Friday, 3 June 2016

Barnet's Election Day Shambles: Issues, Events, A Positive Step, and A Journey

The Wrong Registers? Thousands of people disenfranchised? How the f*ck did that happen?

Election Day, Broken Barnet Town Hall, May 5th, 2016

When the investigation into Barnet's recent election day fiasco was announced, it is fair to say, there was a good deal of criticism about the choice of format, the terms of reference, and indeed, the appointment of the individual nominated to undertake the process.

It was hard to see why, in regard to such a serious failure in electoral procedure, Barnet Council would not appoint an independent body to examine the problem - or indeed, do as they had done in regard to the governance crisis in 2013, and commission a report from a lawyer. Instead of either of these options, the job was given to Mark Heath, a long serving Returning Officer, and with a good deal of experience in electoral matters - but also the current COO of Southampton Council, which of course, like Barnet, is in a long term contractual partnership with Capita.

Although Capita is not directly responsible for electoral registration, in Barnet, it is pretty much responsible for every other council function - including the delivery of postal votes - and many people felt therefore, quite reasonably, rather uncomfortable with the idea that the inquiry should be carried out by someone with close connection to our contractors. 

The story of the appointment, as reported in the local Times newspaper, upset one or two Tory councillors, who objected on twitter that it implied the inquiry was being directly carried out by another Capita run council, which was not correct, but it is not difficult to see how such a misapprehension might occur. 

And imagine the amusement, therefore, when Mr Heath's report was published, on Thursday night, and it was noted that, despite a statement by him that his appointment was made 'as an independent individual and not in any representative capacity',  the report document displayed the following heading:


Oops. This has now, Mrs Angry notices today, been amended, rather too late, to:


Last week Labour Assembly member Andrew Dismore raised a number of very serious questions in regard to the terms of reference of Mr Heath's investigation, and about his appointment. 

There were several very interesting responses from the acting CEO of Barnet, John Hooton, including the revelation that Mr Heath was the only candidate considered for the job, suggested by someone at London Councils, and that he 'was previously known' to Davina Fiore, the Assurance Director, who was also a deputy Returning Officer on the day, and of course ultimately responsible for electoral services. She was collating much of the information for Mr Heath, whose renumeration, we were told, was as yet not 'finalised'. Opportunities for the public to contribute their own evidence had been very limited.

Mr Heath, we learned, had spent only one day in Barnet, and was too busy to present his own report to councillors at the General Functions committee meeting. 

Still, here we are now, with his report to read, and enjoy. Only twenty two pages. Wonder how much that cost, per page? Now that the report is finalised, perhaps we can find out.

A discreet choice of title: 


An issue, see, not a cockup. Cockups are caused by someone, somewhere, who will have to be named. Issues are  far more complex, no one to blame, maybe even a force of nature, or an act of God. From the 'shit happens' school of thought: one to which Mrs Angry does not subscribe, it must be said.

The strict limitation of the terms of reference under which Mr Heath was obliged to work, set of course by senior management, and nominally at least by the Tory administration, meant that:

Any issues relating to the conduct of individual members of staff will need to be addressed in accordance with the Council’s HR policies and procedures and is outside the scope of this report.

In other words, his inquiry could not apportion blame. And he has kept strictly to those terms of reference, leaving officers off the hook: and also the Tory councillors whose policies have led, directly or otherwise, to the decline in standards of governance and corporate competence that made a failure of this proportion inevitable, sooner or later.

Mr Heath interviewed only five people, including one Presiding Officer. He had some information from electors, although we do not know how many, twelve Presiding Officers, and from Andrew Dismore. Plus of course any material supplied to him by the Assurance Director.

You may think that this is not a wide enough, or deep enough scope of investigation. Mrs Angry would agree with you. Although the Referendum is constantly referred to as a reason for haste, it may be that it would have been more sensible to hand over the organisation of this vote to some other body, and await the outcome of a more intensive investigation, before proceeding with an attempt to deal with the June election, as clearly whatever faults are identified now, in this short interval before June 23rd, can hardly be addressed in that period of time.

