Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Democracy counts ... and thoughts about transparency

To me, democracy is important.

At one level people have fought for it. Fought to keep a style of government that may well be less than perfect but is better than a military state or dictatorship. Perhaps today’s politicians should reflect on the lives lost in various 20th century wars to keep the current system the next time they’re putting their receipts into the expenses envelopes.

Under the last BBC Charter and Agreement, six public purposes were set out. I like the phrasing of the first one when it talks about

"sustaining citizenship and civil society"

Democracy is only as good as the transparency and understanding of the process that surrounds it.

While an individual vote cast in the isolation of a polling booth is private, the process of registering to vote, candidates applying to get their name on the paper, absent/postal ballots being issued, votes being counted, should all be open and accessible. As should the process whereby elected politicians keep the hamster wheel of government spinning - whether in local councils, Stormont, Dublin, Westminster, or Brussels.

But sustaining citizenship and civil society is not just a role for a national public service broadcaster. Part of it has got to be about citizens taking an active interest in things that they’ve long taken for granted or hoped that someone else will look after.

Yesterday’s picamp was one example of mentally working through some of the issues and looking for next steps to improve accountability and engagement. But there are other practical ways to get involved.

While steering clear of public political comment is the norm for Alan in Belfast, for a while I did consider giving the European Election and the campaign shenanigans a bit of a focus on the blog: looking at the candidates, their ever-present posters, bizarre campaign strap lines and their near-complete avoidance of talking about the EU and European issues, not to mention the race to top the poll and the transfer conundrum.

After all, in an election characterised by election leaflets bearing logos for Facebook, Myspace, Bebo, Twitter, Flickr and Youtube, surely the new media coverage and opportunities would extend all the way to the count and the result declarations.

However, a polite enquiry to the Electoral Office about blogger’s access, subsequently passed onto the NIO Press Office who handle the media for these occasions came back with a polite but insistent response that new media can’t come to the party count! Apparently it’s still the domain of

“... holders of media credentials from, for example - NUJ/Broadcast/Print media”

explaining that

“I am sure you can appreciate we (NIO) don't work in isolation on matters such as this and our procedures and protocols are agreed with a number of different agencies.”

I wasn’t really that surprised. Northern Ireland’s civil institutions aren’t renowned for moving with the times - though the NI Assembly are trying hard. While it would clearly be impractical to throw open the doors to every Tom, Diana and Alan who wanted to turn up, other commercial organisations do have a policy of accrediting some applicants from non-traditional media to get the widest possible coverage of events. Not so the NIO!

Maybe it’s the parties that need to take note and request action. Perhaps they’re the ones that have started down the road of engagement leaving those supporting the democratic process still stuck in the car park?

But fear not. I’ll not have to resort to tea bag posts just yet! We’ve all had enough of that. The Electoral Commission encourages individuals and organisations to sign up as Election Observers to witness the electoral process in action and call out any problems with its operation. A process isn’t transparent unless someone’s looking at it.

It’s observing rather than reporting, and there are rules, so you’ll not find anything here that sounds like party political comment or bias, nothing that talks about voting intentions, votes cast, voting trends or turnout etc. However, over the next week and a bit there may be some posts about the smoothness of the polling process that conform to the guidelines:

Observers must ensure that all of their observations are accurate ... comprehensive, noting positive as well as negative factors, distinguishing between significant and insignificant factors and identifying patterns that could have an important impact on the integrity of the election process. Observers’ judgements must be based on the highest standards for accuracy of information and impartiality of analysis, distinguishing subjective factors from objective evidence. Observers must base all conclusions on factual and verifiable evidence and not draw conclusions prematurely.

There are three categories of observable proceedings that are specified under Section 6F of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA):

Now you’ll search a long time, but there is actually a published timetable of when the local Northern Ireland Electoral area offices will be carrying out postal ballot issuing and receipt - the key word to search for is “schedule”.

Most of the postal ballots will already be issued, though people with unexpected “late” illnesses have until tonight to register and if they qualify their ballot papers will be posted out first thing on Thursday morning. After that incoming postal votes will be processed every few days right up until late next Thursday night when the polls close.


Patrick Corrigan said...

Alan; good meeting you yesterday at PICamp.

You may not be allowed into the Euro election count, but bloggers are welcome to the NI launch of the Amnesty International global annual report tomorrow (Thursday) at QFT, 10:30am

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Got a wedding to go to instead - but I did notice your tweet earlier. Hope it goes well.