Briefly put, I believe that the changes will not achieve the intended results, and that they will actually work against the stated goals by eliminating existing pathways to voting membership. As well, I think that if the amendments are approved, they will change a fundamental feature of the association, namely, governance exclusively by members who are “professionally engaged in translating, interpreting, or clearly related work” (in other words, working translators, interpreters, T&I educators, terminologists, and lexicographers).
The “overall intent of the proposed amendments” stated within the document of proposed changes itself (in the first explanatory comment on page 1) is “to expand the franchise in the hopes of increasing participation in elections, and possibly, active participation in ATA overall by giving more members a sense of involvement.”
Unstated, but apparently as important, is a goal to decouple ATA Certification from ATA member voting rights. (Currently, passing ATA’s Certification exam advances Associate members to Active or Corresponding members, referred to collectively as Voting members — see ATA’s membership page for more information.) This decoupling would get us one step closer to carrying out the recommendations of the Hamm Report, which advised that the Certification credential would be stronger if eligibility to take the exam were not contingent upon ATA membership. For many years now, ATA has been working toward the goal of opening up Certification to non-members.
For the record, I support the goals of increasing the number voting members, encouraging greater member participation, and opening Certification to non-members. But I don’t think that the proposed amendments are a good way to get there.
My opposition is both practical and on principle.
On a practical level, giving more members voting rights without an accompanying association-wide campaign to boost participation is not a complete plan of action. Current voting participation peaks at around 20%. It seems to me that we should first try to increase the participation rate among current voting members. A first step would be to survey voting membership to try to find out why so many of them are not voting and ask what can be done to get their votes.
Regarding increasing the franchise, the current procedure for qualified Associate members to become voting members is quite simple: they just have to ask. (Criteria here: http://atanet.org/membership/memb_review_online.php.) We have more than 5,800 Associate members, but only 378 used Active Membership Review to advance to voting member status in 2015 (the latest number I could find). Would someone who is not interested in ATA affairs enough to fill out a simple form to claim the right to vote be inclined to vote if that right were granted by default?
I wonder how effective we have been at communicating how simple it is to become a voting member, that it does not trigger a dues rate increase, and that the board and officers of the association actually care. We have not done enough to motivate our current voting and voting-eligible members, and it is premature to change the existing membership structure before we make more of an effort in that regard.
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On the level of principle, the amendments appear to reduce the concept of “professionally engaged” — currently a prerequisite to becoming a voting member — to “dues-paying member of ATA for three consecutive years.” I reject that notion.
The current membership regime makes clear that ATA recognizes there is life before ATA; that many new members have been working professionally for many years, perhaps for an entire career. For example, some translators and interpreters have full-time jobs with job-related support services and don’t feel a need to join a professional association. But upon leaving full-time employment, they join ATA for the breadth of resources and networking opportunities offered.
Currently there are two paths to voting membership: Certification and Active Membership Review. Associate members can either demonstrate that they possess “professional translation skills” by passing the Certification Exam or they can assert that they are “professionally engaged in translating, interpreting, or closely related fields” through Active Membership Review. By inference, the explanation of the Active Membership Review process serves as a checklist for what ATA considers adequate and necessary for meeting the requirement of being “professionally engaged.” (The bylaws do not define the term.)
Both of these paths are available to any individual member of the association after four weeks of membership. So if I, as a translator with at least three years of professional translation experience, join ATA on January 1, 2018, I can take a Certification exam on February 1. If I pass the exam, then I am a voting member by the end of June (let’s say). Or if there is no exam sitting in February and I am impatient, or if I am an interpreter, I can fill out the Active Membership Review form on February 1, certify that I have the qualifying credentials or experience, without having to submit any documentation, and I am a voting member within a few days. After a little over a month as an ATA member.
The proposed bylaws amendments would change that. Under the proposed changes, if I join ATA on January 1, 2018, the soonest I can become a voting member is on January 1, 2021. With the elimination of Active Membership Review, there is no way for me to demonstrate my “professional engagement” aside from being a dues-paying member. With the elimination of Active Membership Review, the definition of “professionally engaged” itself will disappear from association literature. Certification will also no longer be a direct path to voting membership, but this path is anyway bound for eventual elimination (in another post I will outline my idea for decoupling Certification from voting membership while also acknowledging the credential as evidence of professional engagement).
