After leaving the student movement just over a year ago this year was the first time in 12 years that I was not been heavily immersed in the mania that is SU elections season. Running Candidate Academy events, delivering candidate briefings, checking live stats every 10 minutes and having creative debate with communications staff on what effective messaging looks like. It may be rose-tinted glasses but I have to be honest, I missed it. The distance from SU elections has given me time to reflect. Some of the happiest times in my professional career were working in a great team within a fantastic Students’ Union taking elections turnout from 17.5% to 40% of the student body in 4 years. A great learning journey and the creation of an incredibly strong engagement culture.
Watching from a distance I have seen some very strong turnouts across the country so far, a great number of Unions reporting record turnouts and continuing to build some strong engagement cultures. I have also seen a number of stagnating Unions and some that are unfortunately moving backwards in terms of turnout. For these Unions is a high elections turnout still desirable or a key objective? Maybe not.
For me, elections turnout has always been an overall indicator for how “engaged” students are with the Students’ Union; for how much the SU resonates with their experience so that they are moved to vote for the candidates that they believe will genuinely improve life for them and their peers. In short, I used to think it was a sign of how relevant the SU was in students’ lives. There is also the age-old argument that a high turnout underlines the ability of the SU to be the legitimate voice of students on campus and beyond, strengthening the position and clout of elected officers in their campaigning and advocacy work. Happening upon a draft of an old debrief from 2014 this week I was reminded of the key principles and processes that led to the creation of a such a healthy engagement culture. Much of this could be common sense and perhaps considered basic but often the best ideas are the simplest ones and very often we see the best teams are the ones that can do the simple things well. With this in mind I thought I would share some of the nuggets of advice from 2014 and beyond that I’ve found to be a winning formula, and as a rather cathartic solution to my SU elections withdrawal.
A Union-wide effort
An important aspect of a truly successful engagement culture is the ability of the department running the election to relinquish control and to try to encourage other Union departments and colleagues to take a sense of ownership of the project. For example, running staff brainstorming sessions on how the Union can encourage more elections candidates and then more voters. Taking their suggestions and asking them to pursue them and report back. This gives staff more of a sense of ownership and emotional investment in the project.
An amazing added value to this was when you open up the elections to your colleagues in the planning stages you then find that during the voting period staff are more intrinsically motivated to wear an elections promo t-shirt or proactively encourage students to vote rather than feeling like they have to. The staff are more invested and there is more of a buzz around the Union.
Issues based engagement: a virtuous circle for candidates and voters
I always believed that campaigning work and democratic work were two sides of the same coin, that if the Students’ Union had an effective method of scoping and tracking the issues that the Union campaigns on this would also be of massive benefit at elections time. So this would involve having a system in place that allows Union officers and staff to have a full picture of the issues that students are experiencing. So looking at Student Advice statistics, results of surveys/focus groups, minutes of course rep meetings, issues coming out of liberation/representation groups, GOATing/GOALing insight, issues coming through democratic decision making or online ideas polling. I could go on and on but the outlets listed here are what I would call “Student Voice Access Points”, and devising a process to know the issues that different segments of the student body are experiencing; in schools, campuses, liberation groups, halls, areas of the local community, courses and other relevant demographics.
The key thing here is being able to appreciate the issues that students are experiencing on a number of diverse levels, so that when it comes to running manifesto workshops with candidates you can then brief them on those issues and encourage them to debate solutions. All too often candidates can be left in the dark when it comes to building winning manifestos but it’s actually better for the student body and the elections if they are given a full insight to student issues in order to craft a meaningful manifesto for voters. As a staff member in an SU if you find yourself wanting to tear your hair out at unrealistic or ill-informed manifesto pledges maybe you should ask yourself what the Union could be doing to ensure strong manifestos that, whilst appreciating candidates’ creativity and individualism, are also accurate in terms of understanding the student experience and the context that the Union operates in. This way of working with candidates also gives a basis of reference for the winning candidates by role-modelling an approach that elected officers should take in listening to the student voice as a key first step before running a campaign or project. Moreover, this becomes a key part of the “support offer” to prospective candidates to encourage more people to run for election. It is also support a Union can ensure a large number of candidates receive, rather than just those that glean this insight by having the confidence to shadow outgoing officers or speak to relevant SU staff prior to running.
