#VoteCamp at UKGovCamp 2014


Picking up who said what at Sharon and James’ workshop number 1 at City Hall

Sharon blogged about this here. There’s also a new campaign called Bite the ballot – see here. Also Anthony from DemSoc talked about ‘voting plus’ – which is something I touched on in my blogpost here. Also mentioned by him was Rock the Vote.

I mentioned my previous blogposts where Puffles and I have taken a bit of a kicking over youth engagement and social media. I had an interesting 1-2-1 with one of my local councillors, Cllr Sue Birtles where I was able to work with her to deconstruct politicians’ existing approach in South Cambridge – which looked at Cllr George Owers’ comments here. My point to Sue was that having segmented the local community, were there some groups that pointed towards being more suitable for digital engagement – eg commuters that lived near the station, vs those where face-to-face was more suitable, eg where the elderly live and congregate?

Community segmentation.

I’m posting these again because they are relevant here:

What does your community look like?
What does your community look like?
Trying to work out what sort of person might be given their level of community activism and level of internet/social media use
Trying to work out what sort of person might be given their level of community activism and level of internet/social media use

With all things vote camp, how will your approach be different for different audiences?

“Young people are used to an environment where they can complain and have it resolved immediately. The concept of voting& the systems don’t sit easily side-by-side. eg where there is a four year gap.” By Eddie Coates-Madden.

A number of people have talked about hyperlocal issues – and how local citizens can influence those decisions.

One of the things I’m interested in is people’s understanding about how key institutions work. Are some systems and processes needlessly cumbersome and complex? Given the current and new technology, is there a better way of doing local consultation?

“How do you make politics relevant to people’s everyday lives?”

A quotation from Rhammel Afflick. It’s understandable that people will not engage if they can’t see how politics has an impact on their lives, and even more so if they feel powerless to influence things. I look at some of the horrific architecture going up in South Cambridge. This is where the impact on the local community is very visible.

Engaging and inspiring materials, media and people.

Can we create/are there existing materials that introduce the citizen’s relationship with ‘the state’ – such as public services. School, hospitals, roads and bins/recycling. Are we making the links between these, the management/delivery of these and how voting is part of that oversight?

Different Qs:

“How can we encourage people to vote?

“How can we make voting make a difference?

Difference between voting being a civic duty (which is dying out, according to Tim Hughes from Involve), vs people seeing their votes making a difference.

Post-workshop thoughts

I caught up with Tim at the post-drinks gathering – the UKGovCamp tweeple are known for being able to hold their booze, unlike me.

Actually, Tim’s points above got me thinking: How do you encourage people to cast an informed vote? This picks up on one of my earliest blogposts trying to identify some of the key considerations of a public that tends not to follow party politics to the level of detail that I do – see here. To be honest, most people have better things to do than watch politics 24/7.

That being the case, how can you get the essential pieces of information to the general public to help them decide? What are the barriers that are in the way and how can they be removed? Now, I’m not talking about detailed party policy here, I’m talking the very very basics – such as who is standing and for what party? Where is their party website? How can people contact them?

“I’ve registered them! Done it! Can we go home now?”


This research by Ipsos Mori is striking – note the percentages of people that were still undecided who to vote for days before polling. Thus explaining why campaigners campaign so hard right up until the day of the election – then it’s a case of ‘getting your voters out’.

The problem I have with existing voter registration drives is that there’s little follow-through unless you are a political party activist. (In that case you want to convert registrations into votes). For non-party-political organisations, what do you do once registration is done? Unlike telly talent shows where the whole nation votes on a few candidates, in elections everything is at ward, constituency or in the European Parliament, regional level. We don’t get to pick the prime minister by phoning a premium rate number from a choice of three oxbridge males. So…what do you do, especially if you are a national non-partisan campaign? Not a lot, because few if any have the infrastructure to operate at such a local level.

How do we change this, and is there a technological solution?

Assume you’ve just convinced someone (who knows next to nothing about politics or the political system) to register to vote, and they come back and say:

“Done it! Now what?”

Serious question. A brief riposte might be along the lines of telling them they now need to decide who to vote for. But for a time-poor and awareness-limited individual, where do you start? Think of it from a very very basic perspective:

  • “You need to decide who to vote for?”
  • ‘Who is standing?’
  • “Well…you’ve got to find that out.”
  • ‘Where do I find that out?’
  • “On the different party websites.”
  • ‘Where do I find the party websites?’

…and so on, and so on. This is not to say individuals are not bright or intelligent. Part of my thinking involves unpicking the assumptions around the concept of ‘Choice’ – somethings that politicians love but don’t think through. Making an informed choice on anything involves some incredibly strong assumptions:

  1. You’ve got to have the means to exercise that choice – the franchise
  2. You’ve got to have all of the information (or know where to find it) available to exercise that choice
  3. You’ve got to have the intellectual capacity to interpret and critically analyse all of that information in front of you
  4. You’ve got to have the time to analyse all of that information in front of you.

