Unfortunately, the sensible, imaginative and pragmatic approach of using electronic communication to supplement other forms of communication with members is being obstructed and frustrated by ill-judged advice in Pay Bulletin 11.
The bulletin's author was driven to dip their quill pen into the inkwell by the news that branches might use the "survey monkey" site (rather as the national union did during the pensions dispute...)
I am grateful to officers of the Camden local government branch for what follows, as they have considered the bulletin point by point.
Pay Bulletin 11 says;
"The agreed Service Group Pay Consultation Procedures agreed at conference suggest 'flexibility', but do not provide for electronic consultation. (We will look at this with a view to a potential safe means of electronic consultation for future consultations, but this would need to be agreed by Conference)."
"We have used electronic consultation before to feed into national union decisions, for example in consultation on initial pay claim, where I believe we had the biggest response of any branch in London. Furthermore even official industrial action ballots, such as the Unison ballot for the November 30 pension strike, had the ability to vote online, despite the restrictive legislation around industrial action.
In 2013, when over 80% of UK households have internet connections, and 70% of people use a computer every day, not to mention the millions of people with smartphones - including vast majority of our members - it is inconceivable that we should be denied this avenue for communicating with our members."
Pay Bulletin 11 says;
"There is significant scope for abuse of the consultation process through multiple voting using Survey Monkey or other electronic means and it is therefore not appropriate to use it."
Which does beg the question about national use of the site last year, but anyway, Camden say;
"This is completely inaccurate and based on a misunderstanding or inadequate knowledge of surveymonkey or other electronic survey systems. The most common type of online survey used by Unison nationally is an open survey. However we use surveymonkey's closed surveys where personalised individual ballots are e-mailed to each individual member who can then make their individual vote through a secured encrypted connection. This ensures that only active members can vote and that each member only has one vote. The system records every member who does vote and every member who doesn't.
This is much more secure than workplace meetings or workplace ballots - as with the former members can attend multiple workplace meetings and vote multiple times, and with the latter ballot papers are not individualised so members or even non-members could fill in and return ballots from people's pigeonholes or inboxes."
Pay Bulletin 11 says;
"Our own experience shows overwhelmingly that electronic surveys result in substantial under-representation of 'hard to reach', front-line, low paid and part-time staff. This was borne out in our survey of local government workers earlier in the year. While part-time workers are 55% of the local government workforce, 75% of survey respondents were full-time and skewed towards higher earners. This is presumably because they have access to IT in their jobs and are more likely to be conversant with it."
"Again, this is referring to open surveys, not individualised ballots. In our experience, electronic ballots have much higher turnout than paper ones. In a recent branch indicative ballot turnout from 1700 members over e-mail was 43% but turnout from paper ballots sent to work or home addresses was only 12%. It is true that more low-paid staff in general have less internet access than the better paid but amongst those that do have internet access they are more likely to vote electronically than ones surveyed on paper.
And this is not an argument against our preferred method consultation, which is to:
- consult those members whose e-mail addresses we have by e-mail
- consult those whose e-mail addresses we do not have by post to home or workplace addresses."
Pay Bulletin 11 says:
"On-line consultation alone could mitigate against recruiting and organising around pay. Branches are being encouraged to hold branch and workplace meetings."
Camden, tiring perhaps a liitle at having to respond to such foolishness, say;
"This is a non sequitur. You could equally argue that e-mailing members at all "mitigates against recruiting and organising…". Not recruiting or organising of course mitigates against recruiting and organising. The best strategy is to combine recruitment and organising activity like shop meetings with the most effective method of consulting, and shop meetings can be used to increase turnout in the consultation and recruit more members."
Finally (at last!) Pay Bulletin 11 says;
"It is very important that all members receive the same questions, in the same format and that the consultation is carried out consistently. Use of Survey Monkey could undermine this."
Camden, quite rightly, say;
"In fact, using an electronic survey makes this much easier to do, as questions and answer options can be presented uniformly much more easily than can be guaranteed in shop meetings."
Overall then, Pay Bulletin 11 has to be awarded a grade "F" as a poor piece of work, founded upon misunderstanding and pushing in exactly the wrong direction. The spirit and intent of Conference policy is clearly to encourage branches to use all suitably robust means of consultation to maximise member participation.
There will doubtless those who perceive here a deliberate ploy to reduce participation in branches likely to return majorities to reject. It may be that there are those at the UNISON Centre who no longer believe in national strike action and would be happy to avert it.
However, this smacks more of "cock-up" than conspiracy. It's fairly obvious that our active local government branches have more relevant skills and experience to conduct ballots (outside the strict and specific laws around industrial action or union elections) than can be found at the UNISON Centre. (Who is it, after all, who counts the votes in a General Election?) It's equally obvious (to me at least) that the Camden branch (for one) have a better understanding of the use of electronic consultation than that upon which the author of Pay Bulletin 11 was able to draw.
Service Group Executive members should probably try to assert themselves and bring some common sense to bear on the situation.
In the mean time, activists need to crack on with securing maximum participation in consultation - and maximum rejection of the 1% pay insult.
And the author of Pay Bulletin 11 should pop out for some more blotting paper...
Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange