What standards should Counting Officers have to meet?

The Electoral Commission is currently consulting on its draft performance standards for Counting Officers in Great Britain, which will supplement the existing standards for Electoral Registration Officers and Returning Officers. Counting Officers are the people who administer a referendum in a particular area, much like in the London Assembly and Mayor elections the borough returning officers administer the election in their area on behalf of the London Returning Officer.

Here is the response I’ve sent in:

Dear Lindsey Taber,

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the draft performance standards for Counting Officers.

My comments are as follows:

Performance standard 1: Skills and knowledge of the Counting Officer
In order to meet the performance standard, Counting Officers have to follow instructions issued to them by the Chief Counting Officer and to be aware of the rules more generally. However, there is no requirement on a Counting Officer to follow those rules in order to meet the acceptable standard. That seems a strange omission, as surely acceptable performance is not just knowing the rules but also following them?

In addition, under evidence to support the assessment about whether or not the performance standard has been met, no reference is made to keeping records of whether any complaints (formal or informal) were made about the Counting Officer’s performance and, if so, what the outcome of those complaints were. On this basis, a Counting Officer could seriously under-perform, triggering numerous well grounded complaints from people, but this evidence would not be considered relevant as to whether or not the Counting Officer had met the standard.

Performance standard 2: Planning processes in place for a referendum
This standard places a heavy emphasis on having the correct paperwork lined up, but says little about its content. So, for example, to meet the standard a Counting Officer has to have “clearly defined objectives and success measures”. However, there is no requirement for them to be sensible objectives and measures.

This is particularly pertinent given the number of Returning Officers who, operating under similar performance standards, had plans for the May 2010 general election which were not able to cope with a historically modest increase in turnout levels. An equivalent error by a Counting Officer could result in plans that meet the performance standard despite not being able to deliver a well run referendum.

Performance standard 7: Communication of information to campaigners
One of the most frequent complaints from campaigners about Returning Officers is that they are slow to provide information which they are legally obliged to supply.

It would be better if, in order to meet this performance standard, Counting Officers are not only required to brief local campaigners (as stated) but in addition are required to respond promptly to any legitimate requests for information.

I do not have any comments on the other standards.

Best wishes,

Mark Pack
Former member, Electoral Commission’s Political Parties Panel

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