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Why the Sections Congress delegates got it wrong

The top five IEEE Sections Congress recommendations may do more harm than good

Direct democracy in action can be somewhat exciting. But it can also produce some perverse results. The recommendations arising from the IEEE’s most recent triennial direct-democratic adventure, the 2011 IEEE Sections Congress, are symptomatic of just that.

The five recommendations, which filtered through months of discussions within the Regions and culminated in a vote of Section delegates on the final day, fall squarely into two categories. The first and fifth are both about encouraging young people to enter engineering careers—an admirable notion, even if the approach is misguided. The other three recommendations are about increasing member benefits, but conspicuously lack any notion of how they will be funded.

Benefits without costs
At face value, it is hard to fault initiatives that promise only good, like “rewarding [members] for their loyalty”, “including a Society membership as part of the basic membership fee” and “grants [for students] to attend conferences and organising technical competitions” (recommendations 2, 3 and 4 respectively). But the devil is in the detail, and the most basic detail is forgotten: somehow, we will have to fund these new benefits.

How much will it cost? Some might argue that the cost could be minimal. Recommendation 2 goes as far as to say that rewards “can be done simply and inexpensively” (and still “tangible and useful”). But its suggestions (other than “recognition”, which is hardly “tangible and useful”) are to reduce the fee for and to provide IEEE merchandise to long-standing members.  Merchandise of any usefulness (not just tokenism, like bumper stickers) won’t be inexpensive.  As for a reduced fee, it necessitates a loss in revenue. While the IEEE is financially sound, it seems unwise to take a hit to membership dues when member activities already rely on heavy subsidies from IEEE Publications revenue to survive.

Similarly, any assertion of low cost for recommendations 3 and 4 is simply wrong. A free Society membership would both reduce revenue (existing members pay less) and increase cost (as more members join Societies). With grants to attend conferences, the monetary cost there is obvious.

This isn’t the first time delegates have recommended benefits without costs. In 2008, Section delegates voted for an “annual entitlement to a limited number of free entitlements to IEEEXplore downloads”. The Technical Activities Board investigated and, predictably, concluded that it wasn’t affordable, with a revenue loss of between US$1.4 million and US$4 million. One would think that delegates would have learnt that you can’t get something for nothing.

But the 2011 delegates pushed three member benefit recommendations into the top five. The IEEE Boards charged with implementing those recommendations now face the task of figuring out how to pay for the new benefits. Will they cut existing member programmes? Will they raise membership dues? Or will they be forced to conclude, just like last time, that it isn’t feasible? I hope that, in 2014, delegates will realise the dilemma.

Interest in engineering careers
Recommendation 1, to “develop a comprehensive long-term strategy to increase the number… pursuing science and engineering careers”, is less problematic than the other four. This is partly because it lacks specificity: it doesn’t actually recommend any action, other than to figure out what actions it should take (i.e. the “strategy”). But it is also welcome because the engineering profession could well be doing more to show prospective students what it does.

Recommendation 5 then, interestingly, pre-empts a conclusion of that strategy: it says to “publish a subscription periodical targeted to high school students… promoting the benefits of an engineering career”. Unfortunately, it’s a misguided conclusion without which the strategy would be better off .

Why won’t the periodical help? A necessary premise is that high school students will take interest in this subscription periodical. For those who are already set on engineering, this may well be the case (and even that is dubious), but there is little to gain from preaching to the converted. The real target audience is students who are undecided or who just don’t know what engineering is. Neither of those groups would care to subscribe to a periodical focussing on engineering, much less so one detailing “what the students can do in college to get involved with IEEE”, as the recommendation adds. Undecided students figure out their careers through careers fairs, guidance in their schools and hearsay—anywhere they can compare all careers at once. It would be better to improve encouragement through those channels, rather than try to establish a new one.

How did it happen?
I wasn’t in San Francisco for this exercise. So I didn’t witness the debates, and those who take issue with the way my criticisms jump to conclusions about what delegates were thinking probably have merit. But for the record, I don’t attribute these outcomes to stupidity or poor intention.

The more radical, and more needed, propositions among those available would probably also have been the most controversial. There is a desperate need for governance to reflect the swelling numbers in Europe and Asia. There is also a gap in benefits for engineers who work in industry. But there is little worldwide agreement on how, and whether, these issues should be addressed. It is easy to see why those from Regions 1 through 6, for example, may be uneasy about a recommendation to “increase… representatives from Regions 7 to 10 on IEEE Major Boards”.

Similarly, none of the ten (out of 34) recommendations suggesting better online tools for members and volunteers made it through to the top five. While it’s undeniable that the IEEE’s raft of online tools have been a mess, people don’t necessarily agree on what the most pressing needs for change are. Consequently, the vote is “split” among the alternatives and none of them get very far.

So the ones left over are those with lukewarm support and without violent opposition. (The voting system involves ranking all propositions in order of preference.) It explains why the top recommendation was to “develop a long-term strategy”: so long as delegates agree that the status quo isn’t good enough, it is easy to support the first step. It also explains the three member benefit recommendations.  Turning a blind eye to opportunity cost, it would be silly to stage an outright opposition to the suggestion. It’s only on deeper thought that they don’t make sense.

Nonetheless, the member benefit recommendations represent a Sections Congress that ultimately voted to squeeze more out of the institution, rather than examine how to advance the IEEE into new times and new challenges.  The greatest harm from these and the misguided recommendation 5 is that they will detract attention, time and energy away from more dire but harder issues, like geographic representation, industry involvement, and establishing the IEEE’s role in society and the profession.

The IEEE will eventually have to front up to these and sort itself out. I once suggested to a senior volunteer that the Regional divisions perhaps needed revising. He said that, for our revision to make any sense, we first needed to figure out what the role of a Region is. He’s absolutely right. Solutions to these issues are not easy to find. Perhaps, in 2014, Section delegates will find the courage and urgency to have the debates that are needed to tackle them head-on.

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