#passvotes Tweaks and Data Geeks: PASS Election 2011

Cross posted from Stuart Ainsworth’s codegumbo.

Obviously, the angst over the 2010 PASS elections still lives on for some, and some of you are probably ready to move on to more immediate concerns, but as for me, I’m stuck here trying to figure out what I should learn from all of this.  I do think we as a community need to move forward, and to that end, I’ve agreed to participate in Kevin Kline’s series on the PASS elections process, and answer the following question:

“Many in the community seem to think that the PASS election process is badly broken.  Do you think that PASS needs to implement fundamental and far-reaching changes to its election process, or does it only need some fine tuning?  Please explain your thoughts?”

Learning from the experience…

I don’t want to keep rehashing the past, because it’s been done (here, here, here, and here, to name a few; if you want a LOT more reading material, the elections site has a bunch of blog entries).   While there are lots of lessons to be learned, and ideas to be discussed, I think there are two key points that are not stressed enough:

  1. Our discourse as a community has been healthy, and
  2. Nobody involved in the process has walked away clean.

For the first point, I think we’ve been able to keep our disagreements civil; there have been some comments made from several key contributors to the discussion that have been more cutting than others, and I have said some things that I should have kept to myself, but all in all, I don’t think we’ve burned any bridges that can’t be rebuilt.   The only lingering meme that continues to bother me is the occasional “community-vs.-PASS” theme that is implied in some of the discussions; I’ll talk more about why that bothers me in a bit, but I fear we too easily fall into the trap of needing to define an invisible “Them” to be an antithesis to our “We”.   We is Them, and They are We.

The second point was driven home to me like a dagger to the heart in a response from Andy Warren to a dialogue in the comments section of Brent Ozar’s post on the issue:

Agreeing to disagree is seldom satisfying, but often necessary. I’m entirely biased about my views on this, but I think it’s easy to forget the pain that continues along with this discussion. Replace the name of SJ with yours, and imagine how it would feel to be left off the slate (fairly, unfairly or otherwise), and then have a conversation continue that seems to imply a great failure during the interview, but no details emerge. Do you defend yourself or lay low? What if you allow the inner details to be published, but they are not?

We don’t agree on the way things worked out. Ok. I think we should let things heal a little more, then have the values and process conversation that we should have had last year – one that I’ve admitted I should have helped to make happen. Yell at me. Yell at the process. But I think we’re at the point where we leave a good man to tend his wounds and we try to do better next year, or we have the entire conversation and let the chips fall where they way on each side. I vote for moving forward.

Not my place to tell you not to talk about it, and much of this has been good conversation. But please remember my friend is not an abstraction. Actually, I wish I could say that better. I know that you don’t he is an abstraction, but I’m not sure that this conversation, right now, helps any of us.

I’ve been so busy defending what I perceived to be attacks on the character of the Nom Com or the quality of my work that I’ve forgotten what it must be like to be in Steve’s place, and for that I’m truly sorry.   I don’t regret my choice to point out what I think are inaccurate statements about the process, but I should have tempered my comments with more grace than I did.  That being said, I think we all need to step back and realize that nobody was completely happy with this year’s election process; obviously, the controversy was not a desired outcome by anyone on the Nom Com, the Board, or the membership at large.  So how do we fix the process moving forward?

Is the process irreparably broken?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer:  I think if you look at any business that has an electable Board of Directors, the nominations process is similar; the Board appoints a committee to find qualified candidates, and then votes to approve or reject the slate.   The elections process should be simple, but fair; I don’t think that a Board of an organization need be run like the federal government (with election cycles dictating workflow). That being said, I think there are lots of opportunities to tweak the process, and learn from our mistakes.

Tweak 1: Standardize the qualifications for a Director

I think PASS made strides this year, but there should be very specific minimum requirements for a seat at the table.  Andy Leonard and K. Brian Kelley both made excellent points about the inadequacy of using a ranking system to evaluate certain concrete measures like Education and References.  If we must use a ranking system, then the criteria for the ranks need to be carefully defined, like so:

Applicant must have a Bachelor’s Degree (or equivalent University degree).
Add 1 point for a Master’s Degree in any subject.
Add 1 point for a Doctorate Degree in any subject.

Please note that the above example is merely intended to illustrate specific ranking criteria; the definition of Education itself warrants more discussion than I have time for in this post.

