Thursday, November 22, 2007

AMS meeting Nov. 21- Frustrations

An excruciatingly long agenda was set for this last meeting before the winter break. After sitting on their laurels for a whole term, the Arts caucus decided to put everything they ever wanted in the AMS into this one meeting and throw it at us like a brick. Items of interest included re-establishing "unofficial" slates (whatever that means), a default role-call vote for all non-procedural motions, and code changes to try and make people submit documents earlier. The first one failed, the second carried, and the others I forget about. Whatever.

I want to spend this post talking about something else though. Now, journalism in general, and blogging in particular is the ultimate form of political passive-aggression. One can critique, bitch, call people out, and watch. One doesn't have to do anything, or be accountable to anyone - and that's what makes it fun to write (and presumably to read). Well, dear readers, right now I'm going to commit the tacky act of trying to both do, and blog at the same time.

I haven't talked much about this on the blog (if at all) but I've been chairing an AMS committee for a few months now. This committee was originally envisioned to look at the idea of a randomly selected student's assembly to supplement the AMS democracy and make it more representative of all students. Its mandate was broadened to include any form of improving political representation and engagement in the AMS democracy, and the committee was accordingly christened "the ad-hoc representation and engagement reform committee". We've been looking at a variety of ideas to improve political representation over the last six months, ranging from changes to elections systems, to council composition, to the creation of new populist bodies like a student's assembly or wisdom council, to more internal issues like committee reform and executive office hours.

Some of these ideas are pretty substantial, and have the potential for inconclusive philosophical debate. Some would take a fair amount of money and effort to implement. Others, we thought, were fairly straightforward and non-controversial. One such idea was a change in the voting system for AMS executives from First Past the Post (a terrible system) to Condorcet (an empirically better one). The basic idea of Condorcet voting is that it selects a "consensus" candidate to win. That is, the person that most people prefer over most other people will win. If that sounds vague, think of it this way: strategic voting is impossible. Vote splitting is impossible. The candidate that would win against all other candidates in 1-on-1 matchups is declared the winner. Condorcet offers substantial differences from FPTP, and also from the more widely known instant runoff voting, particularly in campaigns with three or more strong candidates.

This voting system is carried out by a ranked ballot (you mark candidates according to preference 1,2,3), and a fairly straightforward counting procedure which bases the winner off of a hierarchy formed by one-on-one matchups. For more information, see the wiki article on the method HERE.

Our committee learned about this system over the course of about four weeks. As soon as members of our committee understood the system, they agreed that it was superior. It was not controversial in our committee discussions, unlike other ideas that had been much more divisive. A few of us tried our hand at writing up the necessary code, since the researcher/archivist who normally would help with this task wasn't up to it. So here we were, with code all drafted up (albeit a bit hurriedly, but with at least 5 revisions), unanimous approval within our committee, and the honest opinion that this is a really good, if small, change to the AMS democracy. We invited an expert on voting systems to give a presentation to council about the benefits of the Condorcet method. A member of the committee took council through a detailed simulation of how the counting procedure works, covering even unlikely scenarios of concern. We did a little demostration of the method and carried out the procedure on the spot. Then there was debate.

In this debate, several things began to dawn on me.

The quality of this debate was one of the poorest I've seen at AMS (though there's probably been worse - I've only been around for less than a year). AMS council is often capable of really insightful, careful, and interesting debate. And when that's the case, good decisions tend to follow. Here, there was clouded, misguided, and wrongheaded debate - and quite obviously, the results were less than ideal. What really disturbs me is the apparent incapability of most councilors to pay CLOSE attention, understand, and reach a decision on a slightly involved piece of code in the council chambers. It is well acknowledged that the council chambers is more or less the worst place to grasp code, improve wording, and micromanage technicalities. What disturbs me even more though is that given this (well-known) fact, council still doesn't trust its committees - the working groups of the society - enough to take their advice! So given this mistrust, council needs to truly grasp ideas before they vote on them. Unfortunately, they get paralyzed and confused whenever they're asked to understand and really concentrate on something a bit involved (like say, a voting system). Then they need only cry ignorance and confusion as a basis for turning that thing away, and before we know it, all technical and structural changes are nearly impossible.

I don't take a pessimistic view on this: I think that nine out of ten moderately intelligent people have the intellectual wherewithal to listen, understand, and respond to a clear presentation. After all, we're in university. But people emailing, facebooking, and dreaming when slightly involved material is being presented really doesn't help. Closed minds don't help either - and I saw some of that tonight.

In our committee we spent considerable time trying to decide what level of detail would be the most convincing to AMS council in regards to this particular motion. Our initial tendency was to keep it general and hope that council would believe and trust our unanimous judgement as a committee of council. Then we got cold feet and decided it would be a good idea to include the detailed simulations so that each councilor could make a informed, down-to-the-mechanism, decision for him/herself. Both these objectives failed abjectly. Not only did many councilors and an executive seem to distrust our motives (by making ludicrous conjectures about Condorcet favoring certain political stripes), but the greater proportion of councilors had absolutely no grasp of the system we were proposing and its very real benefits - as was made depressingly clear by strings of irrelevant comments, inapplicable criticisms, and illogical questions.

There were a few fair criticisms. Precious few. One was the "non-standard" code language we had chosen, which described a protocol in more mathematical language than usual. A few others regarding the breaking of ties and vote thresholds for candidate re-reimbursement were fair, and certainly worth a few more clauses. The significant one was how such a system would be implemented given the dire reality of an inflexible, expensive, and apparently non-functional computer system the AMS has purchased. Other comments ranged from the old standby of "it would cost to many resources," at the most benign, to "but it won't increase voter turnout!!!111" at the most irrelelvant, to "why would we elect the second best person form some random thing with vote-splitting," and "what is the success rate of this system?" at the most bewildering. (paraphrases).

So, zooming back out again, here's a generalized question. Given this example, (of a fairly small change that should be a no-brainer, but due to it's slightly involved technical nature, turns out to be a quagmire of misunderstanding), how do we as students expect the AMS to function at a level that reflects a degree of intellectualism? Especially when it come to structure and administration changes of a slightly involved nature? AMS has passed, and I hope it will continue to pass initiatives far more over-arching, radical, and serious than this trivial example. The thing is that some cool and necessary good ideas can be explained by expressive words and hand-waving, and some cool and necessary good ideas cannot. They simply require detailed, painstaking, sequential procedures. Unfortunately, most structural reforms fall into the latter category- and this is the category that our current structure handles so very poorly. I'm sure the irony of this catch 22 isn't lost on you.

That's my frustration for today. I'll probably regret it in the morning.