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I fought the law and the users won: delivering online voter registration

I fought the law and the users won: delivering online voter registration

Last week we launched a new online service allowing people to register to vote. This is a big deal. This is a really, really big deal. You can now get on the electoral roll in just a few minutes, even on your mobile phone, whenever and wherever you are in the world.

Registering to vote is undoubtedly the most fundamental service that the state must offer. The flip side of this is that it is also heavily surrounded by regulation and legislation. Regulation and legislation are not great bedfellows for usability and accessibility.

I want to talk about the law and the value in dealing directly with lawyers in public service delivery. I also want to talk about the value in investing the time to bring the lawyers with you as you build your service. These are things that I’ve got wrong in the past, and things that will definitely change the way I approach public service design and delivery in the future.

Lawyer says no

Too many times in the past, I’ve been told something can’t be done (or must be done) because “it’s the law”.  I’ve usually accepted this and then been constrained by having to design the ‘least worst’ way to help people get past that.

In the early days of designing the register to vote service, I was regularly asking the lawyers if there was any wriggle room on a certain aspect.  Almost every time I would get back the same response.

Lawyer says no.

This sort of thing will be familiar to many people working in government:

On the subject of why we’re asking for it, the simple answer is because legislation says we have to…… In any case the reason for it doesn’t matter, the law requires that the question is asked.


It wasn’t the policy team being obstructive, they were being as helpful as they could be. But something wasn’t working and it made designing the service extremely difficult without context  around information we were being asked to collect.

Going straight to the horse’s mouth

After a time, having been through the above cycle too many times, I decided to try and sit down with the lawyers to plead my case directly.

The first thing that I learned when we got together, was that they hadn’t been taken through the service we were building, to give them the context they needed.  That was a pretty big mistake.  Obvious when I think about it, but I was asking people to make tough decisions without any real understanding as to why it was important, or what it was going to feel like to those using the service.

So, we set some time aside and went through the service in some detail.

It was a game changer.

This opened up a direct line of contact, where we could work with a mutual understanding of the challenges. It wasn’t that we got everything we wanted, and it was certainly a case of choosing our battles. But, having people who know usability working closely with people who understand legal risk allowed us to deliver a service that was as simple and intuitive as possible. And in a very short time.

I fought the law and ...

Working directly with the legal team, with a greater understanding of each other’s challenges and constraints, led to some pretty important successes for online voter registration and the people using it.  We managed to:

  • get some laws changed while developing the service
  • find better, more user friendly ways of meeting the requirements set out in legislation
  • gain agreement from the legal team to work with the service delivery team when drafting future legislation

I’m just going to make that last point again:

We managed to gain agreement from the legal team to work with the service delivery team when drafting future legislation.

And that is a special thing.

It's early days for the register to vote service, but with currently the highest satisfaction rating of any online government service, it's testament that those battles were worth having.

This is what doing the hard work to make it simple for users is all about.

*drops mic*

Pete Herlihy is a Product Manager at GDS

You should follow Pete on Twitter: @yahoo_pete, and don't forget to sign up for email alerts.

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  1. Comment by Joanne posted on

    Hi, I've just received my form and have registered to vote online. Whilst I appreciate the hard work that has gone into this I'm just not impressed. Personally, I've never had an issue with registering to vote-it's been simple. I get a letter, Are there any changes? Yes or No, update the form, sorted!
    What would impress me is is the ability to vote online. No queuing at polling stations, no forgetting to do it, or simply not being bothered to drag yourself there after a days work.... Perhaps I'm disappointed as being a civil servant myself, and being very aware of the drive to get as many services delivered digitally (80/80 2020 and all that) this seems like a quick win. Apologies for saying that despite the hurdles you mention in your blog. We were 'sold' the good work that you guys at GDS have been doing and have been led to believe that it was more than simply being able to register online. I think a definition of 'done' and success in this area will be when the public are able to simply vote online. And then we may get a decent percentage of voters and a better reflection of what the nation wants. Any updates on when this is likely to be delivered? Is this an enabler? If so, it would be good to hear you publicise that, and let us know this is not the final product.