Mr Heath states himself to be very grateful for the help given to his investigation, and is touchingly thoughtful of the consequences of such involvement: 

All gave their time freely, no one was reticent or held back even though some were reliving events that they probably would have preferred not to.

Rather unnecessarily thoughtful, in Mrs Angry's view. 'Reliving events that they probably would have preferred not to'. I'll bet, but we are, after all, talking about recalling the unfolding of an administrative blunder - albeit a serious one - rather than, say, living through the dark days and nights of the Siege of Leningrad, Mr Heath, are we not?

Still, sensitivity to the feelings of senior officers of the London Borough of Broken Barnet is the leitmotif of this report, as we shall see.

Ah, yes - Section 3: Background

This section of my report provides some background to the electoral landscape, and the
situation in Barnet, and is included to assist in understanding the detail of the issues that
arose in Barnet on May 5th and my recommendations.

Now then: Mrs Angry is a great admirer of corporate 'landscapes'; that romanticised, not to say gothic view of public life, held by so many in senior management, eager to turn the mundane world of box ticking and boring administrative functions into something visionary, and beautiful, which can earn them lots of fees in consultancy work, and a leg up to a wonderful career in privatisation and local government outsourcing. 

But an electoral landscape? A dangerous exploration into the feverish miasma hanging over the marshlands of Broken Barnet, into which the intrepid Mr Heath might well disappear, if he were to go too far. But no need to worry: a day trip up from Southampton for our happy friend was always going to be pretty low risk.

A bit folllows about the role of the Returning Officer: what his duties are - or were - but ... no, Mrs Angry is still unsure what exactly those duties are, other than accept a handsome sum of money for the job, and appoint some deputies to assist him. (Did he get paid, in the end, poor old Travers, when he left, by mutual consent', in such a hurry? ) Oh, hang on, it says here ... his role was:

... to ensure that the election is administered effectively and that, as a result, the experience of voters and those standing for election is a positive one.

Now see, there we were, thinking the role of a Returning Officer was to ensure the election is compliant with the law, and protecting the rights of every citizen to exercise their vote, but, no: no, readers - it is to make sure your experience - and that of candidates, of course - is 'a positive one'. That's nice, isn't it?

So presumably, even if no one in Barnet had been able to vote, but they were all handed a John Lewis voucher instead, and sent home from the polling station with a smile on their little shiny faces, and candidates consoled with a silver service reception at the Town Hall, or an all you can eat buffet, the Returning Officer's responsibilities would have been accomplished, with satisfaction to all parties?

Hmm. There is more: 

The Returning Officer is not fettered by the Council’s normal procedures in terms of conducting the election or subject to direction or instruction from members of the Council in respect of the discharge of the responsibilities falling to the statutory office.

Not fettered by normal procedures. Clearly not. Plenty of scope for creative thinking - or indeed no thinking at all, as in this case. Anyway, do we have normal procedures, anymore, in Broken Barnet, now everything is outsourced to a contractor?

As for the line of responsibility on the day in question:

On May 5th, the management arrangements for electoral services at the Council were
through a line management arrangement which started with the Chief Executive (Returning Officer). Reporting to him was the Assurance Director, to her the Head of Electoral Services and to him the Electoral Registration Manager.

So Ms Fiore, the Assurance Director (unnamed by Mr Heath, as indeed are all the senior officers involved) was next in line to the now departed Chief Executive, Andrew Travers. (Mrs Angry misses him, you know, sitting so glumly at the committee table, 'sadness in his eyes' ...)

Training for election day staff: there is supposed to be some, apparently. There was some, which Mr Heath says was quite correct. And he points out - rather unfairly, in the circumstances, that all Presiding Officers are given a handbook, which rather implies they were in some part to blame, or, as he puts it:

This includes reference to the need for Presiding Officers to check that they have the correct equipment and supplies including (amongst other things) that they have the correct register.

