A new approach to training
Divisional Returning Officers (DROs) are responsible for the House of Representatives election in each of Australia’s 150 federal electoral divisions. They must oversee the delivery of all election services in their division including enrolment processing, early voting, employing and training polling workers the conduct of the count, and finalising records and returns. All these services must be delivered consistently, to a high standard, in accordance with the Electoral Act, following a mandated timeline and under constant scrutiny. But what if you’ve never done it before?
‘Challenges in a controlled environment allowed me to test capability outside my comfort zone. This allowed consolidated learning… helped me to connect the dots.’
In recent years, the AEC has sought out new approaches to election training that go beyond merely informing staff about procedures and requirements to preparing them for the unique and dynamic characteristics of an election. Effective election management is not just about knowing what to do; it’s about being able to do it under pressure and deal with the myriad of unexpected issues that can arise along the way.
The need for experiential election training was heightened in the New South Wales state office when workforce planning revealed a significant number of staff would be eligible for retirement before the 2013 federal election. This meant that a considerable proportion of the state’s DROs would be either new to the AEC or new to their role when the election took place.
To build election capability, a pilot election training programme was developed – the Election Ready Operational Capacity Development Programme. The programme covered all aspects of election operations, with particular emphasis on the post-election period. The programme highlighted the fact that post-election success is dependent on completing pre-election activities to a high quality.
The programme incorporated simulated election activities that participants were asked to manage. These were scaled to provide as close to a ‘real’ election experience as possible. Tight and demanding election timeframes were mimicked through unfolding scenarios, with disruptions occurring throughout key processes, requiring participants to react and respond appropriately.
For example, in order for participants to gain an understanding of the practical variations that can occur during counting, fresh scrutinies of 75 000 House of Representatives ballot papers were conducted simultaneously for two divisions – one with 11 candidates and the other with four. One of the divisions was simulated as a close seat and actors played the role of scrutineers. The ‘scrutineers’ followed real scenarios from previous elections to challenge ballot papers and supervisor decisions. Counts involving 3 000 declaration votes were also conducted in a tight timeframe, with other staff role-playing candidates, scrutineers, media and AEC returning officers – all applying pressure for a result.
The nine-day programme was initially piloted in New South Wales in October 2012. Peer and facilitator feedback was provided to the participants at the conclusion of each practical activity. Critical areas of focus were compliance and adherence to policy and procedural instructions, but participants were also encouraged to reflect on their learning and identify new insights.
Feedback from the pilot was overwhelmingly positive and three more courses were conducted, providing training to 80 AEC managers and supervisors from New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Queensland, the Northern Territory and Tasmania.
The success of the programme in delivering ‘the closest experience of running an election outside running an election’ means it is now being assessed for inclusion in the AEC’s new Learning and Development Framework – part of a long-term commitment to meaningful and comprehensive training that supports staff to deliver quality election services.
‘I’ve been involved in elections on numerous times but I’ve never seen it in this light as a whole and how much the DRO needs to be on top of.’