    • Replies to Joanne>

      Comment by Peter Herlihy posted on

      Thanks for the note Joanne. I asked the government's head of electoral administration for his views on online voting, and he provided this response.

      "Online Voting (e-Voting) or even using electronic machines in polling stations has been the subject of much vexed debate over the past decade. It sounds simple...but it isn’t. Countries have introduced it in a spirit of progress and facilitation but some have then resiled from it when people have shown issues with systems. Others have essentially banned it.

      The UK piloted various versions of e-Voting a number of times as part of a modernisation programme in 2000 to 2007 but there was little increase in turnout as a result and some considerable opposition from those who argue that ‘black-box’ voting is open to manipulation and abuse. There are plenty of references, critiques and analysis online of the pros and cons if you want to seek them out.

      As a consequence, the current Government has been concentrating on its programme of constitutional change, including the introduction of IER, and, whilst it may be something to look at again in the future, e-Voting has not been part of that work.

      The current electoral system provides for means by which electors can vote without having to attend a polling station including by post or through appointing a proxy. Postal voting in particular has proven to be popular in giving greater convenience to electors who may not be able to attend a polling station."

  2. Comment by Alan posted on

    All we need now is online voting. I believe it is 2014 not 1980. Good first step, though.

  3. Comment by Harry posted on

    Digital technology is fundamentally changing politics all the time. Whole new forms of governance could be introduced using it, an iteration of democracy that literally takes all views into account at all times.

  4. Comment by simonfj posted on

    Hi Peter,

    You're right. It IS a really, really, really big thing.

    I'm not going to duplicate Andrew's example. Been through his experience too often. "We got management to pay for their time...." says it all. (Sorry, "lawyers" and "respect" don't seem to often appear as logical relations in the same sentence)

    You can see, from what David's saying, that there's a lot of explaining to do. I like skeptics and David's covered most of the ground in one post. So maybe, if you or someone from the team would like to go into some of the mechanics of how the service works, we might get some understanding here.

    So far as how "the user's won". They did. it's not just the fact that you've invented a statutory instrument, although that's important. It's the way one can verify a user, firstly via a Local ( electoral role and then against a National HS( list to "produce a seamlessly efficient transaction for the user".

    I appreciate that the legal side is one factor, and being in .gov, it's always considered the most important thing. But perhaps you'd like to have the techs go through how they strapped the service/back-end together as it may provide an explanation about how so many other services can be built, now the legal stuff is in place.

    You've broken the ice now and as Dan says, "I suspect we'll see a rise in the creative use of the PSNetwork as a tool". Now THAT's another really big thing.

    • Replies to simonfj>

      Comment by Peter Herlihy posted on

      Thanks Simon. The technical architect for the service will be publishing a blog post very soon, describing what we’ve built and how it all fits together...

      • Replies to Peter Herlihy>

        Comment by simonfj posted on

        Thanks Peter,

        I'd appreciate that. Could I ask one more thing, as you've got a great doodler in your team. Would you do two diagrams? This one, as the service is designed = National service centric. And one more = user centric. i.e. Treating the service from the local perspective and having the local council's website treated as the front end.

        I don't need to know how many branches my bank has to know I won't get a personal service from any of them: ) As Richard points out, my "local authority .... completes the process", and this will be the case with all National and Local services. So it would be nice to consider the PSN service design for all of them, from the edge of the network.

        Jagdeep, being a a network guy, is obviously going through the two perspectives at the moment. i.e. "... examine the implications (and user experience) of having multiple identities for multiple systems, vs. a single identity across multiple systems".

        Of course, this will come down to whether one is treated at a user or a citizen. I know which I'd prefer. Cheers!

