Lessons from Survey of Elections is short-ish Insight report at over 30 pages, published this week. It pulls together various strands of research. The main one being a survey of a selection of council websites – 42 in all, all of whom subscribe to WTS and were holding local elections on May 6, in addition of course to the General Election. I was one of the reviewers who carried out the survey and contributed to the report.
There were four main elements to the research we carried out for the report. Firstly we analysed traffic to WTS council websites. We wanted to see the impact of the elections on traffic – were more people using these councils’ websites in order to access the results? We had reviewers look at the sites themselves. We looked at those Take-up service subscriber sites that were holding local elections on May 6 th – a total of 42 sites. We examined them on three separate occasions to see how well they were communicating key information – the day of the deadline for registering to vote, a couple of days before election day to see what councils were saying about getting out to vote, and the day after polling day when the results were in or coming in. The day after that we looked at how effective Google was in referring people directly to the recent election results when they typed the council name and election results into Google. We also took a different perspective and carried out some research before polling day into how easy it is for a member of the public to find out key basic information such as which constituency they live in for the general election, who their candidates are, whether there were local elections being held in their area and if so which ward they were in and who their candidates were. We used various starting points such as Google, national sites such as LocalGovDirect and the Electoral commission, and some local council sites too. We compared these with national media sites. Finally we report on the Open Election Data Project which was launched in the run-up to the elections. It aims to persuade councils to mark-up their election results in a consistent way and make them available for re-use so that for the first time, a national database of election results and election data can be compiled and accessed and used by anyone.
We used the Website Take-up Service data to look at traffic to council sites in May – this is the monthly picture. The troughs here occur at weekends and you can see that for the last three weeks the typical pattern is for Monday to be the busiest day. On the first week of May, however, when results were coming in on the Friday, that is the busiest day of the week, and indeed it is the busiest day of the whole month. Results day saw almost twice as many visitors as were seen on the Monday of that week, which is the usual peak. Preston Council reported to us that on the day of the results its traffic levels were three to four times normal and it received 180 visits from I-phones, much more than the daily average of about 20. Whilst undoubtedly some or much of the extra traffic may have been due to interest in the General Election, some further analysis of those sites that were holding local elections showed that they did attract overall over 5% more traffic in May than those who didn’t have local elections. This data shows that there was a real demand for information from council websites as people naturally turned to them as an official source of data for the elections.
In round one of our survey we looked at the 42 sites on 20 April – which was the deadline for registering to vote and for registering for a postal vote – a key date in the election process and an important part of councils’ role in the election process. For best practice we expected to see a very prominent feature on the home page, including some sort of image for impact, and an explicit reference to the date or ‘today’ to convey the imminence of the deadline. Some 34 councils (81%) had a prominent link to election information on the home page, but a few notable exceptions had either only a small link or no reference at all. Most councils did publicise the imminent deadline for registering to vote or registering for a postal vote somewhere on the site, but much fewer had it in an obvious place ie on the home page. The sites that carried a news item related to the deadline only occasionally linked the item to other key information such as the election timetable, voting, ward and candidate details. Some sites had not been updated in all relevant places. The General Election had been called but these sites were still saying that it would take place sometime before 6 June - either on some pages, or at every reference. I can’t resist naming and shaming one council – Stoke-on-Trent
Stoke had only a very small reference to the elections on its home page – ‘Election notices’. It wasn’t the only one to be poor at promoting the elections at this stage, but what made it the worst practice we came across was the fact that it didn’t carry anything any more prominent about the elections at any stage of our survey. This screenshot was actually taken on the day of the polls, on 6 th May. On results day, nothing at all was published. It was as if the elections hadn’t taken place in Stoke.
South Lakeland on the other hand had a much clearer communication of the deadlines – on 20 April it had this home page – prominent story here, key dates all communicated in the story on the home page. ‘if you’re not registered you can’t vote’
The next round of the survey took place on 4 th May, 2 days before the election, and looked chiefly at how easy it was to discover who your candidates were (for local and general elections) and how proactive the council was being in using the website to remind people about voting day and to encourage them to use their vote. Candidate information was almost always only in the form of a statutory notice in PDF, and contained lots of extraneous information such as names and addresses of agents and numerous nominators etc which obscures the basic information Finding the information relevant to a specific voter was very difficult. Candidates were usually listed by ward, but there would be no link here to a ward finder – where you could type in your postcode or street name or look at a detailed map to find out which ward you live in. Given that many boundaries had changed because of boundary reviews this was a serious omission. The same was true of establishing which parliamentary constituency you lived in Only 14 sites allowed you to look up which was your polling station – again we were looking for the facility to search by postcode, street name or a detailed map drilling down to street level. A few more sites had lists of polling stations, but it was disappointing not to see at least a list of polling stations on all sites. If they mentioned polling stations at all, most sites referred you to your polling card. By now council home pages were better reflecting the imminent elections - 83% of sites had a reasonably prominent election link on home page, but some still didn’t mention the date on the home page There were also two council standalone sites dedicated to the elections – Camden Votes and Vote Newham which scored well in this round and contained some very clear and holistic content. Newham
The Vote Newham site is an exceptionally clear piece of communication. ‘One day, three votes’ heading because they were holding a mayoral election at the same time as the local and general election. It has a very simple graphical walkthrough of the voting process, explaining the differences between the three colour coded ballot papers and how to vote in each. It’s well worth a look as it has well written content, it’s very clear. It’s still available at www.votenewham.com.
