Make the Change by Randall Shepherd

EDITOR’S INTRODUCTION: This third reprint from Journey Planet’s “Be the Change” issue defines five problems with Worldcon governance and proposes solutions for each, addressing the WSFS, the Worldcon’s service marks, the Hugo Awards and the Business Meeting.

By Randall Shepherd: I went to my first Worldcon when I was 17. I’d been to my first science fiction convention when I was 14. From a tiny advertisement in one of the science fiction magazines, I saw the ad for the World Science Fiction Convention coming to my town. I was over the moon to find out there was a “world” version of the SF conventions!

I still love the idea of fans from across the globe gathering to celebrate the genre with programs, panels, events, parties, friendships made and renewed at our annual convention and the Hugo Awards!

I’ve chaired a Worldcon, vice-chaired one, chair-advised a few times, been a Division Head, along with being involved with the Hugo Awards multiple times.

When the 2023 Hugo Awards scandal hit, I shared the outrage so many fans felt at the unfolding disastrous responses launched on the internet. We simply cannot move forward by putting a bandaid on the problem and hoping that we are not hit with a future crisis. Bold reforms need to be made. Below I outline several problems along with proposed solutions. My original ideas were modified after speaking with a couple of Hugo-winning professionals, several past and future Worldcon chairs, and some fans that care deeply.

The solutions below are not set in stone and very open to being modified. That said, efforts to weaken them will not be welcome. I think a consensus needs to be developed to make multiple changes to better the World Science Fiction Society. The Society needs to take action to be trustworthy, transparent, and inclusive of all parts of the community.

What will be welcome are suggestions to improve the solutions and add others to the mix. I, after getting feedback from original advisors and the readers of Journey Planet, will file final versions to be on the agenda for the Business Meeting in Glasgow. I’m looking for a broad series of improvements to be voted on as a complete package. Even if someone has qualms about parts of the solutions, a willingness to find consensus in the proposals will, I believe, create a chance at wide, effective reform.

Solutions for a Clearer, Friendlier, Trustworthy WSFS and Hugo Awards

1. Problem: There is no official voice of the World Science Fiction Society.

We cannot have a future incident where a prior year’s Hugo Administrator, Chair of the Mark Protection committee, or any other staff member is acting or even appearing to act on behalf of the Society. There needs to be a designated date for the official handover of power. While there is a handoff at closing ceremonies, this is truly only for show, and a hard demarcation of power is not established.

Solution: There needs to be an official hand off on a specific date. Possible dates are: the official close of a Worldcon; December 31st in the year a Worldcon is held; January 1 of the year following; or January 31st (or whenever Hugo nominations close), as that date marks the end of the activity of a member of the Society from the prior year.

All staff of each Worldcon should be put under a duty to not speak about or on behalf of the Society, and all communications should professionally be handled by the committee in charge of the next Worldcon.

Enforcing the duty won’t be easy, but it should still be known and in place. It would be good if the inside view of last year’s Hugo Administration Subcommittee’s emails weren’t just in journalists’ hands, but also available to the Society on demand from the committee in charge.

The primary value of this change is to not have half-cocked idiots or evil doers enraging, insulting, and harming the community.

2. Problem: There is no licensing agreement between a Worldcon and the Society to use the service marks for Worldcon and the Hugo Awards.

Ridiculous. Fraught with peril and legally stupid.

Solution: Under the current rules, when a bid files to be on the ballot, the bidder must provide several things, including: proof of a contract showing they have the facilities to hold a Worldcon, and evidence that they have rules in place to replace the Chair if needed. They take on the constitutional requirement to hold a Business Meeting, see to site selection, and administer the Hugo Awards.

Part of getting on the ballot needs to be the mandatory condition of an executed licensing agreement. Spoiler alert: the mechanism of agreeing to particular behaviors/obligations in order to be validly on the ballot will be used for other solutions suggested in this document.

3. Problem: Hugo Administrators use their own private software that no one else can see the code or test the software.

Horrible that this has been allowed to happen four times!

Solution: As part of getting on the ballot, a Worldcon bid must agree to use the Society’s standard Hugo software. This software will be publicly viewable and testable. Chris Rose’s Hugo counting software appears to be set for use by the next several Worldcons. His software is available to examine on Github. He has invited testing and asked for datasets.[1]

Software needs change over time as technological advances are made. To enable the software to be alive and improvable, a standing committee could be formed that evaluates and sets out the official software for each year. Such a committee might be created like the Mark Protection Committee: each Worldcon appoints a member of the committee. I’d add that the members of the committee should then select a few others to be members of this committee. Year to year adjustments may be made, and all without the business meeting’s slow two years to change model. Use of the Society’s counting software would be mandatory.

4. Problem: The Hugo awards do not need another scandal.

Let’s bring sunshine to dark places. The Constitution as currently written allows for a Hugo Subcommittee, but delegating all authority over the Hugos to it is not mandatory.

Solution: The least invasive change is to remain with the Worldcon in charge of creating the Hugo Administration Subcommittee. This should be mandatory, as currently the creation of such a subcommittee is not mandatory. Each Worldcon must name a Hugo Administration Subcommittee with all authority delegated to it.

