Learning outside the classroom – a Student Council election perspective

Image courtesy of: tribune.com.pk

Image courtesy of: tribune.com.pk

By Huynh Ngoc Tan and David DeBrot

I worked with Tan during the 2013 RMIT Vietnam Student Council Elections. As the Returning Officer, I got to see first hand how our students engage in important community initiatives such as the Student Council Elections. I invited Huynh Ngoc Tan, BIS student and campaign manager of the winning presidential candidate, to share what he learned in the process of those Elections. – David DeBrot

Enter the first RMIT Vietnam Student Council (SC) election in 2012. If my calculation is correct, out of over 6,000 students, less than 550 students voted. The voter turn-out ratio in the 2012 US Presidential election is 57.5% (1) while the voter turn-out for Vietnam in the 2011 election is 99.51% (2). In this context, perhaps this number from the 2012 RMIT Vietnam Student Council Election gives a better reality check: less than 10% of the student voted. In that first election of 2012, students did not seem to care so much and apathy was common. Fast forward to one year later, due to lack of proper public relation effort, there was a noticeable sense of disapproval for the Student Council and its activities over different social media channels.

I am a current RMIT Vietnam Student. I believe politics can be good. I believe Student Council is an amazing concept by RMIT Vietnam in order to brings a participatory democratic practice to Vietnamese students as part of the educational transformation. However, I saw a big gap between what was being offered and the maturity or the readiness of the receivers. Before the 2013 election, I thought I saw a need to mitigate the risk of the SC concept being undermined by misinformation and immaturity, but I was wrong. Anyhow, I had a very strong motivation to step up and do something for the 2013 election and SC as a whole.

I began my process of evaluating each presidential candidate one week before the election. Due to the recent course of events, all candidates had similar running policy for the management part of SC structure. The differences among the candidates fall under two categories: the definition of student body and the activity theme. I was looking for a more radical view of student body beyond the club & society boundary and a strong focus in improving the student right with very practical approach.

I’ve finally met Thuy Pham (the eventual winner of the presidential elections) on the day before the voting started with a few staff of mine. We exchanged our thoughts about the issues within RMIT Vietnam and Student Council for a very long time. While being branded as the underdog in the election, Thuy was a true believer and was determined to win. So the final offer was that I would become her campaign manager and be unquestionably trusted during the entire campaign.  She agreed. The roles were very clear: Thuy was to focus on her policy development and I was in full control of the campaign execution.

A decomposition technique was used. I identified “voting for Thuy” as the target behavior and found it’s quite tough to apply any analysis on this composite behavior. So I broke it down into two different target behaviors: know about Thuy and her policies and accept the proposed policies (hence the vote). Up to that point, the only place to view a candidate policy statement was the official election website. From the homepage of that website, it would take a few clicks to finally open up a candidate personal page. There was no direct link to view a personal page – hence we concluded that the possibility for the behavior of viewing a candidate profile was rather low (low ability to execute- BJ Fogg (3)). We needed a facilitator.  By the end of day 1, we launched the official candidate blog with the universal address as “scthuypham.wordpress.com” which I believed was easy to remember and only 1 click away from the actual content.
 
It is important to acknowledge several facts: Thuy was not as eloquently proficient as the other candidates, her communication skills, while filled with confidence, did lack certain smoothness, in both online and offline context. Thuy and Ha (the 2nd round candidates) both had approximately 350 friends on Facebook. Thuy’s average status update often receive less than 20 likes while Ha’s number was often between 35 to 50. 

The strategy worked. We got 260 real views according to WordPress statistics and won the first round with more than 420 votes, 100 votes (or 33%) higher than the next runner-up. This proves that the students, being given enough information that can be accessed in an easy way, would actually spend time to read about a candidate and take action if the message was right. Furthermore, it validated my view that the students want actual well-prepared plans with details rather than groundless promises. We spent the next few days during the second round focusing solely on building the content and promoting the visibility of the candidacy website. In the end, Thuy Pham won the second round by 150 votes and thus achieved the successful presidential election.

Looking back, I am very contented, but not  because of our victory. I was happy and still am happy because of the amazing journey I’ve been through and the effects it brought upon RMIT Vietnam during those few electoral days. Talk – good, bad, flaming – about the election appeared everywhere: Facebook, RMIT Confessions, RMIT Vietnam News, and club websites.

The few last minutes of the 2nd round of the presidential election was broadcast live over Facebook with  many students standing by to watch, some of whom were hoping for a last-minute miracle for the other candidate. The air was fantastic. More than 1,000 students voted, which is almost double that of last year’s (2012) turnout. I may have learned many valuable lessons in the field of campaigning, but what is most important is my satisfaction when bringing the true excitement of a meaningful, unique and important extracurricular event and student governance structure to my team and even my competitors.

References

(1)    Election results 2012: Report reveals 2012 voter turnout was lower than 2008 and 2004″ Chanel 5 report. November 15, 2012.

(2)    http://www.idea.int/vt/countryview.cfm?CountryCode=VN

(3)    http://www.behaviormodel.org/

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