The bylaws amendments hit Student members particularly hard. Currently, Student members may take the Certification exam without having to pay the full member rate (the four-week waiting period still applies). If they do not pass, they remain Student members at the reduced rate. If they pass, and if they agree to pay full dues, then they immediately become voting members. Under the proposed bylaws, the Student member category is still available, but it does not count toward the three-year membership period required to become a voting member. Student members would have to wait out the three-year period of full-price dues regardless of how long they had been Student members and regardless of Certification status.
My experience in the organization these past 15 years has been that new members are some of the most enthusiastic volunteers. I think we risk discouraging those most likely to get involved in and eventually serve the association by not allowing them to apply for voting rights in the first year or two of their membership.
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In the September/October issue of The ATA Chronicle (issue 46, no. 5, p. 7), ATA’s executive director, Walter Bacak, says, “The Board approved presenting proposed bylaws changes to the membership for their approval. The changes are intended to expand voting rights to associate members who are professionally engaged in language services and have been members for three consecutive years.” These same two sentences appear in a sidebar on page 16. I think this is a mischaracterization of the changes, and that a more accurate characterization would be, “The changes expand voting rights to associate members who have been members for three consecutive years.”
Following on this change from a voting body composed solely of working translators and interpreters, educators in the field of T&I, and terminologists and lexicographers to a voting body of anyone who has ever been a member of ATA for three consecutive years, we have to recognize that the sole criterion for serving on ATA’s board of directors or becoming an officer of the association is being an Active member of the association (that is, being a voting member and a U.S. citizen or permanent resident).
Current bylaws exclude agency owners, recruiters, sales reps, and software and app developers (among others) who are not themselves working as translators or interpreters or in a closely related field from becoming voting members of the association. The proposed amendments, however, would automatically convert these individual industry members to voting members. Therefore, unless I am misunderstanding something, under the proposed amendments, ATA will no longer be able to claim that its direction and mission are answerable solely to working translators and interpreters and other engaged practitioners.
I don’t know what the practical implications of this change would be, if any, but we already have a segment of members who think that ATA’s “mixed” membership of individual freelancers, industry representatives, and corporate members is detrimental to the ability of ATA to advocate unequivocally for the interests of freelance translators and interpreters when they come into conflict with the interests of corporate members. And even though I do not share their concerns, my reasoning is based on the current exclusion of industry representatives from ATA governance. At the very least, glossing over this particular consequence of the amendments shows a curious indifference to one of the most vocal — and active — segments of association membership.
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I have other concerns about the amendments, such as a few technical inconsistencies caused by the edits, but the ones discussed here are the most substantive. The more closely I read the proposed amendments, the more unintended consequences I find.
So I will be voting against these proposed amendments.
On the other hand, I support the underlying goals of the changes, and I think these goals can be achieved without degrading the definition of “professionally engaged” and without working translators and interpreters having to relinquish governance of the association.
See you in D.C.!
 See, for instance, Stejskal, J., “International Certification Study: ATA’s Credential,” ATA Chronicle 32, no. 7 (July 2003), p. 14, available at http://www.atanet.org/chronicle-online/wp-content/uploads/2003-July.pdf.
“Michael Hamm, former executive director of the National Organization for Competency Assurance and the principal of Michael Hamm & Associates, reviewed and evaluated ATA’s accreditation program and provided the association’s leadership and members at large with a number of valuable insights. The purpose of what came to be known as the “Hamm Report” was to point the way toward strengthening the program and improving the benefits of accreditation.
[. . . ]
“Michael Hamm observes that while most credentialing efforts are initially developed to meet the needs of the members, the most effective ones are not tied to any membership criteria for participation, since competence and quality have nothing to do with the payment of dues to an association. The credibility of the credentialing effort is enhanced if it is viewed as a service to the wider public rather than a service to members. The move from a membership-based to a freestanding credential is a significant one in the evolution of any voluntary certification program.”
See also Hamm, M.S., “An Executive Summary: Review of the ATA Certification Program,” available at http://www.atanet.org/bin/view.pl/24113.html.
 In the ATA Board Meeting Summary, of November 7-8, 2015, one entry reads, “More than 500 votes were cast for candidates this year, which is one of the highest ever.” (Document at http://www.atanet.org/governance/bm_summary_november2015.php, ATA-member log-in required.) This was out of a voting membership of around 2,500 (I’m guessing based on various board meeting minutes — I cannot find a total for that precise period).