The Electoral Commission: 2015 UK General Election International Visitors’ Programme

Electoral Commission logo

Client: The Electoral Commission

Programme: 2015 UK General Election International Visitors’ Programme

(Delivered in London and South East, UK, 2015)

The Client

The Electoral Commission was set up under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA). The Commission is independent of Government and political parties and is directly accountable to the UK Parliament through a Committee chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons. The Commission is committed to: “serving the people of the United Kingdom, protecting and promoting democracy and putting voters first”. Its founding principles are trust, participation and no undue influence.

The problem

In recent years, the Electoral Commission has seen increasing demand from international observers wishing to visit the UK during its Parliamentary Elections. Anticipating similarly high demand ahead of the 2015 General Election, the Electoral Commission sought a partner to design, manage and deliver a programme which facilitated this type of observation whilst offering delegations the opportunity to learn about and witness first-hand electoral practice and administration in the UK. The Commission wanted the event pitched at the highest level, targeting Chief Executives and Chairpersons from Electoral Commissions around the world, as well as senior civil servants and Embassy staff.

The Commission were keen to establish a four-day International Visitors’ Programme which incorporated a conference-style background briefing day, two days of visits to constituencies of interest and a de-brief session following the event. The visits were to include the opening of the postal vote, open and close of polling stations on Election Day and entry to counting centres. The chosen contractor was required to put forward suggested constituencies with rationale behind each selection as well as design a Programme which actively encouraged colleagues from around the world to network and share best practice from their own counterpart systems.

Our actions

The international arm of Dods Training has extensive experience hosting international delegations from around the world for a range of knowledge programmes spanning various sectors. Our unrivalled connections within UK Parliament and Government as well as local Government made us the natural partner for this project, which we won through a competitive tender process.

Given the timeframe involved and the ambitious scale of the project it was fundamental to work quickly to develop the International Visitors’ Programme and make the necessary logistical arrangements. In addition to being accepted onto the International Visitors’ Programme, all participants were required to have observer accreditation issued directly by the Electoral Commission. As we were responsible for managing invites and communicating with delegates, establishing a database and dedicated inbox for the event was one of the primary tasks. This enabled us to communicate regularly and clearly with the Commission and establish any missing accreditation applications, following up directly with delegates where necessary.  

For Day One’s conference we utilised our network of specialists and experience of local venues to offer several cost-effective alternatives to the client whilst guaranteeing an expert line-up of speakers. The Commission were keen for us to extend the invitation for Day One to delegates beyond the wider four-day Programme. As such, we designed the day to operate both as a coherent and inclusive standalone conference as well as a forum for those participating in the full Visitors’ Programme to share objectives for the rest of the week. Over 85 people attended the event and heard from a range of expert speakers from academics and pollsters to Commission and Cabinet Office representatives. Guest speakers provided detailed background to election process in the UK as well as specific expectations for 2015.

Since social media was a key theme of the 2015 General Election, we incorporated this into the Programme, encouraging delegates, staff and speakers to record their experiences and share using relevant hashtags. This provided continuity throughout the week and helped generate an online forum of discussion.

Day Two centred on the opening of the postal vote at Westminster City Council. We incorporated an orientation tour led by two Dods colleagues and former UK Civil Servants, to introduce visitors to Westminster and Whitehall and explain interaction and coordination between Parliament, Government (central and local) and the effect on UK politics and voting.

Day Three offered delegates the opportunity to visit polling stations in constituencies of interest. Since this day required the most detailed logistical planning, we took the decision early on to split the delegation into smaller groups. Following consultation, we selected constituencies which would offer participants a varied and interesting day whilst simultaneously exemplifying different elements of the electoral process and highlighting geographic and political differences. We designed four separate routes heading to the North, South, East and West of London and coordinated logistics with our transport provider to ensure the most cost-effective, efficient use of time. Each route had two groups of delegates; each with a dedicated driver and Dods guide. By choosing a variety of constituencies and polling stations, we ensured delegates were exposed to different types of seats and variations in voting patterns, accessibility, administration and coordination.

Day Four consisted of an optional de-brief which was also streamed via Webinar for those unable to attend in person.

Since the Programme, in particular polling day, was logistically ambitious, strategy and planning were integral. From the outset we liaised with the client regarding their preferences in terms of planning and delivery. Devising and adhering to strict project plans ensured that everyone was working to the same deadlines and allowed us to foresee and prevent potential pitfalls. Our extensive experience in the International Team at Dods Training meant we were accustomed to hosting large, senior delegations and used to retaining flexibility and predicting the sorts of challenges associated with these types of projects.

Managing relationships with local authorities and not overstretching polling station capacity on Election Day was one of our main objectives when drawing up the proposed visits. Liaising closely with Returning Officers and Electoral Service Managers in the run-up and during the Election ensured that delegates had fruitful and informative meetings and were able to ask questions directly to relevant personnel on the day without burdening staff.

Conclusions

Almost 50 visitors representing nearly 30 countries attended the International Visitors’ Programme. It received outstanding feedback from both the client and delegates.

On Election Day itself, the Programme garnered media attention from London-based publications to BBC World Service. The project also received positive feedback from the local authorities involved in hosting and meeting with groups on Polling Day who welcomed the opportunity to discuss best practice sharing with international experts.

The Briefing day was also very well-received by those participants who attended Day One only. Delegates commented that the structure of the day had allowed learning to develop throughout and welcomed the opportunity to hear from such a variety of experts and meet with counterparts from around the world.