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How to Be an Effective Technical Contact and How to Write an Effective Negative Vote
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 January 2006 How To
Christine Sierk is a staff manager in the ASTM Technical Committee Operations Division.

How to Be an Effective Technical Contact and How to Write an Effective Negative Vote

There have been several articles featured in SN and training sessions offered that outline the major responsibilities of committee, subcommittee and task group officers, but there is one role that has not been defined even though it is often on the frontline of standards development — that of the technical contact.

Likewise, there have been articles and training sessions on the deliberation and resolution of negative votes, but clear guidelines on what should be included in a negative vote are not always easy to remember. Since the technical contact is often the one responding to a negative voter directly, we felt it appropriate to tackle these two items together.

The Technical Contact
The technical contact arguably plays the most important role in the ASTM standards development process, and the duties can vary. Technical contacts can be the technical committee member assigned to assist a user of the standard should there be technical inquiries; they can be the main author of a new draft standard; or they can be the individual responsible for a specific ballot item on an existing standard. In all cases, the technical contact needs to have experience, knowledge, and good communication skills.

When ASTM International receives a request for technical assistance from a user of an approved standard, it is our goal to obtain a technical response for that customer as soon as possible. For some smaller committees, the subcommittee chair may act as technical contact in this respect and respond to the inquiry directly. Other committees assign members of the subcommittee to be the contacts for each of the standards under their jurisdiction. It is important that the individual named is very familiar with every aspect of the standard, and can give practical advice on how to implement it. Although responses are generally informal, it must be clear that the response is a personal opinion and not the committee’s consensus view and, in the case of written correspondence, ASTM letterhead is not used.

An effective technical contact:

• Is very familiar with their standard.

• Is ready to accept technical questions about the standard.

• Registers the work item online and keeps the summary updated.

• Leads the balloting process.

• Writes the ballot rationale.

• Monitors negative votes.

• Communicates quickly with negative voters and fully understands their positions.

• Informs negative voters of the outcome of vote consideration.

An effective negative voter:

• Addresses multiple concerns separately.

• References section numbers.

• Provides a thorough explanation of the reasons for voting negative.

• Suggests alternative wording whenever possible.

• Clarifies points by copying relevant text from the ballot.

• Separates out comments not intended to be part of the negative.

When a technical contact gains approval by the subchair to develop a new draft standard, he should first register the work item online, name himself as the technical contact and include a specific rationale for the activity. It is important that the technical contact edit the online work item summary as necessary to reflect any changes in the scope or keywords as the document becomes more complete. He should act as a task group chair in the drafting of the standard prior to ballot, inviting other experts (whether ASTM members or not) to provide input to ensure that all necessary information is included prior to balloting for the first time. Once the technical contact is confident the draft represents a consensus view, he can request permission from the subchair to ballot the draft at the subcommittee level.

Upon approval for subcommittee ballot, the technical contact provides the item, including a rationale statement. This statement should be as complete as possible, including previous background information and the resolution of negatives and should encourage communication in case of questions or concerns about the item being balloted. All contact information is included for each item on the ballot information page, but should be included in the rationale as well.

If you are a technical contact for any ballot item, communication with voters is the biggest part of your job. As soon as the ballot closes, collect all comments and negatives for your ballot items. This is easier than ever thanks to the new closing reports on the ASTM Web site that provide all comments and negatives. Familiarize yourself with any common themes or concerns and then prepare to contact each negative voter directly. It is imperative that you contact the negative voter in advance of the next committee meeting. E-mails can be an effective avenue for most voters, but for the more controversial issues a phone call can go a long way. If you have controversial issues, be sure to tell your subcommittee chair so they can allot enough time on the next meeting’s agenda for your item. The technical contact may also schedule a virtual meeting prior to the face-to-face meeting to address a negative vote with the task group and negative voter.

Beginning with the spring 2006 ballot cycle, this communication will be easier with a new service ASTM is introducing: electronic notification and online access (for subcommittee chairs and technical contacts) to negative votes and comments while a subcommittee or main committee ballot is still open. E-mail notifications will be sent when a negative vote or comment has been received; Web site options will allow subcommittee chairs and technical contacts the ability to view, print and download negatives and comments by item number and ballot. Negative vote resolution forms will also be posted in a Word file on the Web site for technical contact and subcommittee chair access.

Be prepared and informed. As technical contact, it is your responsibility to fully understand all negative voters’ positions. If the negative voter cannot attend the meeting or send a representative to defend their point of view, you should be prepared to explain it on their behalf. If you do not contact them, and do not understand their point of view, you may risk delaying the balloting process as well as wasting other committee members’ time at the meeting.

Following the meeting, be sure to let the voter know the outcome, or refer them to the minutes once they are posted — that way they know they have been heard and the negative or comment has been understood and considered.

Writing a Negative Vote
If you have ever been a technical contact for a ballot item, you understand the importance of a clear, concise negative. If you have written negatives but have not been a technical contact, then this portion of the article may be enlightening. Section 11.3 of the ASTM regulations states that, “Negative votes shall be accompanied by a written statement.” The Web site ballot submittal process does not allow submitting a negative vote without either a statement included in the text box or an attached document. However, these responses often do not fully relay the technical issue the voter may have with the standard.

A statement such as “I do not agree with this test method” leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Since the regulations state that “all negatives must be considered,” it makes the technical contact’s job that much more difficult.

Remember that negative votes are appropriate for both technical and procedural issues. For example, if the balloted item was not approved by the subcommittee chair, a negative vote on this procedural oversight is warranted. Negatives addressing technical content are more common, but usually require more detail and explanation.

When writing a statement to accompany your negative vote on technical issues, keep the following in mind and, if it helps, keep it as a checklist before submitting your next negative vote.

• Clearly delineate each objection — if you have concerns with five different parts of a test method, keep them separate, and include the information below for each point:

• Reference the specific section, paragraph and sentence (where appropriate) to which you object.
• Be as detailed as possible about the reason for your negative vote (i.e., answer the question “Why do you object to this?”)
• Suggest alternative wording that would resolve your concerns. Many times slight changes in wording will resolve the issue. If they are considered editorial in nature, the negative can be withdrawn, the editorial changes made, and the item can move forward.
• If there is no alternative wording that would resolve your concern, be sure to explain what specific technical changes would need to be made for you to vote affirmatively on the next ballot. Give the technical contact an idea of the direction necessary to resolve your negative.
• Clarify points by copying text from the ballot.
• Clearly delineate any comments that are not intended to be part of your negative.

Resolving negative votes within ASTM International’s consensus balloting procedure can be a frustrating experience at times, but it ensures top-quality, market-relevant standards that are used all over the world in over 100 industries. Taking steps to be an effective technical contact and writing a clear, concise negative can go a long way toward smoothing out the consensus path. //

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