CROYDON COMMENTARY: Round after round of redundancies at the council, going back more than a decade, may have led to the shambles of the election count, according to former senior council official ROD DAVIES
Without a thorough and open review of what occurred during the conduct of Croydon’s 2022 election count, no one can state with any certainty whether the reasons for the initial delay in starting the count were due to ineptitude or to specific circumstances that delayed opening the ballot boxes and distributing the ballot papers. It may be that significant number of presiding officers arrived at Trinity with a lot of issues to be addressed.
As for the choice of Trinity School as a count venue, what other option is there in Croydon where everything is on one level with lots of space to unload the ballot boxes and PO packs; to lay out the counting tables in a single area that can be adequately supervised and then carry the various items to the required places?
The problem is that the election has to work around Trinity’s schedule and not the other way around.
While count staff are paid, they are not people who do it as a profession – they are employed for the day and that’s it. The training is limited by their availability to attend. Inherently, they will be a mixed bag, some good at counting accurately and some not.
I recall in 2010 there was one count supervisor who struggled to get the work done and was still counting as the count was being knocked down and loaded back on the trucks – but that final ward had to be counted and signed off.
Perhaps the most pertinent question should be: why do we bother to try to do the count overnight and declare in the early hours of the morning for local elections?
Wouldn’t it be better to wait until the following day and do it during the daytime when everyone is fresher? I recall being part of the elections logistics team in 2010 starting work around 5am Thursday and finishing at 5pm on Friday – 36 hours straight.
There are 149 polling stations in Croydon, and every year about 15per cent change or are unavailable. So alternatives have to be found. All the required equipment has to be readied and checked, sent out on the Tuesday, keys collected for distribution and then gathered back in, then all brought back on Friday morning.
Behind this there are 149 sets of numbered ballots to be boxed up and all the other material prepared. Orders have to go out to the printers. The materials have to be issued to the 149 presiding officers prior to election day, and someone has to manage that.
Approximately 450 polling station staff have to be trained and briefed on the specifics of the election.
If there are Portakabins being used as temporary stations, they need installing and linking up to power, and then removed during the early hours of Friday morning.
The count has to be built with tables and chairs being delivered and set out. Then it has to be knocked down at the end.
Porterage has to be recruited and briefed to handle the incoming ballot boxes and packs and their movement into the count area.
While all of the above is going on, there are members of the public calling in regarding the registration to vote, and have to be dealt with.
Back in Croydon’s halcyon days there were council staff who could be called upon to help out. Since 2008, repeated rounds of redundancy has depleted the workforce, especially those with operation skills, and those remaining are basically a skeleton crew.
I worked in the team that led election logistics in the 2000s and prior to my being made redundant, I repeatedly said to Jon Rouse, the Conservative-appointed chief exec, that he had to make provision for a handover to ensure that someone would takeover from my team. The strategic planning associated with the large numbers of redundancies presumably determined that that role was no longer required. He did nothing to prepare for any handover.
In late 2009, I was approached to come back and work on the preparations for the 2010 General Election as there was no competent in-house resource. The issues with managing elections in Croydon predate Katherine Kerswell. The council continues to rely on former employees to come back as contractors to carry out key functions.
Elections may appear simple routine events to the public, and that is because most of the time they are blissfully unaware of the work that is carried out behind the scenes to make them happen. The only time they become aware is when things don’t work out as smoothly as they expect.
We don’t know why it took so long to complete the count, and will not know until a review is carried out and the council provides a detailed explanation.
Read more: From bankrupt to laughing stock as council count continues
Read more: Tory Perry wins historic Mayor election by less than 600 votes
Read more: The full ward-by-ward Croydon Council election results
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At Polling Station 113, the rogue Albert Road appeared in the list of roads covered, once more!
I duly complained. I complain at every election.
Elections need to be administered meticulously and people are paid to do their jobs. Therefore, they should admit they are unable to do it if that is the case.
The Council currently have 20% frontline vacancies as at February 2022 as a Housing Improvement Board Member this was reported by Senior Management in addition recent services have been ceased so this figure maybe higher.
Why can’t we leap forward to the 1980s and use machine readable ballot papers?
Perhaps the thumbs down people could explain their objections to automated counting?
Ask Florida if it is reliable. Also what is the actual cost?
Excellent article and so accurate to the councils current position across multiple areas.
Staff and services have been cut without insight; usually to perpetuate the senior officers themselves. Quite what they do after half their portfolios have been axed is a mystery. Strange their salaries have not been cut proportionately!
The council is unlikely to provide an explanation.
The returning officer acts in an independent fashion and does not report to the council on this matter.
so, get out of jail free card for incompetence or overseeing incompetence.
Having had experience of this from many sides I would agree with Rod on the Logistical side. Having worked with others also in different parts of the world I would also agree on the requirements.
Remember that payments are pre-determined and not subject to Council control but numbers and quality are within their remit and the auspices of the Returning Officer and her designated head of Electoral services.
Planning and management are also an issue. Rod states about Trinity being as it is and one cannot disagree except to point out that there are large unused premises and the Fairfield Halls also available but I suspect that may be dependent on cost. But again I suspect that the choice was intentional. The resources available and all the Logistic’s were again intentional. As Rod states they were pre Kerswell and to an extent pre Negrini also and do go back 15 years if my memory serves me well.
