The Higher Education Impact Agenda and Policy Change

british politicsMany academics around the globe, driven by a desire to use their accumulated expertise to improve the world, have long sought to achieve what is now known within higher education management as ‘impact’.  A new surge of activity, however, has arguably been unleashed in some countries in recent years.  Universities and academics have been pressured to prove their social, cultural and economic value in an age where many governments world-wide are engaged in austerity agendas.  This has fed into changing management structures within higher education.

Following an excellent conference at Warwick University, a special issue is due to appear in the journal of British Politics.  Here is the abstract of my contribution, the pre-print version of which is available to download here.

Abstract: Pressures have increasingly been put upon social scientists to prove their economic, cultural and social value through ‘impact agendas’ in higher education. There has been little conceptual and empirical discussion of the challenges involved in achieving impact and the dangers of evaluating it, however.  This article argues that a critical realist approach to social science can help to identify some of these key challenges and the institutional incompatibilities between impact regimes and university research in free societies.  These incompatibilities are brought out through an autobiographical ‘insider-account’ of trying to achieve impact in the field of electoral integrity in Britain.  The article argues that there is a more complex relationship between research and the real world which means that the nature of knowledge might change as it becomes known by reflexive agents.  Secondly, the researchers are joined into social relations with a variety of actors, including those who might be the object of study in their research.  Researchers are often weakly positioned in these relations.  Some forms of impact, such as achieving policy change, are therefore exceptionally difficult as they are dependent on other actors.  Strategies for trying to achieve impact are drawn out such as collaborating with civil society groups and parliamentarians to lobby for policy change.


Scotland eyes online voting: here are some tips from past pilots

The Scottish government published an ambitious programme for reforming elections this week, which should be carefully read by everyone interested in elections across the UK.

The one aspect (among many, many, many other important ones…) to catch the press was the proposal to trial electronic voting methods, such as internet voting.

Here is a quick reminder of what happened last time internet voting was trialled in the UK, in the Conversation:

One achievement for 2017, as the year comes to an end, is that it has added a new word to the English language: youthquake. The idea is that previously silent and apathetic young people have awoken to exert their democratic influence on the electoral process.

Despite a 401% increase in usage of the word, a real youthquake is yet to happen. Voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds at the 2017 general election saw an upswing from 2015, but still only half (54%) voted. Participation in other types of elections remains much lower. Huge proportions of young people are also missing from the electoral register. There is therefore still a major gap in levels of electoral participation in Britain.

Now the Scottish government has published plans to reform how Scottish parliamentary and Scottish local elections are run, including an idea that many think will bring in younger people – internet voting.

Read it in full here.

Investing in Elections Around the World

File 17-12-2017, 22 04 20Last month I was invited to Stockholm by International IDEA to take part in developing a new BRIDGE training course on the Cost of Elections (and see some proper snow…).

BRIDGE is a world-leading set of training courses that have been developed to improve the knowledge of electoral administrators around the world.

Here’s a link to the excellent write up on the International IDEA website.  Notice the really important shift in language from seeing elections as a ‘cost’ to an ‘investment’:

On 20–21 November, senior practitioners and experts attended a workshop in Stockholm aimed at developing a new Building Resources for Democracy, Governance and Elections (BRIDGE) module on the financing and budgeting of elections.

This Expert Working Group shared stories of ‘elections gone wrong’, providing the next generation of election administrators “the gift of what we wish we had known when it comes to election financing”, explained, Therese Pearce Laanela, Senior Programme Manager at International IDEA.

Participants from Australia, Lesotho, Indonesia, Canada, the United Kingdom and Namibia shared stories, highlighting the myriad of challenges that election management bodies (EMBs) face in administering elections…..

Read more here.

Internet voting and the cost of elections

fullsizeoutput_1ereport coverWebroots published a report on the Cost of Elections last month in Parliament, and I was given the honour of being part of the panel to respond to it.  The report made the argument that introducing internet voting would save money.

I had published a report earlier in the year, also called the Cost of Elections, showing that there was significant financial pressures on UK electoral administrators.

There was a really lively discussion which helps inform the debate on whether we should have internet voting in the UK and elsewhere.

This is what I said in my introductory response:

I would like thank Areeq for inviting me to speak and congratulate Webroots on the publication of the report.  This is a very timely report for three reasons.

