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E-Balloting: The First Year

by Pat Picariello

ASTM Staff Manager Pat Picariello provides an update on electronic balloting of ASTM standards actions—how the technology has fared since its introduction and where it’s going.

In order for ASTM to meet the needs of its membership and be on the leading edge of the information superhighway, ASTM has developed an electronic mechanism to conduct one of the fundamental building blocks of standards development—the balloting process.

Initially piloted in the fall of 2000, ASTM’s e-balloting system was introduced to the Society in early 2001 and became fully operational in April. Since that time, ASTM has opened 330 e-ballots containing 1,925 items that have been voted on by over 25,000 members.

Why Develop the Process?

E-balloting has been designed to offer many advantages over its print copy ancestor. Documents contained in an e-ballot are delivered to the membership more efficiently than by hard copy. Members may view and search documents contained in an e-ballot. The ballot is located within the members area of every Technical Committee page on the ASTM Web site. Ballots posted online are readily available to and accessible by international members. Electronic documents provide shorter publication cycle times, allowing ASTM’s editors to slice time from the publication cycle of the approved item, which moves the final product into the marketplace much faster.

The flexibility inherent in an e-ballot allows a member to visit 24 hours a day, seven days a week, download a copy of the items relevant to their interests, save those items to a PC and view them anytime, anywhere. Entire copies of the ballot are also available for download and electronic storage as a historical record. An e-ballot offers the opportunity to view ballot items in a pristine electronic environment (no more handwritten revisions in the margins of a photocopied document!), and the submission of electronic comments and negative votes provides a consistent level of clarity beyond that found in the traditional hard copies.

Finally, e-balloting represents a huge step in the development of a purely digital standardization program that begins with the creation of a new work item and ends with availability upon approval, on-demand printing, and electronic distribution.

A Bump in the Road

While the launch of ASTM’s e-balloting system has been well received, it has not been without complication. A valuable feature of the e-balloting process is a series of reminder e-mails that are sent to members who have not responded to a particular e-ballot. In early September 2001, the provider of ASTM’s e-ballots experienced database corruption that temporarily interrupted the ability to track those members who successfully voted on an e-ballot. The database corruption caused a series of reminder e-mails to be sent to members who had already successfully voted. Further complicating the issue, members who responded to the inaccurate reminder e-mails were able to reenter the e-ballots and resubmit a vote.

When ASTM became aware of this problem, all reminder e-mails were shut down and an immediate investigation was undertaken to determine the breadth of the problem. Fortunately, although e-balloting is a relatively new endeavor for ASTM, designing superior balloting systems is not. The mechanism already in place was designed to filter multiple submissions by a single voter. This filter caught all duplicative votes and “bounced” them from every official tally. Consequently, the integrity and accuracy of every e-ballot that was operational during early September was ensured.

Note: At the writing of this article, ASTM has assumed in-house responsibility for the distribution of all e-mails associated with e-balloting and does not anticipate additional problems of this nature.

What Lies Ahead

To date, ASTM has developed an e-balloting system that provides global access to electronic documents and offers the opportunity to provide feedback on those documents (via the casting of comments and negative votes) online. Individual ballot items may be downloaded or an entire e-ballot may be saved to provide a historical record.

While impressive and certainly an improvement over hard copy balloting, the current status of ASTM’s electronic balloting system has not sufficiently evolved to provide the level of service required to meet the needs of our constituency. The current process only takes the voter halfway through a digital path to electronic standards development—the “front end,” or electronic access, has been accomplished; the “back end,” or electronic dissemination, has yet to be realized.

In the future, you will see an online closing report that will provide an item-by-item breakdown of statistical information, offer the posting of negatives and comments to all members of the specific committee, and create the ability to view ballot items online after submitting a vote.

Also to come is online negative vote resolution, which will include e-mail notification of negative and comment submission and the real time status of negative votes, including an administrative feature allowing subcommittee chairmen to actually resolve negative votes online and in real time, provided the appropriate requirements of the ASTM Regulations are met.

Evolution of the System

It is important to remember that the e-balloting system was originally conceived as a service to the ASTM membership. As such, it must be responsive to their needs to be true to its stated purpose. ASTM relies heavily on our membership to tell us if what we are doing does not meet their needs. We are counting on you to let us know if what we have built to help you achieve your standardization objectives is not up to par.

Feedback will be most welcome. This system is intended to be a mechanism that is continually growing, evolving, and bettering itself. We are counting on you to help guide its maturation.

Any comments regarding ASTM’s e-balloting system can be forwarded to Pat Picariello. //

Copyright 2001, ASTM

Pat Picariello is a staff manager in the ASTM Technical Committee Operations division.