Abstinence made Easy

by Rick Jelliffe

Many people don't find abstention easy. Some don't have the habit, some don't see the point, some people are irrepressible, some people are used to having their way, and others think it is an attack on their rights and duties. Having hung around a few different standards bodies, it seems to me that one of the distinctives about ISO/IEC JTC1 is the role that voting abstain plays. Other standards bodies have it, but there seems sometimes a stigma or idea that abstaining from a particular vote represents a failure in expertise: a loss of face and an insult to pride. The worry that you need to be on top of everything, perhaps coupled with the paranoia that people are trying to scam you. But, as Clint Eastwood says, a man's got to know his limitations.

Lets look review the Fast-Track procedure. The JTC1 Directives (which have sway here) allow National Bodies three kinds of reply on a standard: see s 9.8 (bold added by me; DIS means Draft International Standard, DAM means Draft Ammendment, NB means National Body):

Approval of the technical content of the DIS as presented (editorial or other comments may be appended);

Disapproval of the DIS (or DAM) for technical reasons to be stated, with proposals for change that would make the document acceptable (acceptance of the proposals shall be referred back to the NB concerned for confirmation that the vote can be changed to approve);


Note that the only criteria countenanced under these JTC1 rules for approving or disapproving a fast-track standard is because of the technical content: it is or isn't up to scratch. Editorial issues alone are not enough. However, any significant comments, even editorial ones will trigger a Ballot Resolution Meeting, where these things can get looked at: they don't disappear into a black hole. Under the JTC1 rules, non-technical and non-editorial issues just don't seem to be legitimate grounds for acceptance or rejection: the only slot for a National Body wishing to act in good faith to the JTC1 Directives but who have significant non-technical and non-editorial concerns is to abstain.

Now, a National Body that votes disapprove has a duty (JTC Directives s13.7) to participate at a Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM). A Ballot Resolution Meeting has to be open to representation from all affected interests, convened in a timely manner, keeping in mind the spirit of the fast-track process. (JTC Directives s13.1) "The spirit of the fast-track process" does not seem to be a defined term.

Issues from National Bodies that arise after the deadline for the initial ballot (or after the BRM, or where the BRM did not go far enough in some desired direction or went the wrong way in the NB's opinion, etc.) get handled by the NB raising defect notices with the Steering Committee looking after the standard (in this case, SC34, after the fast-track gets standardized. As well, NBs (and ECMA or other liaison bodies) can raise an immediate draft amendment, which can itself go through the fast-track procedure! (If an NB thinks the editor's instructions have not been followed, they can raise the matter with the ITTF (the body responsible to make sure that the BRM's instructions have been followed) who, as I am sure is expected of them, will respond with a service-oriented attitude of "Whoops! Thanks!"

A Ballot Resolution Meeting for a fast-tracked draft is unusual because what comes out of the meeting is a set of editor's instructions. I have read some incompetent reporting on other websites that somehow a BRM's result is an approval or disapproval of the standard in question. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, I suppose.

My experience of ISO/IEC JTC1 is only through Steering Committees, Working Groups and a certain recent Ballot Resolution Meeting, on and off since the mid-90s. However I have also participated in multiple groups at W3C and observed OASIS and IETF. The thing that is interesting in JTC1 meetings, from what I have seen, is that there is usually a really strong idea that you do not block the minority interests of another national body, just because you have no interest. (I have seen a committee basically fall apart because one NB dominated and tried to block the legitimate and specific interests of another NB: what happens when NBs attempt this kind of selfish trick can be that the parties who were stymied lose faith and simply go to another standards body.)

An effective delegation at a meeting who have niche requirements will take care to remind other NB's delegations that unless they have technical expertise in that area, they should abstain. Or if the niche requirement may be significant for broader concerns, an effective delegation will try to explain in or outside their meeting what the technical issue is. However, it is part of the gentleman's agreement that you vote on the issues: a delegation with particular issues shouldn't have to make a specific request for other NB's to abstain on issues that they do not have an actual technical opinion on, any good faith delegation will attempt to do that anyway (though sometimes they may get lost amid all the other tasks.)

I have found that in the ISO meetings I have experienced, the contributions of the individual are really important. In SC34 you think of the contribution of James Clark for example. This was a theme of Martin Bryan's memorable phrase standardization by corporation (e.g. see farewell report as chairman of SC34 WG1.) The system is geared to having deep experts who are highly sceptical, but who very willingly defer to others in areas outside their expertise. In fact, the ISO Directives (part 1 s 1.11.1, a splendid number) define a Working Group as comprising a restricted number of experts who act in a personal capacity and not as the representative of the...organization...by which they have been appointed however the JTC1 Directives nuance this (s2.6.1.2) WG members shall, where possible, make contributions in tune with their respective NB positions (which does not in any way stifle individual contributions, as long as the status is clear.) There is an interesting example in JTC1 Directives Annex J3.1, concerting the development of standards for APIs, which explicitly mentions that multiple kinds of experts are required. I am not saying that generalists or observers are not important in technical meetings, however, the meetings are technical and need technical people: governments wishing to participate more in standards need to be asking themselves what programs they have in place to develop and encourage the necessary range of deep expertise in order to be effective at this level. (And one of the best ways is to start to send experts to meetings, and getting them to review standards of different sorts, and to expose them to standards practices of different organizations to help them to be critical and functional.)

Technical experts are frequently ratbags, a (nowadays quite fond and) useful Australianism.
Macquarie dictionary (1991):
n. colloq. 1. a rascal; rogue. 2. a person of eccentric or nonconforming ideas or behaviour. 3. a person whose preoccupation with a particular theory or belief is seen as obsessive or discreditable: that Marxist ratbag. -ratbaggery, n. -ratbaggy, adj.’

but the ease of abstinence at ISO tames this tendency. I have read more than once that new people coming to the SC34 meetings are surprised at the level of helpfulness and collegiality that usually can be seen (and I think Ken Holman had a lot to do with achieving this tone.)

JTC1 groups try to act by consensus. But consensus is not unanimity, but is defined in part as a general agreement, characterized by the absence of sustained opposition to substantial issues.... To understand the role that abstention plays in ISO, I think you have to see how it dovetails into this definition of consensus: consensus is not an issue of achieving an absolute positive majority of all parties! In fact, JTC1's view of consensus demands the ready availability of the option to abstain, otherwise NBs and participants will be forced to make decisions they don't wish to or are not competent to or are not briefed to.

Voting "abstain" on issues at ISO is not a failure. Indeed, sometimes the briefs for delegations have instructions that require them to abstain. But experts who have to abstain can still be critically valuable to the process. Because of this, and because of the mutual spirit of accommodation and collegiality that usually prevails, abstention is easy and a more frequently used option than people used to other standards systems may feel comfortable with initially. But is it not for no reason.