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Toward Columbus: Higher-tech convention aims for efficiency
Other changes aimed at building community

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
6/8/2006
[Episcopal News Service]  Less paper and more timely information may well be the result of some major technological changes in place for the 75th General Convention June 13-21 in Columbus, Ohio.

Time is of the essence since the Convention is one legislative day, and about 3.5 work hours, shorter than the 74th General Convention in 2003 in Minneapolis. The difference comes with the elimination of the nearly 24 hours of Sabbath time that was built into the Minneapolis schedule.

In its review of the workings of Convention, the General Convention task force, created in 2003 by resolution 2003-A145, found that the Convention could be shortened by using the Internet and other means to supply participants with pre-convention information and orientation, and by greater use of electronic technology to expedite the work at Convention.

The shorter timeframe is aimed at making the Convention more accessible to a wider variety of people, according to the Rev. Dr. Gregory Straub, the Convention's executive officer. A 10-day Convention with its required on-site pre-Convention meetings and travel time tends to restrict who can participate as a deputy, he said. Many deputies are retired people and those working people who have control of their hours and can take that amount of time off work.

Getting the Convention down to a week and the surrounding one or two weekends would allow other working people to participate without having to make trade-offs that mean "having to choose between vacations with their families or being deputies to Convention," Straub said.

A shorter Convention could also save dioceses and deputies some of the money it costs to send bishops and deputations to the event. Straub said the change will not really save money for the Episcopal Church because the costs of staging the General Convention increase every three years. Meeting for fewer days mean the church's costs may not increase as rapidly, he said.

The task force has proposed (Resolution A155) shortening the Convention to eight legislative days but keeping it at nine days when the Convention must elect a Presiding Bishop.

Most of the technological changes in Columbus are aimed at expediting how the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies conduct their business, and how the members of those houses and the rest of the church can follow the progress of their work.

Leading the list is a new computerized system for updating and thus tracking resolutions. The system (including already filed resolutions and their assignment status) is accessible at http://gc2006.org/legislation/

"A" resolutions, those filed by the church's committees, commission, agencies and boards which live out the mission of  Convention during the triennium, have been online for the last two conventions. In Columbus all resolutions will be available online and their status will be updated after each day's morning and afternoon legislative sessions, according Straub.

In addition to A resolutions, there are B resolutions filed by bishops, C resolutions filed by dioceses and provinces, and D resolutions filed by deputies.

Straub said that there may end up being fewer resolutions considered by this convention. In Minneapolis the convention dealt with 158 A resolutions, 28 B resolutions, 52 C resolutions and 98 D resolutions for a total of 336 resolutions. As of 2:00 p.m. on June 5 there were 169 A resolutions, 8 B resolutions, 42 C resolutions and 20 D resolutions, 239 in all.

Many of the pre-filed resolutions for Columbus are related to the church's response to the Windsor Report and in support of the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals, Straub said. It is assumed that a lot of those resolutions will be combined and so, even assuming that more resolutions will be filed by the 5:00 p.m. June 14 deadline, the total number of resolutions may be less than in 2003, Straub said.

Each resolution is assigned to one of 22 legislative committees for initial consideration. The chairs of the committees have received their pre-filed resolutions on a flash drive, a thumb-sized memory card that can be plugged into a computer. Any changes to the resolutions will be made by the committee on the electronic copy of the legislation.

In a related change, all legislative committees have been given Internet-based ways to begin organizing their work. While the committees cannot discuss the substance of resolutions assigned to them before Convention, Straub said they can and have been prioritizing their work and assigning resolutions to sub-groups for study.

Legislative committees will also have met for 7.5 hours of work before the first legislative sessions come to order. "That means there should be legislation on the floor when we convene" on the first day, Straub said.

When it comes time for the houses to debate resolutions, the electronic versions (stored on those flash drives and downloaded by staff) will be projected onto screens for everyone in the house to see. Amendments made during floor debate will be added to a resolution on the spot.

Straub said the electronic editing will allow for quicker updating in the new tracking system. No printed copies of amended resolutions will have to be distributed to all bishops and deputies, and the secretariats of each house (the support staff) will have electronic records of all resolutions "without having to type it all in," he said.

During debate on the floor of the House of Deputies a new system will change the way speakers are recognized. A volunteer at each microphone, one of which will be accessible for those in wheelchairs, will key in the speaker's number (all people with voice will have such a number printed on their credentials). The volunteer will also electronically relay to the dais such information as the fact that the person supports or opposes the motion on the floor, wants to ask for a point of personal privilege, propose an amendment, ask a question or call the question.

Straub said the presiding officer will receive the electronic information in a queue and can alternate calling on people opposing or supporting a motion. This change will eliminate the need at past conventions for delegates to line up at designated microphones based on their stance on a particular motion.

Keying in the deputies' number will allow the audio-visual staff to direct cameras to the microphone of each speaker and thus project his or her image onto the house's large screens. The speakers will be identified by name and deputation (or as a member of the convention's youth presence).

The system will also help the people who take the minutes of each legislative session because it will provide an electronic log of the speakers, Straub said.

The debate will be more accessible to all deputies through the use of professional Spanish and French translators who will replace the volunteers translators used at previous conventions. The cost of providing professional translation services, and the cost of many of the other improvements, is being covered by the $125 increase in the registration fee paid by bishops, deputies and all visitors who want access to all legislative material, according to General Convention Manager Lori Ionnitiu.

The electronic voting system has also been improved. In the past any time a slate of candidates exceeded nine, the House of Deputies (more than 800 members) had to vote by paper ballot. At the last convention, according to Straub, it took six legislative days to elect the trustees of the Church Pension Fund. Straub hopes this Convention's efforts to elect 12 trustees from a field of 25 can be done in a single session.

Among the other changes planned for Columbus are two aimed at building community. After the House of Deputies attends it orientation session the afternoon of June 12, the deputies and first alternates will gather in the worship space for an hour and a half.

Forty percent of the deputies are new to the experience of Convention. The discussion time is set aside so they can begin "to get a sense of belonging to the body," Straub said.

Deputations will be split up in order "to get people talking with people other than the people they normally talk to," he added.

Those discussions will be facilitated by trained volunteers as will the daily table discussions after the sermon. Some 3,000 people attend the daily Eucharist. Bishops, deputies, members of the Episcopal Church Women's Triennial meeting and the convention's official youth presence will be seated at 185 tables and there will be 115 additional tables for visitors. Those people assigned to each table in the larger group will choose two discussion facilitators at the first Eucharist. At least one of those facilitators is asked to be at each Eucharist for the entire convention.

The visitors tables will select a facilitator each day because the people seated at those tables tends to change from day to day due to people's schedules and the fact that there are not assigned seats at those tables.

The task force suggested that the facilitators be chosen from among first-time deputies, young adults and members of the official youth presence.

A seven-page training manual will be available for facilitators that includes tips on leading discussions, information on how the discussion will work and suggested questions for each day's discussions. Straub's colleague, the Rev. Canon Anthony Jewiss, deputy executive officer, said the manual includes discussion suggestions based on the day's lessons and their proclamation, the General Convention's themes (Come and Grow: Grow in the Spirit, Grow in Love, Grow in Hope, and in all things Grow into Christ), and people's experience in daily ministry.

Table discussion have been done during Eucharist at previous conventions but "they're always been hard to make really meaningful," Jewiss said. This year's effort is aimed at helping the convention develop a sense of community.

While Straub said some people worry that facilitated discussions may feel "controlled," the goal is to prevent one person from dominating the discussion, as has happened in the past.

"This is to help everyone have a chance to talk," he said.