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Still room for improvement at the Australian Electoral Commission


In its inquiry into the conduct of the 2013 Federal Election, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) heard that issues raised by the Keelty inquiry into the WA Senate election were similar to some matters that had been identified by the Auditor-General back in 2010.

In that context, the JSCEM wrote to the Auditor-General requesting that he examine the AEC’s implementation of recommendations he had made in 2010 about the AEC's preparation for and conduct of the 2007 Federal Election.

The Auditor-General decided that this follow-up would be conducted through three related performance audits of: physical security of completed ballot papers; workforce planning, the selection of premises, and further aspects of ballot paper security; and the accuracy and completeness of the electoral roll.

In the first follow-up audit, tabled in May 2014, the Auditor-General concluded that there needed to be ‘stronger ownership of the implementation of agreed ANAO recommendations within the AEC,’ and emphasised the importance of:

…. assurance that the action taken in response to agreed recommendations effectively addresses the matters that lead to recommendations being made ...

The second follow-up audit, tabled on 5 November 2014, assessed the AEC’s implementation of recommendations relating to:

  • a more strategic approach to election workforce planning, with a particular focus on the selection, recruitment, training and performance evaluation of election officials;
  • the suitability and accessibility of polling booths and fresh scrutiny premises; and
  • the transport and storage of completed ballot papers, in respect to matters not fully addressed in the first follow-up audit; specifically, compliance with new policies and procedures introduced to address the Keelty report recommendations for the WA Senate election 2014.

The Auditor-General noted that, by March 2012, the AEC had informed its audit committee that implementation of each recommendation from 2010 had been completed. However, notwithstanding improvement in some areas (in particular, more timely recruitment of election officials, and improved approaches to their training), the Auditor-General found that:

  • there was little change evident between the 2007 and 2013 elections in how the AEC selects premises for voting and vote counting purposes;
  • the AEC has yet to develop a workforce plan to assist with addressing the challenges associated with retaining, recruiting and training a large number of temporary election officials, and responding to continuing high levels of temporary staff turnover between elections;
  • records of the recruitment of polling place staff for the 2013 election demonstrate that 34 per cent of people appointed to those roles had not been assessed as to their suitability;
  • it is relatively common for people employed as election officials to not complete some or all of the assigned training; and
  • performance assessment ratings have not been recorded for all election officials at either the 2010 or 2013 elections (compliance with this requirement was 87 per cent and 80 per cent respectively).

On the way forward for the AEC, the Auditor-General observed that:

… although lacking rigour in certain respects, the arrangements adopted to monitor implementation of interim measures to respond to the Keelty report, and assess their effectiveness, demonstrate a greater commitment to organisational learning and improvement than has previously been evident.

However, the Auditor-General also noted that ‘the challenge for the AEC is to sustain and build on this greater commitment … ‘.

The AEC’s commitment to organisational learning and improvement is likely to be under scrutiny again in the Auditor-General’s third follow-up audit, which has been included as a potential audit in the ANAO’s 2014–15 forward work program.

In addition, the Auditor-General has foreshadowed a performance audit of the AEC after the next Federal Election. We could expect the post-Election audit to examine the AEC’s response to the Auditor-General’s observation that, notwithstanding a continuing trend towards early voting rather than voting on election Saturday, the number of static polling place premises has remained largely unchanged across the last four elections. The Auditor-General estimates that abolishing polling places expected to receive relatively few votes, and combining polling places located relatively close together into newer, larger premises, could result in the AEC recruiting and training 4,600 fewer polling place staff.

Many of the above issues were canvassed again at the JSCEM on 12 November 2014, when the Auditor-General and colleagues returned to give more evidence to the inquiry into the conduct of the 2013 Federal Election.

And in a further development arising from the inquiry, the JCSEM has published An assessment of electronic voting options.

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