IT project brings its own challenges: for example, he says, the online voter registration service was built using the ‘Agile’ project management methodology, whilst the four commercial suppliers responsible for the electoral management systems that store voter information largely used the more traditional ‘Waterfall’ approach. If the delivery of digital services is to be successful, he concludes, the government needs to find ways of combining the fleetness of foot of Agile with the more sequential approach to project management associated with Waterfall. In the case of Register to Vote, he adds, the solution was clear communication between stakeholders, to give the commercial partners as much visibility as possible over the ongoing development of the new service. 

The new system is already processing around 3,500 registrations per day, and the Cabinet Office is launching a national media campaign this month to drive even more traffic to the site. If it succeeds in modernising the system without leading to a dip in the number of voters registered, it will be counted a success. And in the meantime, the government has already learned a lot from the project; for in order to realise the potential of digital services, it will have to undertake a lot more collaborative projects bringing together the GDS and the departments; local and central government; and the public and private sectors. These days, technology can achieve enormous amounts – but what decides success is not the tech; it’s the teams. 

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