This creates the virtuous circle as the efforts made and the resultant relevant manifestos will unquestionably make the elections more relevant to an increased number of students. The next step is to engage students with voting, right?
Tailored messaging for voting – Start with “why” and not “what”
I mentioned above that I fondly look back at parts of my career recalling “creative debates” with various communications staff in SUs about what effective elections messaging looks like. Now, of course the fact that the elections are happening needs to be broadcast via the usual conventional means. But crucially for me; when does this stop? How often do we hear people complaining about voting fatigue or students being bombarded with “vote now” messages? Is it voting fatigue or are students just tired of hearing “vote in the elections” or similar for two weeks straight over many different channels?
The key question for me was one of awareness vs relevance. Are we just trying to ensure students are aware of the elections and then if they are aware the logic dictates that they will vote? Or are we aiming for something more than reach and more than awareness? I think we have to aim for more meaningful engagement. We have to tailor our messaging to ensure students are made aware of the elections and why it is relevant for them to vote; by this I mean the impact they could see in their experience by electing a candidate to create change on their behalf.
We usually lead with “what” and “how”, without sometimes explaining “why” students should vote. So for example you will see a social media post or website/email copy that reads:
“Voting in the SU Elections is now open, cast your vote and have your say on the elections voting app”
This style tells the reader that the SU Elections are happening (“the what”) and that you can vote (“the how”), but where is the why and where is the targeting? Going back to the issues tracking above if you know that students on a satellite campus are concerned about the safety of a local road and you know that the candidates for the officer role that would be responsible for that area have policy on the road, then tap into it. For example:
“Are you concerned for the safety of xyz road leading up to campus? We know a lot of students at xyz campus are.
The SU elections candidate for VP Community are currently vying for your vote and discuss in their manifestos how they plan to tackle this issue.
Who do you want representing you and xyz campus students on this issue?
Have your say now on the elections app”
The above example provides the link between the student experience and the act of voting, and upon sending out these targeted relevant messages on a relevant Facebook page, Twitter feed or most effectively in a plain text mail-merged email direct to the students. It almost takes students right up the apathy staircase and after sending out a few targeted messages like this you start to see votes roll in. No one opens newsletters anymore, sorry but for a few exceptions you know it’s true.
In another SU that I worked in we took it a step further; in that we gave candidates the opportunity to create a manifesto specifically for the School of Art and Design based on a satellite campus, having briefed them with the key issues. So when we messaged the students in this school we were able to pepper the messaging with the most prevalent issues as we understood them and were able to link them to the targeted manifestos. The reason that we did this was because the students in the school claimed that the elections were not relevant to them. There’s that word again, “relevant”. We saw a 65% rise in voting within that school that year.
Using this approach to engagement I’ve also found that I’ve never needed to pedal an incentive to get students to vote, like an SU voucher or printer credit. To me it just never really seemed right. That’s not to say don’t do it, but I’ve not seen any evidence that this kind of instant reward builds the kind of engagement culture that I’ve been taking about.
The idea to “Start with Why” is something that I took directly from Simon Sinek’s famous TED Talk and book; but it really works in practice.
Principles not prescription
Too many rules are an elections worst enemy. I thought it would be an interesting exercise to have a competition across the movement for the most ridiculous election rule, as I’ve seen some classics through the years. Rules that limit creativity, that encourage complaints and that ultimately eat up the precious time of the staff coordinating the elections.
Some rules such as when voting opens, how much the budget is, etc are essential but for me the general rule is that less is more. The more time staff are spending on election complaints the less time they have to engage voters, moreover the more time the candidates spend complaining the less time they have to speak to potential voters and the more toxic an election contest can be.
A lot of SU teams have eliminated strict elections rules and adopted an approach based on elections principles or values. The advice if you are looking to do this is to take a look at your long list of rules and ask what underlying principles such rules are trying to uphold; once done you have a smaller more general list of principles for candidates to role model rather than a number of sticks to beat one another with.
