Saturday, 21 October 2017

960 votes - Conspiracy or Incompetence?

But only 960 did?
Photo from BE Facebook Page
For a body which boasts ~16000 members a turn out of 960 voters for a Director Election makes pretty poor reading. After all 960 is just 6% of the membership meaning that our new British Eventing "Elected Director" was backed by just ~2% of the members.

Does this matter? Probably not in normal times but with the spotlight on equestrian sport at the moment, as it faces charges around "issues of alleged elitism, self-interest, bullying and corruption", it does beg the question why was the turn out so appallingly low and how can we learn the lessons and get more people engaged in determining the future direction of their sport.

Harveywetdog looks at some of the underlying issues and lessons to be learned and ponders if in fact other forces were at work here..........................................

A poorly managed campaign?

Looking back the basis of the campaign seemed solid enough with lots of notification followed up with candidate profiles available in video and written format and publicised through BE social media outlets. Emails were sent to members explaining that voting on line would be backed up with the chance to vote in person at Burghley, Blenheim and Osberton Horse Trials. So far so good.

The campaign ran for a month so there should have been plenty of time to see how things were going and take corrective action if turnout appeared low or if the on-line campaign was not producing the expected response. Of course the fact that the campaign coincided with three or four major weekends of eventing action would have distracted attention away from it but that was predictable and should have been taken into account.

The strength of the individual on-line campaigns seemed to be largely down to the candidates although they were all given the chance to place a short publicity video on BE TV. While the videos were all different and of various levels of quality I found the fact that you had to sit through repeated advertising before getting to the candidates message frankly off putting. In some cases the advertisement felt longer than the candidates message itself!

Candidates also provided a one page statement which appeared in the Director Elections Handbook. On rereading this document with the wisdom of hindsight the layout and purpose come across as muddled and confused; from the first page it appears to merely be an invitation to the AGM and it isn't until page 5 that we get into into the candidate statements. I wonder how many people had given up with it before that?

In order to research this article I went back through the British Eventing Official Facebook Page and found evidence of a more concerted effort to raise interest in the election in the final week of the campaign; although this proved ultimately in vain it is interesting to see a comment from one of the candidates reflecting on a previous poor turnout for a Director Election and encouraging members to vote. There is also an excellent video, without the encumbrance of advertising, advising members of how and why to vote. Unfortunately it doesn't list the candidates which might have been the one thing people really needed to know. 

Feedback I've received on the Harveywetdog Facebook Page as to why members didn't vote falls into several areas, such as:

1) They didn't know about the election
2) They felt disconnected from the process as a grass roots rider
3) No effort had been made to engage with them at events
4) They were confused by the process and the choice
5) Their class of membership didn't allow them to vote
6) Not sure what the candidates do
7) No motivation or incentive to vote
8) Lack of time, too busy

These are all valid and reasonable and some require a longer term fix than could have been addressed in the month of the election. Nevertheless it should have been obvious to the powers that be after Burghley how poor the response was likely to be and they could have taken action to remedy the situation at that time.

A well managed campaign?

So having thought through what might have gone wrong with the election led my down another train of thought - did the BE Board have a specific result in mind and knew that this result would be  best served (and controlled) by engineering a low turn out.

Was this in fact indicative of the "alleged elitism, self interest and corruption" that Clare Salmon had alluded to in July 2017 playing out before our eyes?

As well as the observations of failure to act to remedy the apparent voter apathy, together with the muddled thinking and mixed messaging I've indicated above, which in this scenario would of course would be deliberate, what other factors might indicate all wasn't as it should have been. As I pointed out when I reviewed the candidate statements in August it seemed odd that (what turned out to be the winning candidate's statement) said nothing about what they would actually do if elected. Secondly this candidate decided not to provide a video statement for use on BE TV; why did they feel they didn't need to? No explanation was provided for this omission.

There is one other factor in this election that never quite stacked up for me and this was the logistics of running paper based and on-line voting in parallel. How do you avoid people voting several times and through several formats? We were told that adjudicators would check the paper votes to ensure that they were valid and compare them with the on-line votes to establish precedence. When I was imagining thousands of votes being cast this sounded like a mammoth task for somebody, especially on the final day of the election. When you realise that votes were being cast at an average rate of 34 a day, whether by design or by accident, it all sounds a lot more manageable.

As with all conspiracy theories this one has little evidence and seems unlikely; but as we all know just because you're paranoid doesn't mean the bastards aren't out to get you!

Let's hope some lessons have been learned

There are clearly still a lot of lessons to be learned on how to engage the membership with elections such as this. It appears complex on line campaigns are not the sole solution, some form of personal interaction seems to be important as well and candidates need to be prepared to meet with members at the grass root level at competitions and events. Pressing the flesh has always been an important element in the would be politicians armoury although in this case it will probably horses heads that are to be kissed rather than babies! 

The poor levels of engagement at Burghley and Blenheim needs to be thoroughly investigated (especially at Blenheim were casting a vote could have been a condition of entry into the Pavillion). Let's face it if it had been a competition to win a rug people would have been queuing out the door!

In the end you can complain about elitism and a two tier sport as much as you like but unless you're prepared to do something about it nothing will change.

My conclusions? 

Do I honestly believe that the Board of BE conspired to ensure that their chosen candidate was elected - no; do I believe BE could have done more to recognise the low turn out and do something about it - yes; do I think it would have changed the final result - who knows?

In my own assessment of the candidates in August 2017 I commented what an excellent choice we had and in the end perhaps that was the problem; faced with such a difficult choice people decided not to choose at all. 


You had your chance?
Photo from BE Facebook Page