Reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General - The Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission Contents


Part One

Advice and Guidance

INTRODUCTION

17.  Providing advice and guidance to parties, candidates and donors on complying with electoral law is an important part of the Electoral Commission's activities as a regulator. At any time, there are between 370 and 420 political parties registered in the UK and turnover is relatively high, with up to 55 parties registering each year depending on the level of electoral activity. The Commission's advice team of around four staff are responsible for providing general guidance and guidance for specific elections. In 2011-12, the Commission responded to 1,694 enquiries, including both routine questions and more formal requests for advice.

18.  One of the key findings of the Hampton Review was that regulators could put greater emphasis on using advice and guidance as a tool to improve compliance and that they should provide authoritative, accessible advice easily and cheaply. This part of the report examines the work the Commission has done to implement this principle and the improvements that have been made to the provision of party and election finance advice and guidance since our last report on this topic in 2009.

A NEW APPROACH TO ADVICE AND GUIDANCE

19.  Our last report on the regulation of party and election finance found that the Commission could be doing more to implement and demonstrate compliance with the better regulation principles outlined in the 2005 Hampton review, and subsequent guidance on regulatory good practice. This includes the principle of improving compliance through a greater focus on providing effective support and advice, which should reduce the amount of enforcement activity a regulator has to take.

20.  Since our report, the Commission carried out a formal review of its approach to providing advice and guidance, taking into account the views of stakeholders including a survey of the views of users of the existing guidance. The review looked at how guidance could be brought more in line with the Hampton principles, and at how it compared to that of other regulators. The Commission's review led to a change of approach, based on an overarching strategy for advice and guidance which better encompassed the Hampton principles. The five year corporate plan published in 2009-10 reflected the new approach. This marked a significant change by the organisation, shifting the emphasis away from a largely "reactive" model of regulation, where the Commission considered its initial point of involvement to commence with the submission of returns by party treasurers, and focussed on ensuring compliance with regulation through effective enforcement. Assistance in how to comply with regulation was available, but was not considered to be a key activity and was not the focus of resources or future investment.

21.  Under the new approach, the Commission now places much greater emphasis on encouraging compliance through better, more effective advice and guidance to help those it regulates understand and follow the rules and requirements set down in electoral legislation, although the ultimate responsibility for compliance remains with parties, candidates and donors. The Commission is now more proactive in engaging with those it regulates, rather than waiting for parties or candidates to seek advice directly. For example:

a)  The advice and guidance team alert relevant parties or individuals by e-mail when there is a change to the rules or an update to guidance is issued, and issue newsletters about new guidance.

b)  The team contacts new parties as they register to explain the requirements, and carries out outreach work such as presentations with parties and candidates to ensure they are aware of all the rules they need to follow in advance of an election.

c)  The team also works closely with the rest of the PEF directorate to identify any issues arising from ongoing campaign and other monitoring, as well as enforcement activity, which may require the issue of new guidance or advice.

IMPROVEMENTS TO ADVICE AND GUIDANCE

22.  The Commission uses a variety of methods to provide guidance to those it regulates, including online guidance, written and email communications and phone advice. The 2009 review of the Commission's advice and guidance found that the guidance provided was not sufficiently user focussed. Guidance documents were too heavily based around legislation and the language used was too formal and unclear. The wealth of guidance provided was difficult to navigate and not tailored enough to the different users of the service.

23.  The Commission has worked hard to address the points raised in the review and to provide targeted and practical advice in a range of formats. In particular, the Commission has worked extensively on the appearance and layout of its website guidance pages, making them less cluttered and introducing clearer signposting. The website now proactively directs users to the key information they need to know according to their role. The Commission recognises that there is still work to do, and further improvements are planned to help users navigate more effectively and efficiently to the information they need and to make forms easier to complete.

24.  The Commission is currently phasing in a new style of guidance, which is clearer and easier to understand. Documents are modular and targeted at different types of user (for instance, introductory documents help people to understand whether they need to read more detailed guidance), and are smaller in size and more streamlined, with links to web pages included where relevant. The tailoring of advice and guidance has made the Commission a more stakeholder friendly regulator, and the impact is also reflected in improved compliance rates.

25.  The Commission's guidance should help to address the most common queries from those it regulates, but the Commission also continues to offer tailored advice free of charge on compliance and registration issues, and has responded to over 5,500 routine enquiries since January 2010. Performance measures for the advice and guidance team are largely based around the time taken to respond to queries received or to meet deadlines for the publication of guidance, although the Commission does also measure the percentage of users who rate its guidance as useful, and the percentage of users giving positive feedback on its guidance. Staff are able to make use of a database of past queries to assist them in providing a response, and the database is updated for each enquiry the Commission receives. This helps to make sure that knowledge is retained rather than being lost when key members of staff leave the organisation.

26.  Where a request for advice is novel and/or less straightforward to answer, the Commission will treat it as a complex query. The Commission answered 34 complex queries in 2009, 332 in 2010 and 58 in 2011. As the statistics show, the level of complex queries fluctuates depending on a number of matters including the electoral events taking place during the year.

27.  The Commission continues to look for new ways to promote and disseminate its guidance, and to engage with those it regulates. For the November 2012 Police and Crime Commissioner elections, the Commission has used a webinar to communicate with prospective candidates about the rules and regulations for the election and to take them through a step-by-step guide to election finance. These new methods of information sharing are cost efficient as they allow the Commission to communicate with a number of stakeholders at one time and respond immediately to questions as they arise.

28.  Since our last report the Commission has also identified gaps in its knowledge and expertise on producing guidance and has addressed these. The old style guidance was often hard to understand due to technical or legal language. It was also lengthy and there were limited or no summarised or abbreviated versions. The Commission trained staff how to draft readable and accessible guidance. As a result much of the content on the Commission's website is now more succinct and easier to understand.

29.  The Commission uses feedback from stakeholders to make changes to the advice and guidance it provides. Feedback is obtained through a variety of methods, including the Commission's website, and regular meetings with representatives of political parties. Parties also have an opportunity to raise issues relating to advice and guidance at regular formal meetings with the Commission's senior staff and at the quarterly meetings of the Political Parties panel. In 2012-13, the Commission plans to measure satisfaction with the written guidance, training and advice it provides for party and election finance.


 
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