Election administrators: building skills and credibility.
New Challenges for Election Managers
Despite the significant expertise needed to conduct successful elections, the field of election administration is still not regarded as a profession in many quarters. Yet, it is a technically and politically demanding enterprise, requiring sound management and specialized skills. The outcome of an election can literally become a life-or-death issue. There are many instances where lives have been lost in the outcry that follows a contested electoral process when candidates or parties refuse to accept the election results.
Given these stakes, election administrators are on the firing line. Electoral management bodies (EMBs) are increasingly expected to conduct elections that are credible and acceptable to all stakeholders. To achieve these goals, EMBs must ensure that elections are not only technically sound but also politically acceptable and legitimate. As a result, there is little room for errors that may call into question the integrity of the electoral process.
A further challenge for EMBs is that a negative public perception of elections often leads to a rise in voter apathy, which impacts EMBs' ability to deliver a credible and transparent election. This responsibility of EMBs is huge, and the pressure is compounded by the fact that there are few resources that election managers can access to improve their performance and ensure that elections meet the high expectations. However, ACE has now provided an interactive solution for EMBs worldwide in search of electoral knowledge and experience.
The ACE Electoral Knowledge Network
The ACE project, recently re-launched as the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network (www.aceproject.org), seeks to address EMBs' emerging challenges by facilitating information sharing, peer review, peer support and peer learning, particularly between election administrators who face the same challenges in different locations. The Electoral Knowledge Network has three components: (1) Knowledge Services, (2) the Practitioners' Network and (3) Capacity Development. Knowledge Services features dynamic information services covering ACE's themes as well as sample materials, case studies and articles. The Practitioners' Network is an online network of election practitioners and is hosted on the Electoral Advice section of the ACE website.
The third component--Capacity Development--aims to enhance election management by building key competencies in election management bodies. Through this component, ACE will test methodologies of technical advisory services and training and will promote peer partnerships for information sharing and improved performance.
ACE's Capacity Development component includes the following elements:
* Long-term capacity development projects, which help EMBs reach higher levels of professionalism through institution-building;
* Regional training programs to strengthen the professional capacity of EMB staff;
* Targeted assistance activities that help EMBs develop or strengthen policies and legislation frameworks; and
* Capacity development tools and formal educational programs on electoral administration based on the ACE texts and leading to formal certificates/diplomas awarded by academic institutions.
This component will be implemented as a pilot over three years in the 14 member countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The pilot will be spearheaded by the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa. EISA was selected to lead the pilot because of its location, experience working in the SADC region and partnerships with SADC EMBs over the past 10 years.
The Southern African Development Community
The southern Africa region was selected for the pilot for a number of reasons, including its recent experience of democratization and its varying levels of political development. In all the countries in the region, elections are regarded as the first step towards a democratic system of government, and compromised elections are considered a serious problem because they can cast doubt on governance structures as a whole.
In addition, election practitioners in the region have shown an interest in and commitment to the professionalization of election administration through the establishment of several interregional election bodies, such as the Electoral Commissions Forum of SADC Countries (SADC-ECF), a grouping of all national EMBs in the region, and the SADC Election Support Network (SADC-ESN), a grouping of civil society organizations established in 1997.
Enhancing Election Management Capacity
ACE's third component seeks to build the capacity of the bodies managing elections by improving the capacity of election staff. Several countries in the SADC region have very good election administrators, though the plans of these administrators are often compromised by political decision-makers, who can hamper their ability to organize credible elections. Component Three will therefore provide practitioners with the opportunity to share not only their skills but also their experiences in negotiating the political demands that emerge during an election cycle.
There are several vital elements of election management where SADC countries have recorded remarkable successes and others where SADC countries face great challenges. This latter group includes civic/voter education, voter registration, vote counting, the use of technology (particularly information and communication technology) in elections and stakeholder management.
ACE's capacity development pilot will test a range of approaches and methodologies to developing the capacity of EMBs to manage these processes. For example, the ACE project will:
* Offer assistance, knowledge and expertise to the regional training center currently being developed by regional EMBs;
* Use the BRIDGE (1) course to train personnel from regional EMBs;
* Promote staff exchange, staff placement and peer review to facilitate the transfer of knowledge, practical experience and skills across EMBs;
* Encourage EMBs to conduct an election audit and evaluation after every election; and
* Work with universities and other tertiary institutions to develop courses and degree programs in election management topics (see next article).
The Benefit to Election Administrators
ACE's capacity development work will greatly benefit election practitioners and election administrators as it gives them access to people with experience in responding to the practical challenges of election management, a task often fraught with political risks.
Further codification of the best practices in the field and further training in elections for EMB staff will increase public respect for election administration as a profession. It will also give election managers the opportunity for "career pathing" (or identifying how to reach their career goals). This, in turn, will increase staff loyalty to their work and reduce the high turnover rate within election management bodies, which often struggle to retain experienced staff from one election to the next. Thus, election administrators will have a more reliable pool of human resources to draw from, and EMBs can develop a longer and more reliable institutional memory.
Professionalization of election administration will also enhance the autonomy of EMBs, making them less susceptible to political manipulation. EMBs are often under pressure from an incumbent government, and their independence can be compromised. Through ACE's capacity development pilot, EMBs' ability to withstand political pressure from political parties (or other stakeholders) will be enhanced, leading to increased credibility.
Following the pilot, capacity development methodologies that have proven to be successful will be exported to other regions of the world and will be spearheaded by the ACE Regional Resource Centers.
The Role of Donors in Capacity Development
Many developing countries moving towards democracy or consolidating democracy often rely heavily on external funding for their elections. Thus, donor agencies have a stake in ensuring that such resources are used well and not wasted by inadvertent administrative errors or mistakes made by poorly trained voting station staff. The support of the donors for ACE's capacity development work will be essential, particularly at this early stage, when most governments emphasize the creation of the ballot paper more than staff training. Investing in capacity building of EMBs contributes to the goals of election funders as such investment will reduce the misuse of funds and enhance cost-effective elections. When elections are conducted cost effectively, they will be more affordable for home governments, which will reduce the financial burden on external donors.
The ACE Electoral Knowledge Network is a joint effort of:
Elections Canada: a nonpartisan organization responsible for the conduct of federal elections, by-elections and referendums. The organization's primary goal is to give all Canadian citizens the opportunity to participate in transparent and impartial elections and referendums.
Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA): a nonprofit company based in Johannesburg, South Africa, that promotes credible elections and democratic governance in Africa through research, capacity building, advocacy and other targeted interventions.
Federal Electoral Institute of Mexico (IFE): a public, independent institution responsible for organizing and conducting federal elections in Mexico, ensuring the authenticity and effectiveness of the vote, strengthening the political parties regime and contributing to the development of democratic life.
IFES: an international, nongovernmental organization that supports the building of democratic societies. IFES has developed and implemented comprehensive, collaborative democracy solutions in more than 100 countries.
International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA): an intergovernmental organization that promotes sustainable democracy worldwide.
United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA): a body that organizes UN conferences on global policy issues and serves as the Secretariat to the Economic and Social Council. UN-DESA carries out research and policy analysis on public administration, population, social development, sustainable development and environmental issues.
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP): the United Nations' global development network, which advocates for change and connects countries to knowledge, experience and resources to help people build a better life.
(1) BRIDGE is a training programme developed by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) and the Australian Electoral Commission. The curriculum covers electoral administration.
Belinda Musanhu is senior programme officer for elections and political processes at EISA.