What he doesn't mention here, at this point, is that POs were this time, and for the first time before an election, not able to check their boxes because Barnet had decided to hold the pickup at a place where there was no room for this to happen. 

Barnet no longer has the room to organise such events, because the hollowing out of the council has not only lost a catastrophic amount of corporate knowledge and expertise, but also facility space for large scale operations like this.

'Checking' ... here we go again: another pearl of wisdom -

It is a cardinal rule in electoral administration to "check, check and check again". Human beings make mistakes. People who work in elections offices are humans and make mistakes. We all do. But a robust regime of checking (ideally each time by different people) will reduce if not remove that risk.

(Speak for yourself, Mr Heath. Mrs Angry NEVER makes mistakes, and indeed, as we all know, is never wrong).

Of course 'checking' in this instance appears to be the sole responsibility of underlings, and Presiding Officers, and not the Returning Officer, or his number 2, or 3, or .... anyone who is a senior officer, in short.

Stuff about the Referendum, then and next: more wise words on the subject of electoral law:

The world of elections is complex. Elections will always raise issues, such as voters
believing they should have been on the register, postal voters saying they haven’t had their
postal vote etc. Such is a normal election, if there is such a thing. The Returning Officer has
powers to correct clerical errors where they arise, and of course sometimes they do.
Sometimes the issue is not of the system’s making however. So it is important to be clear
that running an election everywhere brings with it issues, conflicts and challenges.

To summarise: elections are quite difficult to run. Problems may occur. No, not problems, Mrs Angry: issues. Groundbreaking analysis. Then a bit of padding, quoting a Law Commission report, saying the same thing.

Not until Page 10 do we find a consideration of the problem - sorry: issue - which caused the election day meltdown in Barnet, that is to say, the question of The Wrong Registers ... or as Mr Heath puts it:


Printing the Wrong Registers

Ah yes: the printing of the Wrong Registers ... Who dunnit? The answer appears to be - let's blame an unnamed electoral officer who mistakenly chose the option offered by the electoral software to print registers which excluded 'standard' electors, and instead listed those who belonged to the following categories: 

New Electors                 Young Electors
Over 70 Electors           Crown Servants
Lords                               Service
Euro(local)                     Euro(Local + Euro)
Overseas Lord               Voluntary Mental
Postal Voters                 Proxy Voters

So: if, say, you were former councillor Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, on holiday, authorising your wife to vote by proxy, on your behalf, you could vote, otherwise - hard luck. 

Rather a niche selection of voters, but still: a return to Victorian values and a rejection of the notion of universal suffrage in favour of a return to voting rights only for the meritocracy. As it should be, in Broken Barnet, democracy being too good to waste on the plebs, after all. 

Well - Mr Heath, you recall, did observe:

People who work in elections offices are humans and make mistakes ...

So where was the preparation for mitigating any such risk? Apparently there was none:

4.10 The registers were then put aside ready for inclusion in the ballot boxes. They
were not checked by anyone else in the elections office.

Why not? Who was responsible for this? And why does Mr Heath not ask this question?

And then it is admitted that Presiding Officers were told that:

... they did not need to check the ballot box contents as that had been done by the staff in the elections office ...

Now the report becomes very interesting. One Presiding Officer did check, and noticed  - the night before election day - that there was something wrong. He tried to alert the election team, but the same officer who had printed the registers took the call ... the PO was told nothing was wrong.

The next morning, however, he raised the matter again - and apparently received a new register before the poll began at 7 am.

Why then, did it take so long to realise that every station had the wrong registers, with such catastrophic results, and hours lost for voting?

According to this report, an unnamed senior member of the elections team was told, at 6 am, arranged for the new register, yet somehow it took until the polls opened and other POs reported the problem, for the scale of the cockup to be noted. Why? Who was this senior officer?

What happened then appears to have been a free for all: the report merely admits that his information in regard to what individual POs decided to do, in the ensuing panic, is not 'definitive'. Clearly not. He then decides to conclude, on the basis of this inadequate information: 

6.5 No one would suggest that the impact of events of 5th May was anything but
very serious. Disenfranchising even one person is unacceptable.

