OOXML Payback Time as Global Standards Work in SC 34 "Grinds to a Halt"

A couple weeks ago, Andy posted about the current problems the SC 34 was having as a result of the sudden surge in “P” members. From the post:

One of the more egregious behaviors observed in the recent vote on OOXML was the sudden and last minute surge to join not only various National Bodies just before they voted on OOXML, but also the relevant committee of ISO/IEC for the same purpose. At the latter level, not one but two unusual membership changes occurred. During the voting period, more and more countries joined SC 34, the committee within ISO/IEC’s Joint Technical Committee 1 (JTC1) that addresses document formats, at the Observer (O) level. Then, in the final weeks and days before the voting closed, many of these new members as well as many longer term members suddenly upgraded their status to Principal ((P) membership, thereby gaining greater influence in the final vote under the complex rules under which the committee operates (those rules are described in detail here).

SC 34 is one of the more important and active committees in JTC1, and has a constant stream of standards under active consideration and balloting. In anticipation of the OOXML vote, its membership surged – with 23 new National Body members, and the number of P members spiking by 11. When almost all of the new members voted for adoption (most of those countries that were long term members voted against adoption, with comments), many felt that the standard setting process had been abused.

But unfortunately, the damage has not stopped there: since the OOXML ballot closed on September 2, not a single ballot has received enough votes to count in this important committee. Why? Because the last minute arrivals to SC 34 are not bothering to vote.

The resulting gridlock of this committee was as predictable as it is unfortunate. The extraordinarily large number of upgrades in the final months, and particularly in the final days, therefore seemed attributable not to an abiding investment and interest in the work of SC 34, but in the outcome of a single standards vote. That conclusion is now certain, given the voting performance of the upgraded members since they cast their votes on OOXML.

The end result of this is that things have “ground to a halt.”, in the words of the Secretariat Manager. A couple days ago, Andy took a closer look at the numbers:

The problem with SC 34, then, isn’t whether those that voted against OOXML (old and new) are failing to vote as much as those (old and new) that voted for it, but whether the new P upgrades are voting at all. It’s also instructive to look at how those same upgrades voted on OOXML. As you’d expect, what you see is not that long-term P members have suddenly quit voting, but that the influx of a large number of new, non-voting P members simply changes the math.

When we look at the data from this perspective, we see a very different picture. Here’s how the eleven countries that upgraded from O to P membership in the months (and often just days) before the OOXML voting period closed on OOXML, and also whether or not they voted in the more recent ballot (all data is from Rick’s analysis of the voting record):

Upgrades that voted to adopt OOXML and didn’t vote later: 7
(Côte d’Ivoire, Cyprus, Lebanon, Malta, Pakistan, Turkey, Venezuela)

Upgrades that abstained on OOXML and didn’t vote later: 1
(Trinidad and Tobago)

Upgrades that voted against OOXML and didn’t vote later: 0

[Rick doesn’t mention the other three upgrades, so I assume that they did in fact vote on the ballot he examined. They, and their votes on OOXML, were as follows: Ecuador (disapprove), Jamaica (approve) and Uruguay (approve, with comments)]

That tells a rather different tale, doesn’t it? In fact, 7 out of 8 upgrades that voted “yes” without comments didn’t vote, while the only upgrade that voted against OOXML apparently did participate in the ballot Rick selected for examination. An abstention, by the way, is a next best thing to an approval vote under the complex ISO/IEC rules.

It’s a bit disconcerting, although as Andy mentions entirely predictable, that this kind of thing can happen. The fact that companies play these games when they have little chance of hiding the repercussions show you how out of hand some things have gotten. In this case, there may be a remedy though. From the ISO rules:

1.7.4
A technical committee or subcommittee secretariat shall notify the Chief Executive Officer if a P-member of that technical committee or subcommittee
• has been persistently inactive and has failed to make a contribution to 2 consecutive
meetings, either by direct participation or by correspondence,
• or has failed to vote on questions submitted for voting within the technical committee or
subcommittee (such as new work item proposals).
Upon receipt of such a notification, the Chief Executive Officer shall remind the national body of its obligation to take an active part in the work of the technical committee or subcommittee. In the absence of a satisfactory response to this reminder, the national body shall automatically have its status changed to that of O-member. A national body having its status so changed may, after a period of 12 months, indicate to the Chief Executive Officer that it wishes to regain P-membership of the committee, in which case this shall be granted.

1.7.5 If a P-member of a technical committee or subcommittee fails to vote on an enquiry draft or final draft International Standard prepared by the respective committee, the Chief Executive Officer shall remind the national body of its obligation to vote. In the absence of a satisfactory response to this reminder, the national body shall automatically have its status changed to that of O-member. A national body having its status so changed may, after a period of twelve months, indicate to the Chief Executive Officer that it wishes to regain P-membership of the committee, in which case this shall be granted.

If I read that right, it could mean that the countries that upgraded to P-member status simply to vote for OOXML could be moved back to O-members if they continue their non-participation. If that were to happen, they would have to remain O-members for at least 12 months. If the final vote for OOXML fell within that time, none of them would be able to pull the same shenanigans. Whether I am reading that correctly and/or that’s how things will play out or not, I’ll leave to someone who understand the morass of these standards comities.

–jeremy

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