Empowered candidates and empowered student groups
Some of the most successful elections periods that I have been a part of have coincided with the Union putting a special effort into encouraging officers and campaign staff to organise with an emphasis on relationship building. A lot of elections candidates fed back that what made them really consider running was someone suggesting to them, face-to-face, that they would be good for the role and the most effective was a current officer approaching them. This gave these candidates the belief and made the election seem accessible. This also saw the Union tracking candidates based on their involvement in the Union, not just the leaders of large groups and networks but students that were active across multiple areas and students that showed a high level of commitment to a particular area of the Union or were campaigning passionately on a single issue. What we would then do is send the potential candidates a letter, signed by the President, stating that they have been recommended as a candidate and inviting them to a Candidate Academy event. This event would usually take place at the end of January, just before nominations opened. We did have some feedback that this could be seen as “cherry picking” candidates and may put people off that do not receive letters, so with this in mind we decided to include suggestions of students “outside of the Union bubble/echo chamber” and looked at where our students were involved in University initiatives, their course and their local community. The most successful of these saw around 160 letters being sent out in the post and around 55 students attending Candidate Academy.
Encourage the candidates then to think outside the box, think Seth Godin and “Purple Cow”. Essentially how can candidates stand out from the crowd, if candidates are all doing roughly the same thing although there will be a lot of reach and the unengaged will see something is happening they will be engaging by tactics that seek to stand out from the crowd and show creativity. This is another reason why rules should not be so prescriptive.
Once people know that they are running it’s important to encourage candidates to approach student groups and networks to enhance their listening and appreciation of the student experience. We shouldn’t be stopping this as you are literally halting people from talking about the election – and there is no way that you can successfully police this. If you can’t police it, try to own it. It’s also important for officers to play their part in building elections engagement. If sabbs or elected officers hold good relationships with student groups and network leaders then empower those groups and networks to hold their own Candidate Q and A sessions, encourage them to lobby and to offer their support to candidates that they feel would do the most good for their respective groups. I’ve often thought that it is ridiculous not to have clubs and societies being able to offer endorsement, this usually happens unofficially anyway and isn’t it best to treat the electorate as adults capable of making their own decision? Endorsements enhance representation and democracy if done right and a democratic decision is taken by that club/society or student group. This can open up the elections to more students and a peer led element which can lead to more diverse engagement.
Live stats, friendly rivalries and building sense of belonging
A lot of SUs are using live stats to show overall turnout and voting across a variety of demographics. Some SUs go all out and have an all singing, all dancing array of live statistics that can tell you how many voters may have skipped breakfast on that day! Nevertheless, it’s a great visual way of engaging more people (students and staff) in the elections as a whole. It’s important to use the live stats to encourage further participation, a mix of positive reinforcement and injustice injection can work in targeted messaging.
A former manager and mentor of mine used to describe student participation in elections on a continuum. He would say that 10-15% students are keen and the kind of voters that will vote anyway and will actively seek it out (Almost like an SU version of Gladwell’s “Tipping Point”). This struck a chord with me; there are a number of different motivations that are linked to values as to who will turn out to vote, which is why the type of “why” must be varied and appeal to differing values.
For example, people enjoy being part of collective success in their “tribes”, so if you see in the live stats that the School of History has pulled ahead of the School of Politics in the voting league tables you can bet that if you message History students congratulating them and then message Politics students warning them that they’ve been overtaken this will result in more votes coming in from both sets of students. Encouraging this friendly rivalry helps build communities but the real winner is student democracy.
Stay honest and avoid using excuses
“Students are apathetic”, “The voting system went down”, “Bad weather was to blame”, “We didn’t have enough candidates”, “The elections aren’t relevant to students”, “The candidates didn’t create the same buzz as last year…”
Sound familiar? Maybe, maybe not. I have always believed that the success of elections is 49% how well the elections themselves are run, 49% how effective the SU are at engaging students in the SU as a whole and the remaining 2% is magic.
Are students apathetic? Or is the SU just not that relevant or doing a good enough job of engaging students?
If the voting system goes down for 1 or even 2 hours what does that mean for the turnout in the hours that the system was working fine?
Don’t let bad weather define the whole of your elections, there are actions you can take to invest in a strong engagement culture before nominations even open, let alone before the weather turns.
Ultimately I would love to see Unions returning higher and higher elections turnouts. There may be questions to come in the future about our collective legitimacy which seek to limit SU influence and then have a knock-on effect for resources and student participation. Wouldn’t it be great if on every campus across the UK more students vote than not? Wouldn’t it be great if we could say that SUs are relevant and here’s why? Or is elections turnout not all it’s cracked up to, a misguided KPI?
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