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Achieving Consensus - Feedback Is Vital To Standards Setting

Achieving Consensus - Feedback Is Vital To Standards Setting

May 2024

Letter from the Executive Director, May 2024

Most people, most of the time, want to get along. They generally want to be accommodating and seek to live their own lives or run their businesses without conflict. Personally, I find that a majority of people and organizations seek to work collaboratively and are willing to support others when they are able. This is an abundant characteristic in our community, which I particularly appreciate. This trait supports building a network of trust that helps NISO to develop consensus. As in any partnership, frank feedback is a key part of the process of coming to agreement.  

Last month, the Working Group developing the Interoperable System for Controlled Digital Lending (IS-CDL) released a draft of a Recommended Practice for public comment. The draft drew a significant amount of critique in particular from one sector in both our membership and the broader community of content creators, publishers, and distributors. Based on the feedback, it seems a fundamental objection has developed to this project from some quarters of our community. This kind of feedback is incredibly valuable and is why we conduct public comment periods. The Working Group and the Topic Committee that oversees the project will consider carefully all of the public comments and respond, consistent with NISO’s procedures.  

Regardless of the outcome and the merit of any of the comments received, there is a larger point to be made here about the process and people’s participation in every stage of the development of a project. The consensus process, if it is successful, will inevitably surface differences of perspective and approach. It could even yield a situation where no consensus is possible.

People tend not to object through a “no” vote on a new proposal or an approval ballot, or to submit negative comments on the outputs of a group. Occasionally, negative comments and criticisms are made even while are attached to approval votes. Over the past two decades of my experience at NISO, I have noted, and many others have noted within NISO and at other standards organizations, there is a tendency to support ballots, voting “yes” with regularity. When a project is launched, people may vote “yes” for a variety of reasons. They could be enthusiastic supporters of an initiative, or they could simply believe that a project is worthy of additional exploration without signaling support or opposition to the proposed solution. Certainly, critique is invited, and helpful suggestions are almost always given when comments are solicited. Balloting the launch of a project is also an opportunity to gather feedback, be it positive or negative. 

An example of this is the ballot to approve the IS-CDL project, which was supported 27–0, with three abstentions, well surpassing the bar for launching a new project. Without any negative votes, there was no indication of the objection to the project that is now evidenced by the comments that have been received. Of course, a lot has changed in the legal landscape regarding controlled digital lending since the project was launched. 

Member organizations that might be troubled by NISO undertaking this—or any other—project should track and engage in the decision-making about what NISO should dedicate our limited resources to. While member support of a project is a requirement for it to move forward, negative votes are also useful. Even abstentions are signals to the leadership of NISO that an organization is consciously deciding not to engage, rather than simply missing the deadline to respond or having other pressing priorities beyond submitting a response. Given the feedback during this particular comment period, there are obviously parties who do care quite deeply, if not during the voting period, then certainly now. Since many are members, their opposition would have been welcome earlier in the process. Nevertheless, whatever the timing, the critique is still valued.

As an organization, NISO works on a principle of consensus and seeks to drive the community toward consensus in our work and publications. ANSI defines consensus as “general agreement, but not necessarily unanimity.” ISO’s definition goes a bit further, defining it in the ISO/IEC Directives, Part 1 (See 2.5.6) as: “General agreement, characterized by the absence of sustained opposition to substantial issues by any important part of the concerned interests and by a process that involves seeking to take into account the views of all parties concerned and to reconcile any conflicting arguments.” It is vital to the process that we address the concerns of the entire community, insofar as that is possible. If people or organizations continue to object, feeling their concerns are not addressed, they may appeal decisions made by the committee to the NISO Board, if they so choose.

As projects are conceived and advanced and developed, NISO approaches the process of developing consensus seriously. Based on NISO Operating Procedures for developing technical standards, comments and objections are considered using fair, impartial, open, and transparent processes, which includes official voting, leadership review, and even an appeals process. The open comment period is a critical part of this process to allow broad feedback and input to the development team and the leadership committees overseeing the project. 

As a Recommended Practice, the IS-CDL project doesn’t have the same robust level of review and balloting as an official ANSI-NISO standard would, nor does it carry the same formality or its de jure status. Regardless, the core elements and goals of the approach are the same. The lower level of status and less strict process make this public vetting process even more important, since review is less rigorous. During the development process, community input on drafts is vital to “road test” the ideas of the group before they are finalized. After comments are received, the Working Group is required to respond publicly to the comments received. In this case, the Topic Committee, which is more broadly representative of the industry than the Working Group, may also reconsider the scope of the project, since concerns about the project’s scope appear at the heart of the feedback, rather than the technical details of the draft. 

The Topic Committee will ultimately consider whether the final draft is acceptable when submitted for approval. There are several aspects the committee should consider when reviewing any draft. The first element reviewed is whether the draft adheres to the charged scope and whether the resulting document serves the purpose of addressing the issues described in the approved charge. Next, the committee must review whether the Working Group has achieved consensus on the draft. Particular to the IS-CDL project, the Topic Committee must consider whether negative votes, comments, or “sustained objections” have been resolved. This process involves a documented exchange with the commenters or voters who submitted the feedback. Finally, the committee must have a recorded vote on the draft. Formal standards must go through another vote of the NISO Voting Members, though NISO Recommended Practices do not have to pass through this step. A decision by the Topic Committee to approve a document may be appealed by interested parties to the NISO Board of Directors for review and reconsideration.

Through all of NISO’s efforts, we seek to develop community consensus about the application of technical or business processes. Occasionally, the development process can be complex and contentious. We deal with these issues through an established, open, and engaged vetting process, which can sometimes be fraught. If anyone has questions about how to engage, how to vote, or how to get more secondary representatives engaged so that the entire burden isn’t on one person’s shoulders, please reach out to the NISO office. We are here to support the community in this process and stand ready to work with you to find the optimal way to engage. Of course, if you have feedback on the process more generally, or this project in specific, I would welcome that as well.


Todd A. Carpenter
Executive Director