Saturday, 19 October 2013

Musings on the Debatbond and mandate theory

Last night I was installed as the Public Relations Officer of the Nederlandse Debatbond (The Dutch Debating Council) at one of three annual council meetings. As this board remains neutral, I will be hesitant to introduce my personal opinion on the content of anything that's decided, but I will allow myself to make observations about the procedurals of council and keep on pointing out things that I think can improve debate*. This does remain my personal space on the internet, and this blog has been set up partially as an exercise in writing.

I moreover feel that it is fair that I share my comments on the proceedings, as these are ideas that I develop during the council regardless. Opponents of the idea that the Board should be in any way coloured can hold me to account better than they could've ever done otherwise.

Having studied political theory before going into law, the council's meeting struck me as a beautiful example of how to explain the idea of soft power versus hard power and make a case for the importance of soft power.

The council comprises of most of the Dutch debating societies, who we can consider sovereign nations in this experiment. Each 'nation' has a number of votes contingent on the amount of members that they represent; so a society with 200 members gets 20 votes, whereas a society with 50 members gets 5 votes. The make-up of this council is thus that a few large societies can outmuscle a large number of small societies, in a situation mirroring almost perfectly the pre-Lisbon Treaty European Parliament.
But of course these debating societies, being sovereign nations, have been reluctant to give up any real power to the supranational Dutch debating council. For that reason the council rather plays an advisory role, and only really has a mandate on what it can do with the money it gets from societies, and on deciding things that have to do with Nationals.

The following fantastic natural experiment occurred last night. After the representative of the largest society had to leave early, a situation arose where ten societies were present, but the largest two societies could in effect block any motion, or needed the support or abstention of one other society to support a motion. Moreover, the next policy that was being discussed was the definition of advisory. The motion proposed that the council would create a debate calendar where individual societies could reserve a month for their competition in advance, with the idea being that other societies won't organise a competition in the same month. This motion was incredibly controversial in council, with some societies stating that even if it were passed they wouldn't conform to the policy.

Naturally, this policy was brought forward because of problems existing with tournament planning in the country. In the last year alone competitions had to switch their dates as they realised they were both running on the same weekend, or just one weekend apart. Adding to the difficulty, Dutch Nationals usually means that the society who organises Nationals that year vacates its traditional spot on the calendar and moves its competition to early April. Moreover, besides the motion outlined above  two less strict motions were being discussed in council as well with significantly broader support. It was thus in everyone's interest that night that a motion passed and that societies would abide by that motion.

What happened however, was that the "month" motion passed with the two largest societies voting in favour, one society abstaining and seven societies voting against. This was a classic use of hard power; where the large societies knew that they had the power to push through a legal reading that they preferred.
However, this alienated smaller and younger societies who heavily opposed this motion and had never been told why this motion could be in their favour as well. The narrative created in council was exactly that this motion would favour the large, and disenfranchise the small. As a consequence this motion, which will likely be applied in July for the first time, is set in stone, but is only advisory and there is no clarity about how many societies are willing to actually follow the rules laid out. An overturning could even happen before July. All because there was a lack of soft power employed by the proponents of the motion. An explanation as to why this motion would benefit all was sorely lacking or not well-received.

This situation mirrors exactly the shift in international relations between the latter Bush and early Obama years. The USA here is the big society: it understands that it has hard power, such as a strong military and a veto power in the UNSC. But it also noticed that the application of its hard power under the Bush years, by waging wars in the Middle East, led to a lot of small societies opposing the USA and not complying to its vision of the world. The break between these policies happened when Barack Obama gave a much-cited speech in Cairo, calling for building bridges between the USA and Middle-Eastern countries; an application of soft power, where the USA says it wants to work together to the mutual benefit of itself and the Middle East.

An understanding of this theory of hard power and soft power may inform societies during future council meetings; as the council remains an advisory body, discussions should be had about what benefits proposals may have to the Dutch debating community as a whole, and if there is a trade-off in benefits, why that trade-off is one that the losers may agree with.