Round 3 took place the day after polling day, as results were being declared on Friday 7 May. We felt the communication of results was patchy, especially in comparison to last year’s county council elections when we saw some very impressive election graphics such as virtual council chambers, and swingometers and the like. Stoke was the only council, however, who didn’t communicate any results. Of the rest, most were populating tables as the results came in. We found in practice there was quite a wide variation in how usable the results pages were. Designed well, the simple tables could work fine, but in quite a few cases the results were difficult to access – I’ll show you why on the next slide. Under half of the councils were providing full data such as numbers of spoilt ballot papers and detailed voting statistics.
I’d like to contrast two councils’ presentation of results. Here’s Bury, showing a simple table, but it is hard work to ascertain who’s won each seat. You have to compare the numbers of votes to see who’s won. It would be very simple to highlight who has been elected but the user has to do all the work. There’s no comparison with last time – so you don’t know whether it’s a retained seat, or whether it has been won from another party.
Compare that to Preston’s results page which is exemplary I think. It uses party icons by the candidates which really stand out, there’s a column to show who’s been elected and a little summary at the bottom to show the change or not from last time. Full figures are given, including spoilt papers. I don’t imagine that it took a lot more effort to produce this really helpful and easy to use results page – just a bit more thought up front.
I want to say something about use of Twitter and Facebook. Throughout the three rounds of the survey we had questions relating to Twitter and Facebook. 19 of the 42 councils had a Twitterfeed when we carried out the first round, and 9 had a Facebook presence. In the early stages councils were pretty poor at using Twitter and Facebook to communicate anything about the elections. Only seven had tweeted about registering to vote in the elections in the past 24 hours. Some councils were actively tweeting events or unrelated news at this time rather than reminders to register to vote. Of the nine councils with a Facebook presence, only Coventry and Preston had used it to post reminders to register in the previous 24 hours. A tweet from Solihull highlighted the potential of Twitter to point people directly to the right page of the site, thus improving the customer experience. Solihull tweeted a reminder to register to vote with a link to a highly informative web page containing the forms and ward maps that the reviewer had missed when trawling through the site. So somebody following Solihull’s twitterstream might have had a much better, more efficient experience of the council than someone browsing their website to seek the same information. When it came to results, for some councils Twitter in particular came into its own. An impressive 17 sites provided a comprehensive results service via Twitter. In fact councils’ Twitterstreams were often more up-to-date than the website, which had to play catch up. The results were published faster on Twitter, and also more updates were coming through. We found the websites only made vague statements if they said anything about when results were expected, but their Twitterstream would have a series of updates about the time the count was due to start, when it had got underway, etc. Preston embedded its Twitterfeed into its results page, so website users got the benefit of the Twitter updates too.
There were also some innovations in use of social media. Edinburgh wasn’t one of the sites we surveyed, but it pulled out all the stops with an election blog and this screenshot is of its election ‘Twitter map’ where tweets of results were fed through and displayed on this map.
The third main element of the survey was looking at how easy it was for a voter to find out what constituency they were in, who the candidates were, get links more information about them, and find out what the results were last time in order to assess the ‘value’ of your vote and the possibilities of tactical voting. It was relatively easy to find this basic information on national news media such as the BBC, but official sources like Directgov, the electoral commission and local government websites made it very difficult. About My Vote ‘Where can I get info about candidates?’ The answer says: There is no official source, so you should visit candidate websites, party websites, or write to the party.
The final element of the report covered the Open Election Data Project. This was started by Chris Taggart of OpenlyLocal.com who sits on the Department of Communities’ Local Public Data Panel, on which Socitm also sits, and is supported by Socitm and LGA. The project was created to encourage local authorities to publish election results on their websites as ‘linked open data’ This means instead of every council publishing their results using arbitrary and often inaccessible formats, to use the free technical ‘fix’ called RDFa that enriches the standard HTML used in web pages to give the information structure and meaning, together with a licence to allow collection, collation and re-use by anyone at no cost. The idea is that if everyone did this, it would possible, easy even, to compile a national public database of local election results. It also gives councils the opportunity to demonstrate commitment to transparency and openness – very much the coming agenda 22 councils are listed in the report as having taken part in the project and published their results as open data marked up in this way. It’s not too late to get involved – the organisers are hoping that councils will mark up existing results pages where possible and mark up future election pages as and when they occur.
What lessons can councils draw from our survey? Section 2.5 summarises 16 key points. I’ve extracted just a few here: Ensure that all election deadlines are communicated well in advance, and feature prominently on the home page at the right times Ensure that all the relevant information is clearly signposted - home page features and news stories should link to related information in the election section Election pages should carry links to ward and polling station finders and any other useful information for voters such as current political composition and previous election results. Ensure that candidate details are clear and easily accessible – not just a statutory notice in ‘pdf’ Provide all relevant results data clearly: including turnout figures and spoilt ballot papers – if you take part in the Open Election Data Project it will help your to structure this information as well as mark it up for collection and re-use Post regular reminders as deadlines approach on your social media channels, linking directly to relevant forms and information on the website
Lessons from Survey of Elections May 2010 Helen Williams Better connected reviewer