Sunday, May 01, 2005

Going Postal

I got my shiny new postal voting form this weekend. It shows me 5 candidates, none of whom I've ever heard of. The incumbent MP, a Labour man, is retiring and everyone else seems new to the game. The two main parties, Labour and Conservative, are just a smidgeon apart - 2,015 votes in the last election. Apparently that makes where I live the most marginal seat in the capital. The bookies, who are, let's face it, rarely wrong with these things, have the Conservative's 11-4 on to take the seat with labour 2-1 against. Having money riding on it is always a useful indicator of commitment. The problem is, though, how do I tell what these candidates can do for me, for my street and for my borough? The ever useful tells me that the previous Labour candidate, Iain Coleman was, putting it fairly, nothing more than a middling MP (and, based on the figures below, I could probably be a lot less fair):
  • Spoke in 1 debate in the last year — 632nd out of 659 MPs.
  • Asked 7 written questions in the last year — 471st out of 659 MPs.
  • Replied within 14 days to 39% of messages sent via during 2004 — 482nd out of 590 MPs. (Sample size: 79 faxes. Important Caveat.)
  • Has attended 52% of votes in parliament — 559th out of 658 MPs. (From Public Whip)
That said, he was a parsimonious chap, coming 615th in the league table of people spending money, assuming theyworkforyou ranks 1st as the highest spending. This is really the time when theyworkforyou ought to be buckling under load - the 'net savvy folks out there all ought to be checking their MPs form. They should also be checking PublicWhip. But, like I said, how do I do this for people who have no form? Based on the voting figures, a vote for anyone other than Labour or Conservative is a wasted vote. The other parties are sooooo far behind that I doubt such a vote would even register as a protest. Both the Labour candidate, Melanie Smallman, and the Conservative, Greg Hands, are councillors in the borough. The local council website doesn't have much to say about either of them: notes from the odd meeting here and there, the occasional profile. I haven't met either of them although each has sent me one of the ubiquitous form letters that say only that they know how to take a template from party HQ and recycle it. Any letter that starts "Dear Alan Mather" is on a loser for me - does the database not record my sex? So that leaves the individuals own websites perhaps? Ms Smallman's is poor, Mr Hands' pretty competent, with a comprehensive profile and details of all of his campaigns, news articles and thoughts. No blogs for either one though. Perhaps it's only MPs, rather than prospective ones who take the time to blog? Some might question whether it matters who I vote for - that it's more about the party at a General Election. My own feeling is that at least 50% of the vote is about the candidate - if I thought that the person standing was going to be no good for the local people, there'd be no point in giving them a shot at power. Even an MP of the "wrong" party can make a big difference locally. This whole postal vote scandal has been fascinating. Postal vote requests have shot up 500% and more, the story is in the press every few days and then there's a report that requests have shot up even more. It's a bit like when the Inland Revenue's tax site was down for a while a couple of years ago - more people find out that it existed and so usage went up as soon as it was back. Perhaps it's the same for postal voting? A few years ago, maybe 2002, my team suggested that we use the Government Gateway to help with postal voting. If you've registered on the Gateway for a service, whether it's Child Benefit, Self Assessment, Tax Credits, etc then we know your address - or at least the address you had when you registered (there's no requirement necessarily to keep that address up to date - and the Gateway doesn't store it, the departments do so, hopefully, they're the ones getting the updates). Using your Gateway ID to request a postal voting form, irrespective of which service you have actually registered for, would be a quick and easy way to do a simple check. Given that there's no check now, this would be a step forward. There are 6 million people registered on the Gateway now. Not enough to provide blanket coverage for postal voting but my guess is that everyone in the population is covered by at least one of the services offered by the Gateway - 8 million Self Assessment, 6 million Tax Credits, 600,000 new Child Benefit claimants a year and, of course, everyone who has ever paid National Insurance will be able to register for the Real Time Pension Forecasting service. So, sign up for one service and, as long as the address that you use for that service matches your home address (another caveat, but a small one I think - there would be some wrinkles around expats who use accountants in the UK I suspect), the postal voting form would arrive a few days afterwards. There would need to be links to all the local councils but this, in theory, could be done by email (it would take a bit longer to set up something fancier but it could be done pretty fast). Too late to do this now of course, but no reason why we couldn't pilot it ahead of the local elections next year. We could even make it a two part process where you have to come back online once you've received your postal vote, log on again and activate it using the PIN code that we send with the postal vote - to reduce the chances of interception at your address (e.g. in student accomodation or other places where more than one person lives in a single address). This would all be pretty trivial to set up. It wouldn't be perfect - userids and passwords are involved so there is some risk of compromise; perhaps having postal voting services would increase the risk of a phishing attack on the Gateway, leading to some peoples' logon profiles being compromised (but, in some ways, that's a nice problem to have - it means that there are enough users doing things of high enough value to provoke fraud attempts). It also wouldn't work for people not living at home but who had not yet registered with government their new address - today, those people can have a postal vote sent to any address. But that's the whole cause of the fraud, so closing the loop on which address postal votes can be sent to would be a big part of stopping the fraud. Those who propose checking signatures on postal votes are misleading themselves that this is any better. Banks don't do it any more, except for very large cheques and then only on a sample basis; few government departments do it on routine transactions, preferring instead to check on an exception basis (i.e. did you sign this self asssessment form sir? no! well, where's the one that you did sign and send in then?). Signature checking will slow things down, lead to many disputed claims where the signature doesn't quite match the template and, finally, will not provide additional protection - those prepared to forge postal votes will have a good go at forging signatures too. A bit of technology can solve a problem here. The technology and the processes that go alongside it are well proven, there are enough services available online to give broad coverage and increasing numbers of local authorities (who manage postal voting) are signing up, meaning that secure connectivity with them is available. What's the risk? Central government will know something about those requesting a postal vote? I don't see that as an issue - they wouldn't know what the vote turned out to be, the Gateway is regularly audited by independent experts who would see that none of the data was made available. I think this is what the Gateway was made for. When we proposed it in 2002, it was probably too early, now, it makes perfect sense. It would be a cost-effective and rapid way of improving security on postal voting - a service that many need to make use of (I will be away from home on the 5th, for instance) and still more could make use of if it were reliable and secure.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:11 pm

    What's worse than getting your sex right, is getting your sex right but finding out you've been married, divorced, or joined the feminist movement since you filled in the census form.

    I expect they took a call on it.

    Good Blog by the way.

    Kind Regards,
    Ian "Be a twat we me and you'll lose."