It also means that the proponents of the motion now passed can't rest on their laurels: they need to create public awareness of the existence of this motion, and spell out its benefits. Otherwise societies that weren't present at the meeting or don't believe in it at all will not use this motion, and the motion can pass into obscurity and become a dead letter of the law.
A good example is the law that banned smoking in bars in The Netherlands. This law was legally passed as an employer protection law, and not as a public health law. It was also explained as such. Therefore there was a lack of a penalty to individual smokers, as smokers wouldn't be penalised but the bar would be. Moreover, many bars in The Netherlands are owned and operated by one or two persons, many of whom would smoke themselves and see no problem with allowing smokers in their bar. As a result, this was a law that was not properly explained by the government other than in technical terms, and thus many people opposed it. This led to the law being rarely applied in small bars (only the tip jar was replaced by a jar where smokers could save money for the bar to pay its legal fees). Eventually a later cabinet amended the law and gave small bars the right to allow its customers to smoke.

As a second example, two motions failed to pass that evening as they attempted to use soft power rhetoric (coincidentally, they were introduced by the largest of the small societies) in a haphazard way. Instead of introducing the motions as being important problem solvers, they were introduced as hypotheticals that could prevent a future problem; these were a motion on installing an equity committee who would do research in potential equity-related complaints in The Netherlands and a motion which would ask the council to be in English if one of the societies had appointed a chair who can't speak Dutch.
However, given that these motions were ill-discussed beforehand, the council meeting was the first time that many societies were introduced to these hypotheticals. It became hard for them to care about these situations, having not had much time to think about the problems they may prevent. The proponent later confided in me that using stronger wordings than hypotheticals would mean that some societies would have withdrawn their support, as they didn't believe in the stronger wordings. For that reasons in both cases a majority (a very small one in the case of equity, the proponents missing just one vote) felt that the potential problem wasn't big enough and rejected these motions.

As readers of this blog will probably be able to guess, I am personally gutted that equity isn't looked at more thoroughly**, and I was happy with having an equity officer at Roosevelt. Not because any equity complaints came up, but because when one incident happened with a few participants that we received complaints about after the competition, we could point them to the equity officer as having been a solution if they had brought it up sooner. While I am in the pro-equity camp, I understand that the people who want to implement equity policies through council will need to do a more convincing job of explaining its importance, and I hope that a national discussion and an implementation of equity policies at competitions such as Roosevelt and the Leiden Open will continue.

Given the importance and application of soft power council members may have to be willing to avail themselves of more information or discuss proposals more before going into council and voting. It could mean, for instance, that motions should be made public a long time before the next council meetings, instead of only a day in advance or during the meeting itself. This would lead to better informed decisions and a better use of the council's advisory powers.

*As a side-note, the board has explicitly stated to be neutral, which means that even if the board has to implement policies that I'd disagree with I would take it on the chin. Consider me in this regard a MP who has been instructed by the party whips to adhere to the party discipline, and will thus gladly follow party line.
** As I said before, I will of course abide by council's decision and not investigate equity issues through council lines. But I feel it would be disingenuous to say that I won't support equity procedures, having blogged about this, engaged in discussions on social media and tried to take concrete steps in favour of equity-related measures. I will still, for instance, advise the society I belong to and competitions I (D)CA to take equity-related measures.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

A precautionary warning about judges to organisers of Dutch competitions this year + motions and infoslides from the Roosevelt Open!

Last weekend I had the honour of being the Chief Adjudicator for the Roosevelt Open, our first competition of the year together with the impeccable Ruairidh Macintosh and Simon Tunnicliffe. I believe this tournament was superbly judged, yet this was due to circumstantial factors that won't necessary be repeated at other competitions. Therefore I want to give out a bit of a warning about judging at future competitions, so conveners and CA teams can be prepared and take necessary steps to ensure that this year's competitions will be fun for all and not be marred by bitching about bad judging. This of course would not be fun for any of the speakers, judges and organisers involved.
This post reflects only my personal views, and not necessarily those of the rest of the CA-team nor of anyone associated with the Roosevelt Open.