  5. Comment by Ian Oliver posted on

    Embedding legal and policy in your delivery team for the times in your project they are needed is a really good thing - I have seen how well it can work too - and your blog and your follow up about anonymous registrants demonstrates it very nicely

  6. Comment by Andrew Lamb posted on

    Glad to hear you & the team finally cracked it Pete! I had a similar (smaller scale) experience in insurance industry a few years ago. When we asked a solicitor to come to our day long viability session they refused. We got management to pay for their time and it was a game changer as they suddenly saw how their prior input had been a blocker. They also saw how everyone else was trying to increase usability so they tried to help. And help they did. It was precedent setting and I liked their retrospective comment that "they had fought it." "Now they'd support it". It being their attendance. Great job! Go celebrate!!!!

    • Replies to Andrew Lamb>

      Comment by Peter Herlihy posted on

      Cheers Andrew, and glad to hear it's not just the public sector that faces these challenges!

  7. Comment by Paul Downey posted on

    Something we're trying now is having a Single Legal Owner embedded as a member of the team building an alpha service, so issues with constraints which take a long time to change, such as policy or statute are flushed out as early as possible.

  8. Comment by Richard Heaton (CO perm sec) posted on

    Interesting post, on a very successful product - well done. You and GDS colleagues built a beautiful and simple service, and Colin Dingwall's team brought the whole project together, including connectivity to local authorities, data matching to allow most of the current register to carry across, understanding what electoral administrators needed, and ensuring a resilient supply chain. A great performance all round.

    Your point about law being at the service of users (citizens) is really, really important. Statutes that make sense to parliamentarians and officials, but don't work, are useless. As St Paul the lawmaker might have said: If I speak with the tongue of men and angels but have not useability, I am as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.

    So I'm delighted that you got a creative dialogue going with the policy team and the lawyers. Those designing changes to the law, those making it work, and those using it must understand each other. Maybe you'd like to talk about your experience at a "good law" workshop for departments?

    One small point on your first paragraph: you don't get onto the electoral roll within minutes: what's happened is that you've applied to go onto the register. Your local authority then completes the process.

    Well done again


    • Replies to Richard Heaton (CO perm sec)>

      Comment by Peter Herlihy posted on

      Thanks Richard. Very happy for the team to share a bit more about this with other departments. Just let me know.

      The comment about getting on the electoral roll within minutes was really about the effort required, as you rightly say, it's the application that is complete at that point, not the addition to the register.

  9. Comment by K Hughes posted on

    Please oh please could you work on Planning and Management Development service?? It's supposed to be inclusive, transparent and accountable and so isn't!

  10. Comment by Edward Crocker posted on

    What were the laws you got changed and what was the timescale for this?

    • Replies to Edward Crocker>

      Comment by Peter Herlihy posted on

      Good question. An example of a legislative change we worked with the policy and legal team on, was to remove the requirement for online anonymous voter registration (people who have concerns for their safety) to be available on June 10th. This is a complex area that needs a lot more user research and has additional information and offline documentary requirements (physical copies of court orders etc).

      We felt that by including this option in the online service, we risked making it harder and more complex for anonymous registrants as well as exposing the vast majority of people using the service to a concept that has no relevance to them at all. We would rather create the time to research this area fully and come up with a new service for these people.

      We went through the process of proposing this change, discussing and debating with the policy and legal team, preparing evidence for statutory instrument (SI) debates in parliament, and the debates themselves - all over a 3 week period.

      It's worth noting that booking SI debates has a long lead time, however, importantly it can be possible to add additional items into scheduled debates, which is what we did.

      • Replies to Peter Herlihy>

        Comment by David Moss posted on

        Dear Mr Herlihy

        "I fought the law and the users won", you say.

        Judging by your answer to Edward Crocker, there was no fighting involved. Instead, a new statutory instrument was made. Not unprecedented, these have been running at the rate of about 3,000 a year since 2010.

        The question remains in what way the users have won.

        Rt Hon Greg Clarke MP says in his press release that "IER will prevent fraud by enabling government to check that everyone on the register is who they say they are. This will lead to greater trust in the legitimacy and fairness of elections".

        As the Product Manager, can you please explain how IER prevents electoral fraud any more effectively than the previous household registration procedure.

        You make the point in your what-I-learned-in-Estonia post that digital government there depends on ID cards and a population register. There is no equivalent here in the UK – GDS's identity assurance is still not available.