Quite so.

6.6 However the scale of the issue and the impact would appear to have been in
the hundreds rather than the thousands as was initially reported.

Really? Mrs Angry begs to differ. The reports from all over the borough on the day - and one wonders if Mr Heath has bothered to look at the tweets and other social media reports from residents (and councillors) who were disenfranchised - as well as information passed on to Mrs Angry from at least one very experienced Presiding Officer, would suggest that hundreds is too low an estimate. 

More than 150 polling stations, not receiving the registers until at least 10. 30, (as stated by Mr Heath, although at the time anecdotal evidence suggested that some stations received the registers after that time) and almost no standard electors listed before then must have caused huge numbers of voters to have left the polling stations without voting, and many may not have been able, or willing, to return. 

To accept that only 500 or 600 voters were turned away, is not credible, in Mrs Angry's view - and of course it is impossible to estimate how many of those returned to vote later in the day. Many would have been unable, due to work or childcare commitments, or would have been disinclined to bother.

There is a small crumb of comfort for our departed Chief Executive - (or perhaps a quantum of SOLACE)-  who had to walk the plank, after the election day debacle. 

Andrew Travers, former Barnet CEO

As this report explains, he knew nothing about the cock up until 7.19 in the morning. No one had bothered to tell him. What about the Assurance Director, the Head of Electoral Services and the Electoral Registration Manager: when did they know? For some reason we are not told.

Not until Page 18, and 'Findings in relation to Terms of Reference', do we see mention of one of the other serious problems on the day: the inability of the Capita run call centre and phone system to cope with the emergency.

It is no secret that the Capita run call centre can barely cope with the function of connecting council departments at the best of times, as anyone who has had to complain about the appalling service can testify - continual cut offs, impossible option choices, dead ends. 

On the day itself, according to Mr Heath, who of course does not mention Capita at all, there were no problems, naturally - only 'issues'. Not just between polling staff in the stations and the electoral team, but for members of the public, who, as he puts it, so innocently:

... met recorded messages based on standard scripts which, given the circumstances did not address the issues the voters were facing and probably inflamed feelings / frustrations.

Welcome to Broken Barnet, Mr Heath. This is the experience of almost anyone trying to reach any department of the council, at any given time, and nothing to do with the fecking election, chum.

Now for some cheering news for the Electoral Commission:

As set out in my report, I believe that the Electoral Commission was involved in a timely and effective manner (as do the Commission). I also believe their advice and guidance was robust and appropriate.

(As do the Commission ... LOL: no shit ...) But: good, we like 'robust' and appropriate, here in Broken Barnet, don't we?

More worrying about the senior management, now ... How are they bearing up, under the strain? Need big hugs? 

The events on 5th May must have taken its toll on the staff (although I saw no evidence of that) ...

Erm ... Still got jobs, one assumes. Well, apart from poor old Travers, who had to carry the can for everyone else. And really one must genuinely feel sorry for the officer who made the printing error, as his line managers should have picked up any mistakes, and there were plenty of opportunities to do this, from the time of printing.

There is precious little sympathy, you will note, in this report, for the real victims of this farce - the thousands of voters who were affected by the grossly incompetent organisation of election day in Broken Barnet.

Mr Heath has some helpful suggestions for the Referendum. Check stuff. Have a system. Have a robust system, that sort of thing. 

Thank God , then, for this report, as clearly no one at Barnet could have thought of anything like that, without being prodded with a red hot poker- or paying a consultant to do the thinking for them.

And after the Referendum: the Returning Officer should then have a bit of a think about how to do things better. Again: very useful, thank you.

And at last, in conclusion, a deeply moving final paragraph, from our friend from Southampton. Mrs Angry found herself dabbing at her tear stained cheeks, after reading this: partly in pain, due to the gratingly awful lack of grammatical fluency, but of course ultimately in a paroxysm of joy, in realising something rather wonderful had come out of such an almighty fuck-up:

By definition, I have been asked to look at something that went very wrong. There was much that I saw read and heard that was good. I was particularly aware that the senior officers were very aware that something very serious had gone wrong and as a result fundamental review and change (neither of which would necessarily be easy or comfortable) was required. That is a positive step, and I wish them well on that journey.