Numbers of judges

The situation at Roosevelt
UCR is a small still developing debating society, and many active and experienced judges graduated last year and moved abroad. As a result, it cannot boost a large strong local judging pool. This is a problem that many other fledgling debating societies have, and even many well-established debating societies rely on a substantial amount of alumni giving up a free Saturday for the competition.
We solved this problem by flying in very experienced judges from the UK, spending nearly 800 euros on judges alone. To note, I also reached out to many experienced Dutch judges, and we did get four Dutch chairs not through the N-1 rule, although many experienced Dutch judges couldn't make it to Roosevelt.
We ended up getting two very good judges from Kalliope, one through the N-1 rule and one because his partner had to drop out on the day before. After intensive contacts with members of my own institution Leiden we managed to get judges from them as well, and broke two Leiden N-1 judges who proved themselves during the competition. Other societies sent us judges through the N-1 rule who may have only seen five or six debates before going to Roosevelt.
As a result, we had a 9-room competition with 11 people we gave chair judge slots in Tournaman, and 2 further people we felt confident could chair a room if needed.
If the Roosevelt Open OrgComm had not been so ruthlessly efficient with their budget however, we wouldn't have been able to fly in two members of the CA-team and three additional judges. The consequence would have been that in one to three rooms we would have let someone with no prior chair experience chair the debate in round 1.

Why is this a problem?
Three variables may not be present at future Dutch competitions: A] enough money to fly in strong judges. B] the competition being in English, as you can't exactly fly in foreign judges for a Dutch-language competition and C] a big local judging pool.
This means that for instance Cicero and the rumoured Trivium competition will find it incredibly difficult to be well-judged, and that the UCU Open has gone to pains to create a 1000 euros judging budget, money that could've been spent elsewhere (Although it means that the CA-team can fly in good friends who are astounding judges, so I'm happy with it on a personal level).

How do we prevent this problem from arising, apart from the measures Roosevelt Open took?

1] Be incredibly strict with N-1
When it looked like we would have one good chair per room I opted to actively waive n-1 rule for some institutions, as it looked like first year debaters would have to take the brunt of that decision and not be allowed to speak and gain valuable speaking experience. If you are not in that situation you may want to actually enforce n-1. Furthermore, I'd suggest to CA-teams that you don't break up a random team, but break up that team which consists of the best judges of that institution. I have now been guilty of what too many other CA-teams are guilty of: eroding the norm around the judging rule.

2] Reform N-1
Some societies kept N-1 at Roosevelt. They did so, however, by sending novice judges. These people of course gain a lot from going to the competition and I hope that they learned a lot by seeing good debates and learning from their experienced chairs (we certainly tried to rotate our judges as much as possible). But if you are in need of experienced judges who can make decisions and give good feedback, only receiving these judges may be problematic for the level of your competition.
As I wrote on my blog earlier, the Israeli Debating League has recently reformed the N-rule so that societies are incentivised to send stronger judges or train up their novice judges. We may look into a similar system, by for instance having the incredibly modest requirement that within your N-judges one of them has judged at a previous competition.

Knowledge about who can judge and how they judge

How do we know who can judge?

I have a good memory, yet I didn't know many of the people who came to judge at Roosevelt. This was much the same in previous competitions I judged (in Paris and in Riga, although in Riga the rest of the CAs had more local knowledge), and a judge registration form we created for Paris only received three replies.
There must be a better way to give CAs insight into who has judging experience and can therefore be trusted other than their memory - and actually, there is.
The Scottish debating circuit keeps an up-to-date spreadsheet with prior judging achievements of all judges at their competitions. As a result CA-teams can avail themselves to a wealth of data that they can use to check judges.
And all it needs is that someone (maybe in the Debatbond?) collects data about judges sent to them by the CA-team. Who judged (you can easily make a print-out from Tournaman), who chaired rooms and who judged outrounds? I have all of this information about Roosevelt, and I'm sure that tabbers have data from other competitions.

How do we judge?
In the semi-final at Roosevelt the Dutch judges had a conflict of judging styles. In judging an opening half of the debate, the majority believed that the Opening Opposition had beaten the Opening Government's material narrowly and deserved to go through. A minority of judges found, however, that because Closing Government had won the debate by destroying the vast majority of Opening Opposition's material there was less standing on the table after the debate for Opening Opposition compared to Opening Government, and thus Opening Government should progress.
Regardless of who is factually correct about judging in this context, what is apparent is that there is disagreement within our own national circuit about how to judge.
We may move to a more public discussion about how judging works. In the past the Debatbond tried to create judge training material and a judge ranking system based on this; the latter may be a bridge too far, but making judge training material from different societies public could be very useful. 


