Thursday 19 December 2013

The peculiar art of the Whitehall press release

Date confirmed for Individual Electoral Registration (IER), says yesterday's Cabinet Office press release: "The government has today confirmed its intention to move to IER on 10 June 2014 in England and Wales and 19 September 2014 in Scotland".

We are moving in Great Britain from household registration to individual electoral registration. That is the will of Parliament as enshrined in the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013.

How will local Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) make sure that the electoral roll includes all those eligible to vote and only those eligible to vote? It's an old question. With old answers – we've been voting for several centuries now.

There was one new answer.

How about comparing the electoral rolls with other databases like the National Insurance number database? That way EROs could be given a list of people to follow up who should be on the electoral roll but aren't, and try to prevail on them to register.

Worth trying. The Electoral Commission drafted in the Government Digital Service (GDS) to do a "data mining" or "data matching" exercise.

Whatever you want to call it, the exercise was an unmitigated failure. "The findings from this pilot do not justify the national roll out of data mining", said the Commission in their July 2013 Data mining pilot – evaluation report, first recommendation, p.8, in bold.

The Commission gave several reasons for their conclusion, including the fact that GDS put forward not only foreign people ineligible to vote as candidates for EROs to follow up but also people who were already registered and didn't need any follow-up.

They had other reasons in addition. The delays caused by GDS. GDS's procedural changes mid-stream which meant results weren't comparable. The refusal by GDS to say how much their work had cost, with the result that the Commission don't know what the pilot cost and can't estimate the cost of live running.

And that's just the second pilot. In the first pilot, GDS made it look as though 82% of residents on the electoral roll in Ceredigion were impostors. EROs need reliable data. This is the election of governments we're talking about here, both local and national.

One way and another, the Commission's conclusion seems unimpeachable. The findings from this pilot do not justify the national roll out of data mining.

And how is this matter dealt with in yesterday's press release?

The Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, the Cabinet Office Minister responsible, is quoted as saying: "Following the successful dry run of the data matching process over the summer, and the Electoral Commission’s assessment that there is no reason to delay implementation, this confirms progress towards a more modern, secure system of electoral registration".

Somehow the unmitigated failure of the second pilot has become a "successful dry run". Please see comment below, 21 December 2013, 1:19 a.m. Please see also Whitehall press release – an apology.

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