06 May 2021

X marks the spot - or does it?

Guest blog: Kate Lindley, Service Lead for Digital and Data at Socitm Advisory as part of our #DigitalPlace week.

In an age when we can bank online, shop online and get most of our household services online, it seems bizarre that we can’t yet vote in the same way. The reality is that while it sounds simple, online voting is complex to achieve. Yet while we may have to rely on traditional voting methods for now, digital does have a role to play in democratic engagement and public service more broadly. 

Today, like many other people, I’ll be exercising my hard-fought right to vote by wandering down to my local polling station and casting my ballot in pencil on card. 

And while the walk will be a welcome break from my desk, like many of us, I’ll wonder why, in an age where we can do so much with technology, we still haven’t cracked a way to make online voting a reality. 

At a time when the average turnout in local elections languishes at around 35% - meaning more than half of people who are eligible to vote choose not to, or simply can’t, we should all be asking some hard questions about how inclusive, accessible and representative our democratic system really is.  Throw into the mix the fact the younger you are the less likely you are to vote and the disparities in voting registration and turnout behaviours between people from different ethnicities, abilities and social classes and it soon becomes apparent that political disengagement is another of those ‘wicked problems’ that appears to be in the ‘too hard’ box to solve. 

Having had it drummed into me from an early age that ‘people died for my right to vote’, -personally, I find it incredible that just under 50m people in the UK use social media, but fewer than half of that number turn out to have a say on who represents them for the things that really matter. 

Or, because of social media, do we simply have other ways of exerting influence now that carry more sway than putting a cross in a box?  It’s actually quite scary when you think about it.   

I’m passionate about the benefits of digital – but it’s clear that digital is not the silver bullet here.  There’s not (yet) a way to ensure, with absolute certainty, that an online vote is verifiable, secure and private - and the techies reading this will know that while it’s easy to build a voting system like the ones you see on TV, where buttons are pressed, votes come in and are counted up, it’s far harder to build a totally secure system that validates who you are, records your vote accurately, keeps your voting preference secure and secret – and is resistant to the threat of tampering.  And even if you could build all of that, there’s then the issue of connectivity – the easiest way to stop someone voting online is to knock out the internet affecting their ability to connect.  In short, no one’s cracked the nut yet. 

There are some things we CAN think about here though, including considering the use of digital in democratic engagement more widely.  Having council meetings online during the pandemic has increased public participation and opened up the reality of local politics to many – be that for better or worse (Handforth Parish Council being a particularly memorable example!). 

I’ve been to enough Council meetings to know that they are usually attended by the few, not the many so anything that encourages greater engagement has to be a good thing.  The reality is that many of the structures and ways of working that were created for an age gone by are no longer fit for purpose in an increasingly digital world and digital has to play a role in opening up access to democracy where it’s possible to do so – and should be embraced.   

The role of councils is also changing, with many positioning themselves as enablers within the places they serve – requiring more collaborative, open and transparent ways of working across organisational boundaries and greater engagement at a community level, including in the co-creation and design of services.    Covid has brought to the fore the strengths in our communities and demonstrated that public service is not simply the preserve of councils – it’s something we ALL provide to one another.  Using digital solutions to harness and support this, to foster collaboration and to create new connections at a local level would surely be immensely powerful, building on some of the brilliant digitally enabled volunteering solutions and community sharing apps that have been created over the past 12 months for example.  

And on the voting front, if we do have to live with pencil and paper for now – using user research and service design techniques to truly involve voters and non-voters, to find ways around the edges that make at least some difference to voter turnout surely can’t be a bad thing.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.   

We’re always happy to share ideas at Socitm Advisory – and we love a challenge! Please feel free to get in touch. 

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