Voter registration site collapse proves genius of GDS, says minister

Move slowly. Break things. Then break a few more

Sketch The high profile collapse of the UK Government Digital Service’s voter registration site last week only shows how brilliant the Government Digital Service is, says the minister responsible* for it.

Matthew Hancock MP, minister for the Cabinet Office, ran through all the latest TED talk buzzwords (he's an Oxford PPE graduate) in a keynote speech, before elaborating on his crack digital team’s latest triumph.

“The best way to convince the naysayers is to build something that actually works,” said Hancock. He then went on to describe something that didn’t work: the GDS-built voter registration site.

“Rather than tell GDS to go out and disrupt the entire public sector, we gave them a specific set of high volume transactions to transform,” Hancock said by way of background.

“When the register to vote service crashed last week, within two hours we knew exactly what was wrong and we could fix it – because we had the data,” said Hancock. “This meant we knew exactly how many people had been trying to get onto the system when it crashed.”

To you or me, that information is just a very-expensively-massaged Apache log. But to the Cabinet Office minister, it’s Big Data!

But this Big Data had a political purpose, Hancock boasted.

“Armed with this information, we were than able to make a case for emergency legislation to give people more time to register. We’ve spoken for many years about evidence-based policymaking, but modern data science is making this a reality.”

A curious reader may wonder why the voter registration website – which merely asks 11 simple questions then sends an email with the responses to the electoral registration officer at your local council – had crashed in the first place. The spike in demand was not unexpected. The BBC had been promoting the registration deadline for days with increasing desperation. To the “Remain” campaign, the itinerant young may be crucial in a narrow vote.

"There was simply an incapacity [sic] of the system to handle that number of applications," a blushing Oliver Letwin told Parliament last week.

The voter registration site is in fact misleadingly named. Once you’ve completed the 11 questions, you still aren’t registered to vote, of course.

Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) were highly critical of the switch to individual voter registration last year, which saw millions go missing from the electoral register. The missing included “Areas with either higher proportions of students (aged 16-74) [sic], higher proportions of people living in private rented accommodation and/or higher proportions of people living in communal establishments had relatively lower match rates.”

The Register to Vote website merely conceals the fact that the hard foot slog of verifying the data still needs to be conducted by EROs. EROs told us GDS's site had made things worse by creating chaff. In fact, many of the voters who were panicked into entering their details last week had already been registered.

And who was warned about data-matching problems in pilots for IVR, but chose to ignore them? Er… the Cabinet Office.

“This is how democracy works now. Voters are users too, and this service was designed to meet their needs,” ex-GDS supremo Mike Bracken tootled in 2013. He’s long gone.


* We use the phrase “responsible for” in its loosest sense. ®

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