Firstly, it is timely because there is a need to modernise the way elections are run.  Our polling place procedures essentially date back to 1872.  So, forget the internet, this is before the invention of the lightbulb, the telephone and modern football  (or at least my own football team, Norwich City didn’t exist then).  Political science research shows how making voting more convenient can increase voter participation.  There is therefore an obligation on central and local government to make the polling process as accessible as possible and change with the times.  It should be noted, however, that there isn’t that much evidence that e-voting has increased voter turnout yet (here’s my study of the UK pilots on internet voting in the 2000s).  But this could change with careful piloting and the YouGov poll in the report shows that it is popular with young people.

Secondly, it is timely because there is a need to consider how elections are funded, budgeted for and the money is spent. Earlier this year I published a report on the Cost of Elections with ClearView Research and an academic article in this month’s edition of the journal of Public Money and Management.

  • We collected data on the budgets and spending of local authorities over the period 2010-11 to 2015-16. The findings were concerning.  We found that local authorities are increasingly overbudget.  During 2015-16, electoral services were running 129 per cent over budget on average.  The introduction of individual electoral registration may have been a key cause of this since it added significantly to the costs of compiling the electoral register.
  • This has important consequences for citizens because the areas that have seen more cuts to funding are less likely to undertake a public engagement strategy and marginally less likely to undertake school outreach activities. Democratic engagement activities have therefore been a casualty of austerity. A debate about how the electoral process can be more cost-efficient is therefore welcome, but we should be ensure that this doesn’t lead to cuts in services.
  • In our work we also argue for stronger transparency in the financial accounts. We suggested that budgets should be routinely reported.  This would be helpful for local authorities to see how much similar sized councils are budgeting for and spending on elections.  It would allow under-funded areas to make the case for more money.  It would also address some concerns that have been raised about Returning Officer fees.

Thirdly, the WebRoots report is timely because technology holds much promise in helping to solve some of the problems faced.

  • I have to admit that I am sceptical as to whether internet voting will save money in the way proposed by the report because it would be essential to maintain existing services. We shouldn’t, for example, reduce the number of physical polling stations given that many people would still be reliant on them.  We don’t want to ask them to travel further – because this could hit accessibility. There are always dangers in trying to save money by providing less stationary and staff in case there is an unexpected rush in turnout as there was in the 2010 General Election which led to some voters being turned away from the polls.  If we had internet voting, we would need to have multi-channel elections.
  • But there are other ways in which technology can improve the electoral process (see the Missing Millions report…).
    • We can now register online, but we can’t check whether we are already registered online.
    • Electronic voting and counting could reduce costs of counting process without introducing security risks.
    • We could use electronic poll books to allow citizens to vote at any polling station.
    • Rather than having hundreds of electoral registers across the UK, we could have one single national register.
    • We could automate voter registration using other government records.

Costing the financial effects of internet voting is therefore a useful step forward in the debate towards a more modern electoral process, so I very much welcome the Web Roots report.  Ultimately, the value of e-voting lies, however, in whether it can improve voter turnout, convenience and citizen experience in way that is secure.  Elections can’t be run on the cheap and we should spend whatever is necessary to ensure a fair, credible and inclusive electoral process.  The democratic process is simply too important.



An Assessment of UK Electoral Integrity in 2017


How strong is the democratic integrity of UK elections? Are turnout, candidacies and participation maximised?

The Democratic Audit is a long established project which has provided regular Audits of the quality of democracy in the UK. Originally set up in 1991 by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust through two partners – Charter88 and the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex – it was always a source of inspiration to me as an undergraduate student studying at the end of the 1990s (I’m showing my age).  I even tried to set up a student version of Charter 88 – getting fellow University of York students to sign the Charter.  The concept of the democratic audit spread to other countries through International IDEA.

It’s therefore a great honour to be able to contribute towards the 2017 Audit.

Here is my assessment of the quality of elections in the UK.

The effects of public sector austerity on voter outreach

Since Finanical Crisis of 2007-8, austerity has been the dominant theme of UK public policy.  Successive governments have sought to cut back on public spending to reduce the budget deficit.  Austerity has been a key election issue, with cuts to schools and hospitals featuring prominently in election campaigns.

In this new article, with Tyrone Jervier, we set out how public sector cuts have fed into the management of the electoral process.

Here’s the abstract:

Concerns have been raised that insufficient funding has been affecting the delivery of elections in many countries. This paper presents a case study of England and Wales from 2010–2016. It demonstrates that many local authorities saw major real terms cuts and were increasingly over-budget. Those subject to cuts were less likely to undertake public engagement activities. State efforts to encourage voter participation may therefore be a casualty of austerity.

Download the article here (or ask me for a copy).