I just caught up with the interesting news item of a fortnight ago that Malaysian standards body Sirim Bhd has “suspended the process for approving the Open Document Format (ODF)… as a Malaysian standard.”
What was particularly interesting was the reason given: “Ariffin said some TC/G/4 members had taken to belittling other members who did not share their … views, both during committee meetings and in personal blogs. These … members were also attempting to short-circuit the normal consensus process for adopting a document standard, he said. ” “”There has been unprofessional conduct and a lack of ethical standards among some members of the technical committee. ”
Now I don’t know anything more than the article and various blogs around the place claim. But if this represents a trend by standards bodies to get tough on personal attacks and so try to bring back a more professional and civil level of discourse, then that is great.
A cooling-off period may seem a strange approach if we have the idea of standards committees as being like courts of law that judge technologies. But in fact they are like formalized conversations. Courtrooms are the world of accusation and defense; standards procedures are the world of dialog: questions, answers, suggestions, tentative questions, and so on. Committee procedures stop hectoring and bullying, and make sure that member’s voices are heard: this is frequently boring, but nevertheless a Good Thing.) The aim of a conversation is the meeting of minds: I have mentioned before that the ISO process is one of consensus, of trying to find win-win positions, and I think the same is generally true of national bodies.** (Of course, not every conversation is constructive, or cannot be dominated, so I don’t want to take the analogy too far!) IIRC, ISO suspended the 802.3 committee because it did not seem to be constructively engaging with China for a similar timeout; it is unusual, and salutatory but pragmatic.
Sirim’s boss Dr Ariffin makes some very interesting side points too: I hadn’t heard* his attributed view, for example, that ‘a mandatory standard would constitute an illicit non-tariff barrier against software products using other document formats.’
I think his reported position that ‘a standard can only be mandatory when public health or safety is at stake” has a nuance: it relies on the distinction between voluntary standards (where users decide to adopt) and mandatory standards (where the state forbids anything else, say due to treaty obligations, and may police). Governments, as organizations, can still restrict themselves to a voluntary standard as part of IT strategy or other policy, all other things being equal, however: that is a different issue.
I will be in Malaysia (and Philippines and Thailand) in mid-May, presenting some seminars on Open XML and the standards process, so maybe I’ll get some better information then.
* Update: In What is a Standard at ISO? I did mention that standards should not be seen as a kind of monopoly grant, like a patent, where an early grant blocks a later application.
** Update: Indeed the conversation doesn’t end after the standard has been written but needs to continue: hence this XML-DEV posting “So the idea of standards as Holy Writ passed down from the gods messes everyone up: a standard is the result of negotiations from some community, and the best way to make standards work is to integrate in with that community and to get to know the original intent.