OOXML Homework 
2008-01-29, 22:32

Tracking OOXML issues

No matter where one stands in the DIS 29500 debate, one fact is indisputable: the vast amount of human effort that is being expended. This struck me yesterday as BSI technical committees met to agree a UK position on Ecma’s responses – a task that is nearly complete thanks, in no small part, to the use of Mantis for tracking each of the UK comments and its proposed disposition.

The work however does not end there as the UK must finalise its view on other NBs’ comments too. As the JTC 1 Directives explicitly state, the reason why all NB comments are distributed is to allow all NBs to form an opinion on all of them:

Upon receipt of the ballot results, and any comments, the SC Secretariat shall distribute this material to the SC NBs […] The NBs shall be requested to consider the comments and to form opinions on their acceptability. (13.6)

By extension, of course, NBs shall naturally be considering Ecma’s responses to these comments too. It is this considered national position that delegations will be taking to Geneva:

NBs […] shall appoint to the ballot resolution group one or more representatives who are well aware of the NB’s position. (13.7)

So, NBs need to do their homework so that delegations arriving at the BRM in Geneva are fully briefed. The delegation should ideally know their national position on all 1,000 or so distinct comment/responses that could be discussed. It is the responsibility of the delegation to faithfully represent their national position (not individual divergent delegate views), and to be prepared to respond to any fresh issues that arise in line with guidance their NB has given them.

1,000 responses in 35 hours?

Given the five day time limit of the BRM, a frequently asked question is: how can 1,000 issues be addressed in the time, even if NBs already know what their position is? The answer, I think, must lie in paper voting. I am sure that the overwhelming majority of meeting resolutions will be decided by voting (as allowed for by the JTC 1 Directives), and delegations will be given lengthy voting papers allowing them to approve, abstain, or disapprove for any proposed resolution. The voting papers are likely to have three kinds of proposed resolution listed on them:

  • Verbatim responses from Ecma's proposed disposition of comments (as contained in the document published by SC 34 as N 980)
  • Ecma responses that have been amended by the BRM
  • Fresh responses arising from BRM discussion

for the latter two types, consensus might well be reached during in-session discussion, in which case there is obviously no need to put the proposed resolution to the additional test of a redundant vote.

In ISO (and as adopted by JTC 1), the word “consensus” has a specific meaning:

[...] general agreement, characterised 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. Consensus need not imply unanimity.

Different meeting chairs take different approaches to determining consensus. In general, if the existence of consensus is not beyond doubt on any issue at the BRM, it will be deferred to paper balloting alongside the undiscussed issues.

Now, paper balloting follows normal JTC 1 in-meeting rules:

In a meeting, except as otherwise specified in these directives, questions are decided by a majority of the votes cast at the meeting by P-members expressing either approval or disapproval. (9.1.4)

[Update 2008-03-06. This was the wrong clause. In-meeting Fast Track BRM voting is for resolving the comments of a constituency determined by the combined voting procedure (O-members + P-members) as per the JTC 1 Directives 9.5, and that is the understanding of the "normal JTC 1 procedures" in 13.8.]

Tied votes will be assumed not to have passed (unless they get the “further discussion” the Directives require during the BRM, which is unlikely).

Some commentators have been suggesting the BRM will be some kind of biased pro-OOXML love in, but this is laughably wide of the mark. As I have blogged before, a clear majority of delegations are from countries that either disapproved or abstained in the September letter ballot; taking P-members alone, this is even more so, with over two thirds of delegations being such non-approvers. This will be no love-in: I am expecting some hard work and high-quality technical discussion!
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