        And having recourse to National Insurance numbers for IER is likely to lead to the same problem they have in the US with social security numbers: "Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in America. A dishonest person who has your Social Security number can use it to get other personal information about you. Identity thieves can use your number and your good credit to apply for more credit in your name". So says the US Social Security Administration.

        Can you please explain how IER checks that applicants are who they say they are any more effectively than household registration did.

        Lastly in connection with the Minister's promises, can you please explain how you will measure "trust in the legitimacy and fairness of elections" to determine whether it is greater with IER than without it.

        It looks as though GDS will be collecting IER applicants'; details all in one place, the database behind the on-line application form. The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 makes it illegal to create a consolidated electoral roll. Is there a danger that the IER application service is breaking both the law and Rt Hon Francis Maude's promise not to create a centralised population register?

        Yours sincerely
        David Moss

        • Replies to David Moss>

          Comment by Peter Herlihy posted on

          I gave 3 examples of where I feel the users have won. Perhaps the most obvious is being able to “find better, more user friendly ways of meeting the requirements set out in legislation”.

          For instance: when collecting a previous address in an application, the regulations say that we should collect the address - and if it’s an overseas address, an indication of whether the person was registered to vote when living there.

          The previous overseas address isn’t actually that useful to anyone (it’s really only a correspondence address). What’s useful to electoral registration officers is the UK address that the person was registered against while they were aboard. Likewise, if they weren’t registered to vote when they were abroad, there’s no value in collecting any previous address information from them.

          This is an example where we worked with the legal and policy team to understand what need the legislation was aiming to meet, and found a better way of meeting that need without wasting the time of the people using the service. Or wasting electoral registration officers’ time by processing information that had no business value for them.

          On the policy behind IER and measuring its success - that’s slightly off topic for this post, but there’s a bunch of regularly updated information here that might help.

          Finally, in terms of IER breaking the law by holding all applicants details in one place - this isn’t the case. The IER digital service only holds information briefly for the purposes of processing before being removed from the system. The technical architect for the service will be publishing a blog post soon, describing what we’ve built and how it all fits together.

  11. Comment by Vicky Sargent posted on

    Hi Peter
    I tried out the service last week because I work with Socitm on Better connected and other localgov website research and am generally very interested in the interface between local and central when it comes to online services.
    As a citizen, my first thought was, 'well I'm already registered, aren't I? The council sends round a notice every year, and its not that time of year.' You don't provide any information about a change in the law (?) or the way things are being done, although I'm aware that there is to be a switch to direct registration. Shouldn't there be some contextual information about this, or is it that I've followed direct links from the GDS blog to the service and I've missed a bit of the customer journey?
    If you follow the 'The electoral register' link (which seemed the most obvious way to go, you are encouraged to contact your council about whether you are on the register already, which could potentially create extra work for them?
    I'm also a householder, with an obligation to register the people in my house, so what's the form here? Is that process being abandoned? Has it been abandonned already? It would be useful to tell people this I think.

    • Replies to Vicky Sargent>

      Comment by Peter Herlihy posted on

      Thanks for the comments Vicky. There has been a change in the law, which now requires individuals to register to themselves, rather than the 'head of the household'. lmportantly though, most people who are already registered won't need to do anything - and there will be a national advertising campaign in July, and letters from your council explaining what this means.

      New registrations should now use this service now, as should people who need to update their registration details, like a change of address, name change etc.

      You can read a little more at

      • Replies to Peter Herlihy>

        Comment by Vicky Sargent posted on

        Thanks Peter, I'm still not clear on this part of my question: 'Shouldn't there be some contextual information about this [ie the changes] or is it that I've followed direct links from the GDS blog to the service and I've missed a bit of the customer journey?'

        • Replies to Vicky Sargent>

          Comment by Peter Herlihy posted on

          Yes, I suspect that it's because you've followed the link from the blog directly, that context could have been made clearer. The typical context for people to use this service is either through receiving a letter inviting them to re-register (and explaining why), or to register for the first time (in which case the fact that process has changed isn't all that useful).