Looking at a report on a tablet. Photo dowell / Getty images

Data for industrial action balloting – PCS case study

At PCS, we took the decision a few years back to modernize our membership database with Salesforce – a modern platform CRM system. That’s been an important underpinning for this work as it allowed us to take on deeper and more responsive tech projects in many areas around member data.

Where it’s been particularly helpful has been in balloting. We know the Trade Union Act thresholds are a problem for us all. So understanding turnout and where we should best focus our resources is a need for our union.

2019 was the first time we collected data from members on whether they had voted in a ballot. This was our first iteration of what we called our ‘branch app’ – a Salesforce-based tool for reps to submit information about their branches. Data was being collected by the branch app, but also phone banking via CallHub, and a web form on our website. At that time we were still using the less flexible Commix system for our core membership database, but we were able to make an API connection with Salesforce that allowed all these data collection points to go through Salesforce and update into our Commix records as well.

We didn’t meet the threshold in that ballot, though we did get our highest turnout yet in a national ballot. And we also had gathered useful data for analysing voting hotspots and trends.

We then went fully live in 2020 with Salesforce, which removed the issue of APIs and created a single source of truth for PCS’ membership data.

So moving forward to 2022, we made the decision to run a consultative ballot and we updated the branch app (now called the organizing app) to work more effectively in data collection. Now this tool allowed our reps to record information every time a member was spoken to, from their mobile phone.

It wasn’t our only route. We still used CallHub, bulk email responses and survey responses, but we also worked with the scrutineers and were able to get up-to-date information on who had voted. This allowed us to identify branches that needed more work and support to get through thresholds. We set up an oversight team that met daily to review the top level data, and to manage strategy and workloads during the ballot period.

Again, we didn’t get through the threshold, but the progress we made on this consultative ballot allowed us to move towards a national statutory ballot with more confidence.

But before that, we rebuilt the app from the ground up with greater flexibility in its operation. The Salesforce connection allowed us to provide varied levels of access in an automated way. We renamed it again as the ‘organizing hub’.

Staff and reps used it to conduct a major data cleanse, which saw interactions with 82,000 members in the lead-up to the national ballot.

That included confirming and updating contact details, ballot addresses and work grades, and marking the member in the system as having been contacts. We also created an external authentication for our member to update their own record using a web link with a unique code.

This helped us continue with a single source of truth model as all data entry points were integrated with Salesforce and updated the member database directly.

So this updated organising hub allowed us to bring in the earlier data from the consultative ballot, and we measured engagement differences between the two ballots in terms of voting status, and if they’d been contacted during the data cleanse. It allowed us to prioritize discussions with members who’d not been contacted previously, or who had not yet told us that they’ve voted.

We were also able to trigger replacement ballot papers via a process that met the legal requirements, with the member verifying their existing contact details before requesting that replacement. This freed up our ballot team to process almost 9,000 replacement ballot papers during a four week period.

The organizing hub was set up to identify whether the member had pushed the ballot paper, or whether they intended to do so. We were able to produce reports based on the data coming in, to show estimated turnout breakdown by workplace branch, employer, group, and region. That meant our organizing team could better prioritize their resources.

The final turnout figure was 3% above what we had predicted it would be in the organising hub – a much closer result than our previous attempts. We won the ballot in 126 bargaining areas. We had an overall turnout exceeding 50% and it’s the highest result on the biggest ballot that PCs has run to date.

So we now have live reports set up for the areas with industrial election mandates, and we can also repurpose reports for any reballots at key employers that didn’t meet the 50% threshold the first time.

So what we learned from this was:

  • We were able to break down turnout by employer group, and by branches within that. And it allowed us to focus resources in the areas that were needed.
  • One-to-one conversations with members are still a key component of our organizing campaigning, but many of our members are still working from home, where this is harder.
  • Strong communication strategies need to be implemented early on in campaigns to be fully effective. In theory, we were probably training for this for almost a year.
  • Having an oversight team from across the union to break down the silos is more effective in letting our work be driven by the data and developing those communication strategies.
  • The active engagement with digital solutions is key to success, but this means they have to be properly accessible and user-friendly in order to work for everyone.

And summing up, how did this inform our strategy?

It allowed for smarter assignment of resources for branch organizing where this was weak, or in key areas to engage larger numbers of members.

It provided branches with a percentage voted graphic that they could promote in social media to give them a bit of gamification to the process. This helped them push each other to get the turn out up.

The development of the latest iteration of the organising hub started months prior to the data cleanse exercise – the tool changed a lot over this period. So having a flexible and extensible CRM is essential to be shift with the change in demands that are part of ballot work.

The initial learnings led us to have a disaggregated national ballot by employer, to mitigate the risk of not being able to make the overall threshold. And that has allowed us to identify reballots where appropriate.

We created a coordination team that meets weekly, months in advance of the ballot kick off. This has been key in identifying barriers and agreeing ways of overcoming them.

This data-first approach led us to an intelligence-based strategy. It’s helped us make decisions about our communications, our channels of communications, our activity with a membership and its efficiency and effectiveness. In a nutshell, data is king.

Karen Foster is Senior National Officer at PCS. This blog is taken from a presentation she made to a TUC Digital Lab webinar.

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