This article is more than 1 year old

On elections, have we forgotten how to innovate?

This article is more than 1 year old

Nick Smith is a consultant specializing in governance

The democratic edifice of NUS National Conference 2008 mandated me to talk to the Charity Commissioner for England and Wales about the benefits of snakebite and black and vodka shots while dressed as a Smurf.

As the NUS staff member for higher education union development at the time, I watched as conference floor requested that we try to convince the charity regulator that running a nightclub was charitable because of the sense of community and transformation it can bring.

Who needs a belonging strategy when you can drop the Baywatch theme or Country Roads on a packed dancefloor? Two weeks later I made the case – and was given a raised eyebrow and a wry smile.

Early in April this year, I did have a transformative moment in the basement of a students union venue. At the “New Rules” event I was impressed and motivated by participants from across the UK coming together to think about things in new ways.

The overall task was to prepare a strategy for a union while being disrupted (in a good way) by new contexts, goals or restrictions.

Round and around we go

We are all goldfish to some extent, by which I mean we know the spaces that we inhabit but routine, limited capacity and time mean that we can get stuck in a cycle.

This is natural when trying to actually do the day job, and the event was an opportunity to smash those bowls and try to create something different.

One area I spend a large amount of time advising on is elections. The issues are often talked about, and SUs frequently wonder if they should be doing more for quality of engagement than just chasing quantity of voters.

The processes take up a lot of time and effort during the spring term, and candidates don’t understand the roles and those who don’t win disengage soon after the process finishes.

Again we can find ourselves without time to reflect as we just keep swimming to the next thing on the to-do list before we’ve done another circuit of the castle and it’s election time again.

Fishing deeper

It’s summer now though, and we do have some time to consider this in more depth. I’m hoping my thoughts in this guide are useful for folks in local unions, especially democracy staff, to re-evaluate their practice by thinking about big changes.

What would happen if you banned individuals from standing and just elected slates? If candidates had to make connections, build teams and allies and demonstrate a collective approach to projects before the vote as well as once elected? Isn’t doing it before the election more honest than doing so behind closed doors over the Summer?

We can have two year sabbaticals, why not just put everyone in a two year position for continuity?

Blue skies thinking is all well and good but we need to have some grounding. I can suggest that we just make ballot papers out of jam and that’s a new perspective but hardly useful.

So in the document I’ve considered Graham Smith’s democratic goods to test a number of models and provide a measure to monitor whether they could be successful. Areas like inclusiveness, popular control and considered judgement of the electorate gave me a bit of a framework to assess what can be done.

I also took the often ambiguous 1994 education act and tried to consider what could be done within it (as long as the grey suits on the university governing body agree that it’s democratic) and was surprised by the flexibility that exists.

My final boundary is a value based one. Despite almost 20 years in the sector I still believe in student leadership. It is messy and frustrating, it’s difficult to get right and subject to change due to unseen forces and I think it is incredibly worthwhile. Lots of good people do things for students, but if we don’t do things with them, and with them at every level, then I think we stop being students’ unions.

There’s no single solution to the problems we face and you’d be rightly cynical if I said I’d unlocked the answer to all the queries we’ve had for so many years. But by considering the absolute boundaries of what we do I hope that you can find elements of change within your practices at least, and maybe even get yourself a whole new fishbowl.

Nick Smith’s guide to new election rules is downloadable here

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