If you are not registered or legally barred (eg for being under 18), the only formal means of influencing the system is either writing to an elected representative hoping they’ll take you seriously, or a petition.

On information, how many people know what information to look for and gather before exercising a choice? With the information in front of them, how many people have the intellectual capacity to analyse that information in front of them? Finally, how many people have the time to analyse all of the information that’s available to them that they have the capacity to analyse?

My point being that no matter how much time you have or however intellectually bright you are, you will never have all of the information available to you that could influence your decision. You will never know every single detail about the backgrounds of all of the candidates standing. You will always be making a judgement based on imperfect information. Furthermore, time constraints will always mean that you’ll never be able to process all of that information, even though you might have the intellectual capacity to do that.

So…who needs to know what?

Let’s take what I did in 2010. I found the email addresses of every single candidate standing in Cambridge. I emailed them a series of questions based on my life experiences and situation at the time. I said that my decision on who I would vote for would be based primarily on their responses. By far the two strongest responses were Julian Huppert’s and Tony Juniper‘s – of the Lib Dems and Greens respectively. The final result in Cambridge is here. Note The Greens came within a couple of hundred votes short of 4,000 across Cambridge. Unfortunately for the Greens, for a variety of reasons they have been unable to solidify that presence from a party-political perspective, even though across the city they regularly poll in total over 1,000 votes in local elections.

Why don’t people do the same as what I did?

Turn the question on its head. How can we make it very simple for people to do the same thing? This is where technology comes in.

Local councils managing the electoral process – led by returning officers

What does an ideal solution look like from a social and digital media perspective? (Casting aside for the moment all issues around digital exclusion). For me, I would like to see a tool that allows me to type in the postcode of wherever I am registered to vote that will then pull up the key details of who is standing in my area. It’s almost identical to WriteToThem.Com.

You then have a single short paragraph stating clearly the role of elected public office that the candidates are standing for. What powers are candidates seeking from you as a voter to grant them? As an MP? As a councillor? As an MEP? This bit is ***not*** about what candidates intend to do if elected. So for example, an MP is seeking the voters consent to represent them in Parliament, to scrutinise the executive and to pass new laws. This bit shouldn’t be stating what sort of laws MPs would like to pass – only that they want the power to join a body that has competency to pass them.

I’d then want a very simple template that allows people to write questions to candidates either all at once, or individually. Could there be a pop-up box with some prompts to get people thinking? Really basic ‘neutral’ ones such as ‘What do you think are the most important issues in your local area? What would you like to ask your candidates about these issues? Where can I find more information about you, your policies, your opinions and perhaps past speeches?’ Leave it to individuals to decide what those issues are.

I’d also want links to websites and social media pages – really getting candidates to think about multimedia. This is because hearing your local candidates voice and seeing them on screen could have a far greater impact than them being pictured on a badly-photocopied party faux-newspapers pointing at potholes. (We have this tool to report such things – something that can then be used to follow-up where reported items have not been resolved, with a crystal clear audit trail that public authorities cannot avoid!)

The advantage of this?

It can be done on a computer or on the move on a smartphone or a tablet. It’s simple – you just need to know your postcode? You’re prompted to use your brain but not in a particularly complex way – a very serious point given the level of adult illiteracy in the UK. Hence having links to multimedia – audio and visual – is essential as far as accessibility is concerned.

So…who needs to do what?

This is the local government open data challenge. Now, let’s get this straight:

PDF documents are data-killers.

Cambridge City Council, I’m looking at you – see here from 2013. Have a look at the statements of nominated persons. You can’t do a thing with that document other than read or print it. You cannot scrape the data to extract names or parties. There are no email addresses, no websites, no links to social or digital media pages. Therefore the likes of MySociety and friends cannot build tools that can turn all of that data into user-friendly websites and apps.

So…who needs to do what if we are going to have an impact on a national level?

I’m assuming we will need a new Act of Parliament – something that will amend the various Representation of the Peoples Acts to ensure that information on websites, electronic contacts and social/digital media sites are submitted to returning officers within nomination papers, and a requirement on returning officers to publish that information in a manner that can be processed digitally.

“So…not in time for 2015 then?”

Not unless someone in Central Government or Parliament gets their skates on to persuade ministers to table a piece of legislation to make the above changes – or changes that have that effect. You’ve also got the fun and games of trying to agree what categories of additional information you’d require. For me at this stage email and websites are sufficient. They are the essential classes of information. Social and digital media are ‘nice to haves’ but I wouldn’t want them to hold things up.

Food for thought?



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