Experience with PASS is another great example of a objective measure that needs standard ranking; how long have you been a member?  What volunteer roles have you performed?  Is experience as a chapter leader more or less valuable than experience on the Program Committee?  Whatever standards are chosen, they should be well-defined and applied evenly from year to year; if an applicant doesn’t change their behavior from year to year (i.e., an applicant with little PASS experience in year 1 doesn’t get involved in year 2), they should have the same score.

Tweak 2: Transparent Application, Opaque Interviews, Translucent Board

Applications should be made available to the public, as well as the ranking using the standardized questionnaire described above; the general members of PASS should feel confident that the scoring system used to evaluate an application reflects the applicant’s ability to meet the minimum requirements.

However, I think that discussions within the Nominations Committee, including interviews with the applicants, should remain opaque: a black box.  I know others think that the Nom Com should be completely transparent, but I think that the job of the Nom Com is to probe areas beyond the minimum qualification, and in order to do so, the members of that group need the ability to ask questions that may not be appropriate for general consumption.  I think this protects both the applicants and the volunteer interviewers (what if I, as a volunteer, were to ask a really stupid question?  Should I be vilified on the Internet by the membership?).  But here’s the rub: the interviews need to be recorded.

The interviews should NEVER be released to the general membership, but once the slate has been presented to the Board of Directors for approval or rejection, the interview tapes need to be included as part of the recommendation in order to give the Board full insight into why the Nom Com chose to recommend or deny certain candidates.  The board should then accept or reject the slate, and if they choose to reject the slate, decide how they’re going to move forward; the discussions surrounding the slate should not be released, but the vote should.  That way, if the general membership felt that the process was unfair, they could contact the Board members and move forward with resolving the issue.

Tweak 3: Maximize member involvement

I think one of the hardest problems to tackle in this discussion is the issue of member involvement; as I mentioned earlier, the theme of “community vs. PASS” is a difficult pill for me to swallow because I see every member of PASS (including the Board) as member of the community.  I also realize (as a chapter leader) that there are many members of the community which are not PASS members, and members of both subsets that are not active in many of the social networks that were abuzz with concerns over the process.

Let me back up and clarify: I’m a chapter leader for AtlantaMDF, and at one point, we had nearly 1500 SQL Server Professionals on our private mailing list.  These were people who at one point had registered for a meeting of ours; I’d consider them member of the community.  Are they PASS members? Maybe.  Are they active on twitter, or active bloggers?  Dunno; my experience presenting on these topics leads me to believe that the vast majority of SQL Server Professionals are NOT involved in social networking.  Kendra Little had a similar take on the problem of uninvolved membership (I stole the graph from her):

Voting stats from the last few elections would probably back up this idea; although I don’t remember the actual numbers, I do remember thinking that the voter turnout was abysmal compared to the number of people that PASS claims as members (remember that membership is free).  Sort of like the same feeling I get when I think that AtlantaMDF invites 1500 people every month to come to a meeting, and 75 do; I’m grateful we got 75, but we’re missing a lot of interaction from 1425 other people.

So how do we involve the membership?  I think that Chapter Leaders (including Virtual Chapter Leaders) should be randomly selected and asked to serve on the Nom Com every election cycle, and the number of Chapter Leaders should always outweigh the number of Board seats by at least 1.   Why Chapter Leaders?  To me, they represent the local faces of PASS, and are the most likely ones to understand the pulse of the community.  Why not bloggers, tweeters, or columnists?  Although I think that social networkers provide a great service to the community, they don’t necessarily have an official relationship with PASS.   PASS serves the community, but I think the election process needs to be membership driven.

Involving the membership via Chapter Leaders on the Nom Com should (I hope) instill some trust in the process, even if the interview process yields an unpopular result.  It’s a lot harder to accuse the Nom Com of predetermining the outcome of an interview because of their ties to the Board if the Nom Com consists of a majority of non-Board members.

Summing up.

I have several other ideas (such as the possibility of a Chapter Congress), but many of them require drastic overhauls of how PASS does business; that’s simply not feasible.  I think many of the problems of the last two elections can be easily resolved with a few minor tweaks.  However, the first step is the conversation, and that conversation needs to begin well before the election season.  It’s easy to be upset about the outcome, but in order for real change to occur, we (the community) need to step up and participate in the conversations.  I am eagerly awaiting the chance; are you?

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