Further, each subcommittee must include oversight members that are NOT appointed by the Worldcon. Independent members of the committee who are selected by outside bodies guarantees a high degree of transparency. This will allow honest eyes inside the Hugo Administration Subcommittee. I suggest five oversight members. For example, I’d ask SFWA and ASFA to appoint representatives to the independent oversight. The creators honored each year by the Hugo Awards deserve to have a level of involvement that ensures the Hugo Awards retain integrity.

I am wide open to a mechanism for selecting oversight members. This method must be rigorous in adding other voices from the worldwide community of fans. There can be no failure in diversity.

5. Problem: I just want to go on vacation, see/make friends, attend programs and events, etc. I do not want to go to a business meeting several hours every morning.

It is almost like some people designed it to be inconvenient so you didn’t drop in and mess up the “fun”. “Hey wait, what do you mean they are sending that item to a committee for study…is it going to come up again?”

Well, Virginia there is a good chance the answer is no.

Solution: This conversation is too big for this space, but an effort has to be made to make the Business Meeting less of an intrusive time-suck that dissuades involvement. Maybe require anything sent to a committee for study to report back the next year, and if suggested changes are not acceptable to the maker of the motion, then it goes up for vote unaltered? We should be better than simply killing things in a subcommittee.

I’ve seen proposals floated in recent months to have the Business Meeting pass changes the first year, but rather than the current model of next year’s meeting passing it again, we have the Society as a whole vote on it. One hopes this would be done electronically. The involvement of the Society as a whole appeals to me. What does not appeal are suggestions for sunset provisions or re-ratification votes a few years after passing. These maneuvers always smack of a sneaky second bite at the apple of killing an idea after the spotlight is off an issue.

Summary: If future Worldcons do not comply with a final version of the solutions to problems 1-4 then their license and authority to carry out constitutionally-required acts will be pulled and conducted by the next seated Worldcon.

I’m open to suggestions to improve the proposed solutions, but they must still provide the transparency and required behavior that will make all members of the community confident of the World Science Fiction Society acting well and without scandal.


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8 thoughts on “Make the Change by Randall Shepherd

  1. The first problem I see is that the WSFS only exists in the form of Worldcon members. In a sense there is no persistent they there. Each WorldCon has a legal existence so it can do business with the venue, receive membership fees, buy stuff, the WSFS is a more nebulous concept.
    Maybe we need to start by establishing a corporate body with a board that can take decisions.

  2. Yeah, I understand that there is resistance to the idea of WSFS inc, but it increasingly seems like the cons of not incorporating outweigh the pros at this point.

  3. (3) Software

    This is my profession, and I also have developed software for Worldcons, as a volunteer.

    I think the values of WSFS as a volunteer-run organization are aligned with the Open Source movement. I would strongly encourage WSFS to use Open Source software, and to support Open Source software projects. Requiring Open Source ensures a basic level of transparency that is often not there with proprietary and private projects.

    There was another proposal to set up a WSFS standing committee where each Worldcon would contribute software developers. That was naive and unworkable. There are some regular Worldcon members who are very skilled software developers, but WSFS as an organization is not set up to manage software projects effectively.

    It would make sense to have a standing committee that decides on Open Source software to use. WSFS has the expertise to form a user committee. The committee can put out calls for software, test software, standardize usage across Worldcons, and provide feedback to developers. If the committee can throw in some funding for the Open Source software it uses, that would be golden. Open Source software is free to use, but it is not free to develop and maintain.

  4. Andrew, any chance you could provide me a link or a summary of what you are talking about? And is there anything more recent that occurred? That’s almost 70 years ago.

  5. Actually the biggest problem is that we are all just SF Fans who volunteer and none of us really want to change that. Things have become tied up in legaleze as we have actually migrated to be a World SF con and not just a traveling US con that calls itself a Worldcon.
    Many of us don’t have the bandwidth to participate in meetings during the Worldcon where we are actually working at the con. Even if we have ideas and would like to impact change, we just can’t do that AND be part of making a Worldcon a successful FUN event.
    That said, the constitution has grown unwieldy, wordy and has many things that just no longer work under our current model of a Worldcon. I agree. But how does one make the changes actually happen then? Randy has some solid thoughts, but to implement that many people would be required to sit through long and often tedious business meetings – for Years before change can happen. I don’t see a solution to that – it is a matter of who the people are who are willing to do this, and to date there are only a handful I have seen that are that dedicated.
    PS: Those of us like Chris who are trying make change happen sideways through Worldcon Software and Procedure standardization are having a real impact for globalization. Thank you Chris for NomNom for Hugo voting, and Warren for finding Election Buddy for Site Selection voting. This is real change.

  6. I have said multiple times that in my opinion, the “direct democracy” or “town meeting” governance system that WSFS uses is no longer fit for purpose. I would personally favor the members of WSFS electing representatives to a Council of WSFS that would replace the WSFS Business Meeting as the organization’s legislature. Any changes to the WSFS Constitution adopted by the Council would be submitted to the members (including non-attending members) of the following year’s Worldcon for ratification.

    Most people do not want to debate or listen to others debate. They just want to vote. This is why I’ve submitted another attempt at Popular Ratification this year. It replaces the ratification stage with a direct vote of all of the members. Constitutional changes would still have to originate with the existing in-person Business Meeting, but those people who don’t/can’t attend the Business Meeting would still be able to vote on anything that gets first passage without having to attend any meetings. It would be no more difficult than voting on the Hugo Awards or Site Selection, and probably less difficult, given that the only choices on each item would be Yes or No.

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