The Roosevelt Open was extremely well judged by a number of great people, and hopefully sets a precedent for the rest of the year in terms of judging and tournament organisation (I won't say anything about the motions). This excellence however is not a simple guarantee and requires hard work and planning by future conveners. In particular, the contributions of non-hosting institutions need to be enforced to keep the number of judges and chair judges at a decent level.

Bonus: the motions for Roosevelt Open

We posted the motions on Facebook, but without the corresponding infoslides as some last-minute alterations were only written down on the Powerpoint slides. Sebastiaan, our tabmaster, has been so kind as to forward them to me, so here are the motions in full.

R1: This House would no longer arrest or prosecute individual members of drug gangs operating in highly violent areas if gang leaders agree to holt all turf wars

R2: This House would suspend all regulation regarding environmental protection laws and policies during prolonged periods of economic recession

R3: This House regrets that in the case of SGP vs. The Netherlands the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of The Netherlands (forcing the SGP to allow women to take office within the party)

Info-slide: The SGP is a Christian Orthodox party in The Netherlands which consistently holds seats in parliament. They propose policies and laws in accordance with Biblical teaching. They are in favour of traditional gender roles. Article 10 of their Statement of Principles hold that women aren‘t eligible for political office. Women are unable to submit themselves to election lists for the SGP or take political office within the party. In 2004 there was a legal challenge against the SGP by women‘s rights movements who claimed that Article 10 is illegal under Dutch law. This case reached the European Court of Human Right (ECHR) in 2012 in „The Netherlands vs. The SGP“ where the judges ruled in favour of The Netherlands and forced the SGP to allow women to run as candidates both within their party and for national office.

R4: This House Believes that the International Criminal Court should hire private military contractors to arrest individuals who refuse to surrender after an indictment

R5: This House Welcomes the rise of online news media at the expense of traditional journalism

Info-slide: Traditional journalism consists of print media such as the Daily Mail and the New York Times as well as television news networks such as CNN. Its circulation and viewership has been falling over the last few years. At the same time there has been an increase in the popularity of online media such as blogs and social media as a source of news. Examples include the Huffington Post and Jezebel

Novice Final: This House Believes That schools should instill unrealistically high expectations in students from lower-socio economic backgrounds

Semi Final: This House Believes That the Israeli LBGT-movement should oppose pink-washing

Info-slide: Pink-washing refers to the Israeli government actively promoting LBGT issues in Israel to detract from human rights issues in the Palestine Territories. Many commentators believe it is one of the main reasons for the government’s financial and vocal support of LBGT projects such as Pride marches in Tel Aviv and other financial support.  Many members of the international LBGT movement fear that this policy may be damaging to LBGT issues

Final: This House Believes that "I was just following orders" is a legitimate defence in cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity

The outrounds looked like this:

Semi Final 1:
OG: Duncan Crowe and Bas Tönissen (Duncanon)
OO: Senna Maatoug and Tomas Beerthuis (Cow and Chicken)
CG: Danique van Koppenhagen and Benjamin Dory (I've got 99 problems but a bid ain't one)
CO: Ary Ferreira da Cunha and Calin Muresanu (BBU/Porto)

Panel: Bionda Merckens (chair), Jennie Hope, Gigi Gil, Daan Welling and Henk van Zuilen

Semi Final 2:
OG: Amy Bakx and Menno Schellekens (BS)
OO: Anne Valkering and Rogier  Baart (Dinosaur)
CG: Uche Odikanwa and Rob Honig (Rob was adopted)
CO: Arielle Dundas and Alex Klein (UDS A)

Panel: Tom Moran (chair), Karin Merckens, Simon Tunnicliffe, Sarah Rust and Veronica Baas

Novice Final:
OG: Naud Berkhuizen and Roel Bos (UCU BB)
OO: Simone Landman and Jordy van Rijsingen (Swing A)
CG: Emma Lucas and Simon Touissant (DSDC Simma)
CO: Eva Rouwmaat and Xiao Xu (UDS C)

Panel: Anna England-Kerr (chair), Andrea Bos, Lia Verbaas, Ruairidh Macintosh and Ybo Buruma

OG: Anne Valkering and Rogier Baart
OO: Senna Maatoug and Tomas Beerthuis
CG: Danique van Koppenhagen and Benjamin Dory
CO: Uche Odikanwa and Rob Honig

Panel: Andrea Bos (chair), Bionda Merckens, Jennie Hope, Daan Welling and Ruairidh Macintosh