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The main publishing venue in computer science are conferences with formal proceedings. Typically, each edition of the conference (every year, or every other year) is organized by a different team of local organizers together with a program committee. In addition, there is a steering committee that provides continuity from one year to the next. The steering committee's tasks include choosing the next local organizers and program committee chairs, and making long-term decisions on the future of the conference.

These steering committees often have some sort of legal existence as the board of a non-profit dedicated to the organization of the conference, or as the board of a smaller group within a large scholarly society, e.g., the ACM SIGs.

My question is: in which cases are these steering committee members chosen by election among community members? Indeed, in many cases, it looks like the steering committee is just chosen by co-optation, e.g., it consisted initially of the original founders of the conference, and then of conference organizers and people chosen by them.

By contrast, in most non-academic nonprofits that I know, there is usually an assembly general meeting every year, featuring an election to elect the board. (In practice, of course, there may be only one set of candidates; but the result is that alternative candidates are allowed to apply for board membership, and the current set of leaders get their "power" from the fact that the community has chosen them, not from seniority.)

Investigating, it looks like the ACM SIGs are elected (see SIGPLAN); but for unaffiliated conferences it seems that there is no such election, and information is difficult to find. Why isn't it standard policy that the steering committees of conferences are elected, like for other non-profits?

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  • Don't confuse the elected officers of an ACM SIG with the conference chairs. There may be overlap, in people, but they aren't elected to a program committee but, rather, to SIG direction.
    – Buffy
    Mar 14, 2023 at 16:08
  • Ah, you are right, I assumed that the steering committee of a SIG also served as the steering committee of the conferences of that SIG, but actually it does not seem to be the case, e.g., the POPL steering committee sigplan.org/Conferences/POPL only partly overlaps with the SIGPLAN steering commitee. And it is, apparently, elected at least partly sigplan.org/Conferences/POPL/Principles. (And yes, I am aware that this has nothing to do with the conference chairs and program committee...)
    – a3nm
    Mar 14, 2023 at 20:17
  • SIGPLAN and SIGCSE both have lots of conferences. It would be impossible for them to have the same committees. Those folks also have careers. And if you want to be on a committee just volunteer.
    – Buffy
    Mar 14, 2023 at 20:19
  • Frame challenge: Maybe the concept of "non profit" is the problem.
    – Boba Fit
    Mar 14, 2023 at 20:34
  • @BobaFit: thanks, but what do you mean? How is it a problem?
    – a3nm
    Mar 15, 2023 at 8:54

1 Answer 1

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Why would they be? Would it result in better decisions if they were?

Conference organization committees do technical work, unlike professional organizations that also do "political work" in the sense that they are also advocacy groups. For the latter, it makes sense to have elections among the members because they represent my community. But I see no particularly good reason why the committee that assigns rooms to specific sessions at a conference needs to be elected. I also don't see a need why the group that selects which talks to accept should be elected -- for the same reason why I don't think that it's a problem that NSF panels are not elected, or the reviewers for journals.

In is worth remembering that elections do not necessarily lead to better outcomes. You'd first have to define who the electorate would be (organizing committees have to stood up long before anyone knows whether they will go to a conference, so conference participants cannot be the electors), and who can stand for election. There is also the issue that in elections, you will find that the ones elected are largely senior people in the field, simply because they are the most well-known in the area. But these are not necessarily the ones you want to comprise the committee -- you want to have a diversity of perspectives, some junior people, possibly geographic diversity, some local folks who know the venue, etc. None of this is what you will get from elections.

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    Isn't the work described in the answer (assigning rooms, selecting talks, knowing the venue) something the Organizing/Program Committee would do, instead of the Steering Committee? (I don't have any experience on this, so I may be completely wrong).
    – GoodDeeds
    Mar 14, 2023 at 16:12
  • Thanks for your answer, but I do not think most of it matches my question. "I see no particularly good reason why the committee that assigns rooms to specific sessions at a conference needs to be elected": this is not what the steering committee of a computer science conference does, that part would befall to the local organizers (or maybe to the program committee for the part where you organize the papers into sessions). Same thing for selecting the program (this is the program committee's job.)
    – a3nm
    Mar 14, 2023 at 20:19
  • About elections leading to better outcomes: I am not purporting that they do, indeed in practice the outcomes may be quite similar in most cases (and indeed it can be hard to say which conference does what!), but I find it makes a significant difference in terms of practice. About the question of diversity: interesting point, I hadn't thought about that, but I am not under the impression that the typical steering committee is particularly diverse. That said, you can of course have elections but impose quotas on the result.
    – a3nm
    Mar 14, 2023 at 20:22
  • @a3nm There is only one committee for each conference, the "organizing committee" (though it may have other names in different communities). The "rooms committee", the "talks selection committee", etc., are all sub-committees of the same 10-20 people. Mar 14, 2023 at 22:25
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    I think we are still not talking about the same thing. I am talking about steering committees, e.g., the POPL steering committee sigplan.org/Conferences/POPL. This is not the organizing committee of a specific POPL edition, e.g., popl23.sigplan.org/committee/POPL-2023-organizing-committee. My question is about steering committees, not organizing committees.
    – a3nm
    Mar 15, 2023 at 8:54

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