Lessons in Service Management from a Poll Rat

I have had time to assimilate the lessons in service management yesterday gave me.


My shoulders have been aching today from a long shift of public service. I was a returning officer (specifically a Revising Deputy Returning Officer or RDRO: trained to enter and update voter records as well as verify them) in yesterday’s provincial election at a polling location that had people queued up to get their ballots and vote for the most of the 12 hours the polls were open. The day held several lessons.

The diversity of the neighbourhood delighted me. I’d expected retirees of a specific set of ethnicities, stay at home parents, and a mix of professionals near or past the typical career midpoint. The visibly queer, the young adults, the artfully tattooed, the people you expect to see behind the counter and not on the street in the area: I’d had no idea there were proportionally so many people from these demographics in a semi-suburban area. I appreciated the reminder to challenge my assumptions, regardless of the quality of data behind them.

Another set of invisible people came out to vote: the disabled and those without the ability to communicate in English. Our poll’s supervisor was effective at identifying many of those in need of additional assistance and matching them with the best available resources. Current best practice for serving people with exceptional needs gives control of situations to the customer: asking if assistance is needed, looking to them for direction on the type of assistance, addressing the individual directly when they have a companion or translator. While there are circumstances where they provide incorrect information about their needs, approaching the customer as the expert on their circumstances makes sense in most cases.

A few people came to the poll to formally decline their ballot. The process was covered in training and the procedure manual, but one of the steps was confusing due to hard to find information about one field on one form. Patient perseverance on the part of both parties was key to ensuring procedure was followed to the satisfaction of the voter as well as the information gathering requirements of Elections Ontario.

Some voters shared information on the difficulties they’d experienced or witnessed others having. We listened to their complaints. We shared relevant information about the underlying circumstances when possible (e.g., the obvious parking lot was at the opposite end of the building from the poll and we didn’t have enough permissible signs to direct people to the correct location). Where we could make things easier for them, or for the next person in similar circumstances, we did so and thanked them for helping us help the community. We asked everyone voicing a complaint to take a few minutes to record it if they had time to spare after they voted, so we could have a record to bring back to Elections Ontario. Some did. Encouraging people to give us actionable feedback helped us identify issues, solve some problems, and send information on problems beyond our ability to the next level of support.

This was the first election in which technology was used to provide Returning Officers with voter lists and the capability to update them. The technology was an improvement over the manual method, but there were some frustrating aspects of the UX. I suspect the testing that had been done through development didn’t have enough focus on reducing the cognitive load of an RDRO who might be under considerable stress. I tracked the time I spent on the most difficult circumstance throughout the day and gave that as an estimate up front of how long it might take to update or create a person’s voter registration. I let the customer know the state of work in complex cases and what I needed from them before I needed it. I gave them useful small tasks  (this would be a good time to put your ID away) and thanked them for their patience and dedication to getting the important work of registering to vote done. Where the nature of work flow permitted, we commiserated on the problems inherent in replacing a manual process with a technology-based one.

Thanks to the size of the poll, we had multiple staff at all positions. This allowed us to take brief breaks as each of us needed without completely stopping any function. I did push through the last hour the polls were open without addressing my craving to stand up and walk beyond the confines of the room, not noticing the time pass as I concentrated on serving the people queued in front of me. In general, however, we all made sure we took care of our own and our colleagues’ needs so we would have physical, emotional, and mental reserves to draw on to do our jobs effectively. A supervisor brought water so we didn’t have to leave the room to get a drink if we weren’t comfortable doing so. Two other staff shared cookies and fruit at some point in the day, boosting morale and providing a bit of energy to carry on.

By concentrating on our role as service providers to enable people to accomplish their goal regardless of whether we personally agreed with their choices, we made it easy for people to focus on getting the work of electing an MPP done. Partisanship was off the table the moment I took my oath in training and stayed there until the polls had closed, we’d finished cleaning up, and the supervisors declared our work over. I appreciated every person who took the time out of their day to come to the poll and vote, regardless of their specific choice.

Almost a full 24 hours after the polls closed, I will need plenty more time to understand how the election results affect me and the communities I work in and around. But I have had time to assimilate the lessons in service management yesterday gave me. I will carry them with me in my work and my life.

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