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Positive reports stream in from off-site delegates

Planners envision expanding remote attendance for next year’s General Assembly.
By Donald E. Skinner

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The behind-the-scenes technology crew assists off-site delegates at the UUA General Assembly.

The behind-the-scenes technology crew assists off-site delegates at the UUA General Assembly in Charlotte, N.C. (Nancy Pierce)

A pilot program that enabled some Unitarian Universalists to attend General Assembly 2011 from their home communities last month was a success, coordinators say, and it will likely be expanded for GA 2012.

In an effort to make GA, the annual gathering of leaders of congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, more accessible, the pilot program invited lay and professional UU leaders to sign up last spring to attend from where they live. Forty-nine did.

With an Internet connection and an extra-large conference call setup, they listened to GA business sessions as well as worship events. They voted on GA business motions in real time, and on several occasions their voices were heard in the convention center in Charlotte, N.C., as they commented on the various issues before this GA.

“I thought the program worked really well,” said Linda Laskowski, UUA trustee from the Pacific Central District and cochair of the off-site trial committee along with Mark Steinwinter, the UUA’s director of Information Technology Services. Said Laskowski, “We had comments from off-site participants to the effect they felt they were really part of GA.”

Steinwinter said the technology worked properly. One aspect of it allows people to vote online. That involved a ballot that showed up on participants’ computer or smartphone screens. Second, a teleconference call was set up for all of the business sessions and the four mini-assemblies where business issues were hashed out.

A third system was a way for the off-site people to signal that they wanted to speak on an issue. Said Steinwinter, “When they pressed the number one on their keypad, that alerted a teller who interviewed them just as if they were in the hall and added them to a queue of speakers both in and outside the convention hall.” A display monitor next to UUA Moderator Gini Courter showed her whom to call on. “It was not unlike a system used for a radio call-in show,” noted Steinwinter.

He said the highest number of off-site delegates participating at any one time was 20 to 25. “Many of them chatted with each other online. There were hundreds of exchanges over the course of GA. They created their own community.”

Many of them had suggestions that the planning team will follow up on. “We ended up with more than 100 notes about things to do differently next year,” Steinwinter said. “The off-site delegates gave us a ton of information. And the comments were almost all positive.” He added, “I feel like we made history this year.”

It turned out that it was a bit challenging for off-site delegates to keep up with the voting. The voting window of about 10 seconds was too short for many to catch each vote, said Laskowski. The off-site votes this year were recorded, but not added to official tallies. Next year off-site votes will be official.

The 49 delegates represented 39 congregations. Following GA, 41 of the delegates responded to a survey about their experience. More than 90 percent rated their overall experience as “excellent” or “good.”

Twenty-eight percent said they actually participated in GA at their congregation’s building, often in company with other members of their congregation.

Steinwinter noted the program is intended to create stronger ties between the UUA and congregations, by enabling more congregations to have a voice at GA even if they are unable to send delegates. Off-site delegates were encouraged to participate in the off-site test with other members of their congregation.

For 40 percent of the participants this was their first GA. Twenty-two percent came from historically underrepresented districts (Mid-South, St. Lawrence, Northern New England, Ballou-Channing), compared to 12 percent who typically attend GA in person from those areas. Thirteen congregations had off-site delegates, but no on-site ones.

Steinwinter said the pilot program had a budget of $75,000 for the test. “We spent significantly less than that.” Some members of the off-site trial committee will meet with the GA Planning Committee in September and then take a recommendation to the board of trustees for its October meeting about expanding the program.

Steinwinter said expansion of the program would not be as difficult as it had been to create the program over the past year. He said the nine members of the task force met by phone at least weekly and spent many more hours training off-site delegates. “We don’t expect it to be that time-consuming going forward.”

He said he and four volunteers at a table in the plenary hall, plus a “back office” group of technical support people and a teller, managed the off-site delegates. During plenaries, tellers stood by the Pro, Con, and Procedural microphones and ensured that people who were about to speak were at the right microphone.

Steinwinter said that for every 50 to 100 off-site delegates added to future GAs, one additional technical support person and an additional teller would be needed. Most of the support staff were volunteers, he noted.

Steinwinter tells a story about the team’s experience at GA with one off-site delegate. They checked in on her after she pressed her keypad for no apparent reason. “We found that she was singing along with one of the hymns in plenary, right there in her home. It was really touching. That’s what this off-site participation is about. We want people to feel like they’re a part of GA.”

The Rev. Randolph Becker, minister of the UU Fellowship of Key West, Fla., participated as an off-site delegate from a vacation cabin in the New York Adirondacks. He described the experience as “intense,” adding, “I had to pay attention all the time. I had fewer visual cues of the process and the mood of the hall. But all in all it was very much like being there.”

Becker spoke twice on issues before the GA. After the first time, “I took a deep breath and sat back. Wow! Sitting hundreds of miles away I had shared my point of view with all of the delegates at GA. The motion I was supporting passed. It was a good day.”

It turns out that it’s even possible to attend GA in a car. Becker noted that on Sunday morning during GA he had to leave his cabin to take relatives to the airport. “I dropped them off at 8:50 then rigged my car: Motorola Droid Pro phone on Verizon tethered via PdaNet to my netbook computer with its audio out to my car audio system to stream GA coverage. So it was that I could worship with 4,000 Unitarian Universalists as I drove along the New York State Thruway at 65 miles per hour.”

Sheila Lauder participated at home in Port Townsend, Wash., where she is denominational affairs chair for the Quimper UU Fellowship. She’s attended one GA, in 2007, when it was in Portland, Ore. The cost—and time—of travel has kept her from others.

She said she listened to most of the business sessions this year and voted on most of the issues. “I wanted to hear what other people were saying. That’s what one misses by not being there—a sense of what people are talking about. I thought the whole process was quite smooth, and I’m not a techie. My first choice would still be to attend in person because there’s nothing like being shoulder to shoulder with other UUs, but this is a wonderful second choice. I’m enormously glad it’s available.”

There are questions to be resolved about the roles that off-site delegates will play at GA 2012 in Phoenix, noted Laskowski. “We don’t know yet how much actual business will be conducted there. We’d also like to think about what kind of social justice activities there are that people can participate in thousands of miles away.”

She is confident that more people will apply next year for off-site delegate status. She said the system will be able to accommodate them. “One of our goals for this year was to make sure this program is accessible to people who are not technically adept. So it made our day when we heard from one of our 87-year-old participants that she had no technical problems whatsoever.”

Laskowski said that off-site voting was proposed several years ago as a way to make GA more accessible. That was before the issue arose about whether some UUs might not feel safe attending a GA in Phoenix, given that state’s anti-immigrant climate. “When the Phoenix issues were raised this proposal obviously provided an alternative (to attending that GA), but that was not the reason for doing it.”

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