Why Don't We REALLY Use Best Practices in Elections?

In elections–heck, throughout both the public and private sectors–there are always people talking about “best practices.” People are on the lookout for best practices, trying to emulate best practices, trying to win awards for best pratices. But what does this really mean? What is a best practice and why are they important?

If you want to answer any question about public policy, the first stop can always be the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The GAO is perhaps the greatest evaluation tool in the nation and if you are remotely geeky–yes, you out there who watch CSPAN or read blogs about election reform–a leisurely surf around the GAO site yields many hidden nuggets of pure gold.

For example, the GAO not only evaluates everything from agriculture to the National Zoo, but they also issue reports on how to do things like best practices. In fact, they have a whole section of their website dedicated to best practices. And on the best practice site, there is a quite handy report: “Best Practices Methology: A New Approach for Improving Government Operations.” This report is quite a fun read, and walks you step by step through how to perform a best management practice review.

How do you do one of these reviews? Here are the steps.

First, you have to define what process it is you want to review, and define it correctly. This means discussing the process and creating a detailed, step-by-step flow chart so that every single step is charted. This process alone may help you identify and solve problems with your process before you go any further!

Second, you have to do your homework. Look for studies, research industry trends, speak with consultants, your peers, academics, and trade groups to get good background information. As you do this work, identify 5 to 10 organizations who are generally recognized as being among the best in your industry.

Third, develop a survey to use when you visit potential best practice organizations. This will allow you to ask the right questions and to ask similar questions to each organization you visit.

Fourth, visit these best organizations and benchmark their practices against yours. Remember, their practices and situation may be somewhat different, so be flexible and think about how you can apply their practices to your organization.

Fifth, identify the barriers to implementing best practices. These barriers may be legal, but they may also be embedded in your organizational culture. The barriers may also be in your head; often, organizations perceive a barrier to change that is not really there, so try to push aside biases you have and determine what the real barriers are to implementing best practices in your organization.

What is needed is for there to be more and better research on best practices in the United States. Local and state election officials need to understand how to conduct best practice management reviews and how to implement the results of these reviews in their organizations. The EAC–congressional funding willing–is a perfect organization to push this agenda in the future.