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Solace blog

6th June 2016

There but for the Grace of God go I…

This article was first published on The Guardian Public Leaders Network website

I’ve always said that as a Returning Officer, running a successful election doesn’t necessarily enhance your CEO career, but running one with significant mishaps is career limiting, for sure. This is ever more the case in an environment where the extent of the failure, culpability, and accountability is measured in media volume rather than scale of failure and its relative impact.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in sparing a thought for Barnet’s Returning Officer and elections team recently when a number of voters were initially disfranchised when the wrong (as in incomplete) registers were placed in ballot boxes and polling stations opened without full registers. The matter was recovered within few hours of polls opening, but by then news and social media was in full swing. Of course, one voter disenfranchised is one too many and is every Returning Officer’s worst nightmare.

Show me the Returning Officer that hasn’t faced a hiccup in the democratic process, and I’d venture to suggest that he/she may not be that close to matters on the ground. I’ve had my fair share in the places I’ve worked with some mistakes that could have been predicted and almost always, human error. None thankfully were catastrophic or touch wood, career limiting.

As with every election, success lies in planning and checking. Plan, train, do it, check it and check it again. Have contingency plans in place. When things do go wrong, communicate, communicate and communicate some more. Say what’s gone wrong, what you are doing to fix it and what voters can do to help. Use the media and social media as your vessel of communication, helping to solve the problem, rather than adding to the problem and do it immediately. Agility and fleetness of foot are the order of the day.

So, as we are all in the throes of the UK’s largest ever referendum, make sure your plans are in place and make sure your teams have all the resources they need to deliver a successful referendum. Elections are or should be a whole Council activity. Make sure there are appropriate checks – those who do the work should not be the people that check the tasks are done correctly. Proper planning will ensure separation of duties. Plan, plan and contingency plan. Check it, check and check it again. Use the whole of the council to deliver the democratic process- it’s the Returning Officer’s right to accompany their personal responsibility and liability. And if things do go wrong, make sure you’re close enough to know immediately, act immediately and get your communication out immediately. Does your team know that you need to know, immediately?

And before anyone joins the unwise commentators who crow that failure is about a particular political philosophy or council type – just remember ‘There but for the Grace of God go I…’ (see here).

I bet I’m not the only Returning Officer who has checked the ballot of box filling/collection arrangements since Barnet. And if you haven’t done, then you should! In good time.

Here’s to a well-run, professionally delivered Euro Referendum. It’s what we do and do well. The exception is not the norm.

By Jo Miller, Chief Executive of Doncaster Council and Solace Deputy Spokesperson on Elections and Democratic Renewal