• Mark Nicholls

The story of COVID-19 at Democracy Counts: Adapting to new normals (Part 2)



Our clients, products and services

Amidst the backdrop of a serious global pandemic, the value of a business should not be viewed through the restrictive prism of pure financials alone; the way it reacts to help its customers, supports its staff and tries to assist the wider community are all markers of a good organisation.

The electoral register is generally considered to be the ‘gold standard’ of citizen-based data within a local authority. Within a week of lockdown, we had released reporting functionality to all our clients that allowed them to identify potentially vulnerable citizens from their electoral datasets. These reports were then used to inform much of the contingency planning that went on at a local level and allowed decisions to be made quickly and based on reliable information.

The swiftness with which Councils had to put in place working-from-home arrangements meant that many were, initially at least, reliant on staff using their own equipment to augment their Council-issued IT equipment. Recognising this, we were quick to provide software updates that allowed our products to be used on a variety of devices and non-standard screen-sizes. Whilst not sizeable in scope, these changes made a big difference to the day-to-day working experience of those that rely on our software. As already noted in our previous blog post, our own move away from an office-based environment for our client care staff was also done in such a way that our service level provisions to clients remained unaffected.

Our software is built to be flexible and can be used in thick or thin client environments. Councils that were used to operating in virtual environments experienced no software issues with staff working from home. Those who were unaccustomed to doing so were given support and assistance in setting up arrangements at no additional charge, meaning impacts upon functional operations were minimised.

We also looked at the additional logistical problems being faced by Councils by the closure of their offices. Electoral registration could not simply cease to operate – people still needed to be added to the register, whether their motivations were for democratic or credit reference purposes, and therefore forms still needed to be scanned and processed, online applications needed to be dealt with and registers still needed to be published and circulated. Furthermore, the reformed annual canvass was imminent with its huge associated increase in household and elector returns. We therefore scaled up our Scanning Bureau services whereby forms are redirected from Council offices to our controlled environment for opening, sorting and scanning. As a result, several of our clients have been able to continue to receive and process incoming mail, in large volumes, without having to open their own offices. To keep our own scanning staff safe, we introduced stringent health and safety protocols and training to ensure that their well-being was paramount.

We also recognised that Councils were revisiting their canvassing plans in light of social distancing measures and that many of them were looking into shifting some of their door-to-door canvassing plans to more telephone-based forms of canvassing. We therefore enhanced Particip8, our canvassing app, to accommodate the use of telephone canvassing and updated Elector8 to accurately record this. Conscious that the shift in canvassing mode was not just a functional challenge but a skills one also, we partnered with a renowned author and trainer to create an online learning course in our Educ8 product. This focused on the fundamentals of telephone canvassing – such as building rapport, active listening and dealing with difficult electors – and ensured that staff could be successfully redeployed to these new activities, confident in their ability to conduct their new roles in the safety of their own homes.

In addition, we’ve introduced new functionality into many of our existing products to help administrators plan for the likelihood of running elections next year amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Our polling station management tool, Authentic8, for example has been augmented with track and trace functionality, COVID-19 safety checklists for premise set-up and integration with our Citizen App to allow contact tracing to take place in the event of local authorities becoming aware of potential transmission risks when people have been voting in person.

One of the biggest challenges we faced as a business was how to onboard our new customers without the assurance that is usually provided by onsite UAT visits and face-to-face training. Indeed, one of our strengths is the quality and comprehensiveness of our migration processes and new user training. By its nature our new user training is very hands-on, with each key area of Elector8 covered in detail with supervised exercises that re-enforce learning. To deal with the change in nature of training remotely rather than in person, our Training Manager rewrote the entire three-day new user course to be more suitable for remote learning, with classroom-type sessions supplemented by checks on learning with Educ8. We also replaced our onsite floor-walking with daily catch-up sessions where users were encouraged to bring examples of practical issues they had encountered for discussion and resolution.

The way in which we approached the UAT process was also amended. In normal circumstances, UAT is performed on the client’s own infrastructure, allowing us to iron out any technical issues well in advance of go-live. However, with IT teams stretched and focused on rapidly bolstering their Council’s capabilities to switch to remote working, local resource to set up servers, databases and client environments for Elector8 was limited. Typically, we found that the usual lead-in time for installation was, understandably, at least doubled. Given the importance that we place in a comprehensive and well-managed UAT process, and the need to be operationally live and embedded before the canvass, we adopted a new process whereby client performed their UAT on our hosted platform – guaranteeing that they could perform all their necessary data checks without being held up by internal IT delays. Indeed, some of our new clients were so impressed by the resilience and performance of our hosted service during their UAT that they have now accelerated their plans to move their systems off-site into our hosted environment.

Our existing customers also saw changes to the way in which we approached tasks that had always been delivered in person but which, amidst a pandemic, were no longer feasible. In June, for example, we held our first ever virtual User Group. Freed of any expenses associated with travel and accommodation, we actually saw attendance from local authorities increase and with it more exposure to, and engagement with, our training, development and client care activities.

Our focus was not purely on our existing client base or even market: we were also conscious that within the organisation we had a wealth of skills that could be useful to public bodies as they sought to best adapt to the changes resulting from the pandemic crisis. We therefore signed up to the UK Government’s COVID-19 Supplier’s List – aimed at assisting public and third sector bodies with specialised support services – within three weeks of the lockdown being announced.

Our staff

Although we place our clients at the centre of everything that we do, when faced with the COVID-19 pandemic our priority always remained to our staff.

Many of our staff already worked remotely, so the impact of the lockdown changes, at least in terms of their day-to-day jobs, had minimal impact. For those based in our Warrington office, the arrangements for them to join their colleagues in working from home were put in place early and with their full co-operation.

The nature of the lockdown challenged everyone though, irrespective of how they had worked beforehand. We quickly promoted the various mental health services that staff members can access as part of their usual benefits. To guard against any employees feeling isolated or removed from their colleagues, we increased the frequency of team meetings and introduced regular one-to-ones between managers and their team members. We introduced a fortnightly staff survey that checked on their well-being. We also held our first ever virtual Staff Conference. Cross-departmental communication started to increase, projects became even more collaborative and new employees felt part of the wider business even more quickly than before. And a new tradition of ‘Quiz Fridays’ has emerged, in which staff members take it in turns hosting quizzes and games for the whole organisation. Even our Chief Executive has taken part (although he’s not won once).Given its popularity, this tradition has continued, even as lockdown restrictions have eased.

Conclusion

COVID-19 has changed the way we live our lives, how we socialise, how we travel, how we work. No area has been unaffected and its effects will be felt for many years to come. Businesses have been faced with unprecedented challenges, even beyond those of the financial crisis of 2008. Through a mixture of extensive business continuity planning and the fact that we are privileged to have an abundance of dedicated, talented, innovative staff, Democracy Counts has managed to emerge through the first wave of the pandemic arguably as a more robust, thriving company. There are more challenges to come, many more, but we will ensure that our commitment to our staff and our clients will remain unchanged.