It doesn't really matter, does it, that so many residents of Broken Barnet were disenfranchised and inconvenienced, due to 'the events of 5th May', and all those annoying 'issues'? 

Just so long as your handsomely paid senior officers, so deeply traumatised by those events, are now aware that 'something very serious' went wrong, and - yes, they have thereby taken a teeny, teetering, positive step on ... please excuse me ... a 'journey'.

This is Broken Barnet, and this is how, in the dying days of local government,  we deliver something that, from a safe distance, almost looks like democracy. 

Marvellous, isn't it?


Anonymous said...

Mrs A. I can assure you that the same fiasco is again unfolding before our very eyes, speaking to a friend of mine who was one of those people who was Robbed of her postal vote & given the most crap response! & so to my conversation tonight with the same lady , she has again requested another postal vote & instead recieving a polling card ringing the switch board & explaining that she had requested a postal vote . The operator said the polling card would not be valid! My Lady friend then said But I haven't received my postal vote ? Well looks like she again will lose her right to vote , oh well shouldn't complain it could upset our massively over paid underworked capita chosen ones !

Mrs Angry said...

I strongly recommend, Anon, that your friend make an urgent complaint in regard to her postal vote. Don't bother speaking to the electoral department: email the acting Chief Executive, who is now the Returning Officer. Or get your local councillor to sort this out.

Mrs Angry said...

'A Reader' has emailed the following comment:

"Childish of me, but I was amused by the paragraph in the conclusions in which Mr H emphasises the need for attention to detail (you know: check, check and check again).

11.5 Attention to detail is critical to good electoral administration. The recommendations which I make relating to a comprehensive review include reference to operating practices and compliance. In my view, this needs to needs to be implemented to ensure that the Council and its officers are not exposed to similar problems in the future and that the electoral system in Barnet operates with the rigour which the electorate are entitled to take as a given.

'Needs to needs to be'?

Mr Heath should know there is a thing called proof-reading - a simple system of checking to detect errors like that. Still, mistakes are made by human beings, and I wish him well on his journey, whatever the hell that is ... "

Anonymous said...

Nothing changes
Thanks for the mention
I voted in person at7am and seemed to be one of the few on the Register
As a former Chair of Audit Committee I would have had the officers up before the committee
Barnet is a disgrace
Lord Monroe Palmer

Mrs Angry said...

You may well have been the only one on the register!

As the former Chair of Audit, you are sorely missed: it was the one committee which showed any commitment to the role of scrutiny. To have replaced an opposition member as Chair with one from the Tory group was inexcusable.

The decision to address the election day shambles with an inquiry of such limited scope is part of the same culture of cynicism that has this borough in its merciless grip.

Niall said...

I registered to vote on the 6th of June with a view to voting in the referendum prior to the deadline of June 9th.

I received a letter today, dated 17th of June, stating I would not be added to the register until July 1st.

Is that even legal?

Mrs Angry said...

Niall: if that is the case, and your details were received before the deadline, I would recommend that you immediately contact the Returning Officer, ie acting Barnet CEO John Hooton, and make a complaint - his email address is ... You may also want to consider contacting the Electoral Commission.

I have to say that I have heard of several cases of problems with postal votes, polling cards etc, and it will be utterly unacceptable if yet again Barnet has failed to deal efficiently with its electoral responsibilities - but hardly surprising in view of the decision to go ahead with running the Referendum on the basis of a 22 page report whose scope was so limited.

Mrs Angry said...

I forgot to add that one resident was reportedly told last week by a member of the council's electoral department that in the absence of a polling card she should bring her passport to the polling station to enable her to vote. This is of course complete nonsense: you do not need proof of identity, but you must be on the (right) register.