There are others non ex council employee’s that are available and capable and experienced but they are not approached. There is no experienced effective and cohesive HR Strategy to resource this need and this is patently self evident by the inefficiencies. Again one suspects that other factors and priorities prevented whomever was the HR person from doing that and again this was intentional.
Making cuts and downsizing is difficult in Private organisations.
However in Public Organisations where many tasks do not sit where they should, and organisational design is shoehorned for exterior or political purpose one finds that inadvertently when making cuts on paper to support areas deemed non essential seems straightforward. But as any person who has had a paper cut knows – it hurts far in excess of the visible cut. As any A+E will also tell you the danger of sepsis is there also especially if untreated.
Having been through and involved in over a hundred organisational changes in both Private and Public industry and having had to deal with the aftermath of said cuts downsizing poor helicopter management I can honestly say I have not known an organisation that was not aware or informed of the down sides of their decisions and what would result.
So from meetings not having note-takers to FOI not being acted on to senior people not passing on emails or requests to departments not letting each other know what they are doing, this is what happens when those decisions are taken. Many organisations recognise this and accept a short period of poor performance and downturn in efficiencies but have a plan to retrain re-organise and regain those efficiencies people performance and moral.
Croydon Council has not displayed any ability at any stage and still with intent carries on.
Mr Perry is unlikely to make any impression on that for some time. Ms Kerswell for whatever reason has not much ability to garner universal support and much needed assistence externally.
When in dire financial circumstances you need to rally voluntary and non financial support and assistance both internally and externally along with attempts to broaden your income streams. Both have to be in harmony and for mutual benefit and supported by effective and regular communication with clear messages.
Sadly This Council and its Executive are not just financially challenged. Besides dire communication and dubious practices they have basically have alienated those that want to support and help them and have sustained reputation damage to the extent that some private companies may not want to associate themselves with them.
The election logistic’s is just another in a long line of issues emanating from the same malaise.
Fairfield Halls is far from perfect as a count venue and that is why the council looked for alternative premises in the first place.
The only viable venue was Trinity School at the time.
The key to a successful election is to draw up a detailed plan, with all the risks identified and mitigation put in place, all interdependencies and lead-times identified, and then to stick to it.
The problem is in an organisation like Croydon Council is that snr managers, with no understanding of the operations, start to interfere and demand amendments & augmentations to the plan without regard to the primary objectives. This inherently draws resources away from key areas and exposes the operations to additional risks.
Disagree with every word of that – There is no excuse for the incompetent way Kerswell mismanaged the election counting process.
Does anyone know how she can be removed as returning officer. I don’t want her managing Croydon elections again.
There isn’t a requirement to have all counts in the same room though yes of course it helps with monitoring and supervision – if the Returning Officer is capable of doing that of course.
When I stood for Wandsworth Council in 2002 the count for my ward took place in a committee room and not one of the large halls in the civic suite.
There is provision in electoral law for conducting mini counts where the main count is divided up into smaller ones and then the results combined for the declaration. It enables verification and counting to start before all the boxes have been received as long as the boxes for a mini count have been received it makes no difference if a box from another area is late.
In effect this is what happens for the London Mayoral elections and (when we had them) the European Parliament election. For the police and crime commissioner elections in Sussex each borough conducted its own count which were then collated. There wasn’t a single mega count.
Perhaps it would be cheaper, more efficient and less chaotic for Croydon to have the count in a large marquee whey they could control everything and weren’t encumbered by school activities.
No more analysis, please. Kerswell is simply not up to either of her two jobs.
The execution of an election from beginning to end is a primary indicator of corporate health in a local authority. The scope encompasses everything from strategic decision making down to some very basic operational activities. Out of this the local authority gains its mandate to govern.
The Inside Croydon reports over the years have provided instance after instance of mis-management, and yet little changes. The primary barrier to change is the willingness to listen. If senior decision makers do not listen, then they cannot learn and cannot change. This they are condemned to repeat the same mistakes over & over.
It always seemed to me that Croydon Council doesn’t want to hear nor listen. During my employment I witnessed instances of very serious dysfunction, but no one wanted to hear. There was a culture of denial, and in many instances this was because the senior managers were the source of serious dysfunction.
Will the newly elected mayor make any change to this? Unlikely as he is as much part of the Croydon Council establishment as anyone and the problems in Croydon Council date back to the 1980’s even if people are unaware of it.
There are clearly issues with the management of the election process in Croydon. Especially given that the turnout was low so the number of votes they had to deal with was also low. Can you imagine the chaos if the turnout was 60%+. Part of the issue is that, thanks to COVID, training of election staff has been done on line for the last few years rather than face to face. The main problem with this is that it gives no opportunity for people to ask questions or seek clarification on aspects they don’t fully understand. The online training this time only came out on the Friday before the election. We were given some namby excuse that this was to ensure it was fresh in our minds (nonsense they hadn’t got it ready in time!). But this assumes that the election staff are not doing anything else in the few days available and they should give people at least a couple of weekends to do the training. I know at least some Presiding Officers who find it considerably easier to drop things off at Trinity rather than at the Fairfield Halls but there may be better (and cheaper) places to do the counting. Does it all have to be done in one place – why not have one location per ward and then collate the results?