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On the Level: On the “New ACSM.”

October 1, 2002
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A discussion of the pros and cons of reorganization.



The leadership of the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM) has announced a reorganization plan for the Congress.* ACSM is to become a sort of umbrella organization for the current four Member Organizations (MOs). ACSM will not have individual members; its only members will be those four MOs. An individual will join and pay dues to the MO of his or her main interest and that MO will plan and direct its own programs, paying a fee to ACSM for selected services such as conference planning, government affairs and promotional activities.

According to an official announcement in the April 2002 Cartography and Geographic Information Science, a journal of ACSM, “ACSM will take a role as advocate for those organizations and…promote their common interests.”

The proposal is the most significant change in the structure of ACSM since the three Divisions of ACSM became separate and discrete MOs a quarter century ago. Some older members may object to the proposal for sentimental reasons while others may see it as an attempt to advance one of the MOs to more prominent status. The argument may also be made that ACSM is greater than the sum of its parts and by partitioning the Congress each of its parts will be diminished as a result. On the other hand, the world is changing, the environment in which we practice is changing, the profession is changing and our associations must change to adapt to the new conditions.

What is strange about all this is the lack of debate at the membership level over the proposal. It appears that the ACSM Board of Direction took action to institute the change prior to the spring 2002 meeting since it was reported in the April issue of the CaGIS journal, which went to print before the meeting. Yet a search of recent issues of the ACSM Bulletin from 2001 and the three issues of the Bulletin published up to August of this year reveals no discussion of the proposal. They are devoid of any discussion of the pros and cons of reorganization, though we will be asked to vote on the issue this fall. At the risk of seeming to be an obstructive contrarian, I must raise a few concerns.

The Membership Issue

A shrinking membership is a continuing concern for ACSM and its largest MO, NSPS. The recent fiscal crisis that forced the sale of the ACSM building in Bethesda, Md. is an obvious result of lower member levels. The proposal is claimed to be responsive to current and potential members with the implication that the membership will begin to grow once again following reorganization. I am not sure how we arrived at that wisdom from the profession, but it is doubtful that a realignment of the MOs under an umbrella organization will provide the centerpiece for a vigorous and successful membership drive. In fact, the one device that has a chance of saving both NSPS and ACSM is the movement to joint membership of the state associations with NSPS/ACSM. The Alaska, New Jersey and Maine surveyor associations have made joint membership with ACSM a reality; an extension of that movement nationwide would mean for the first time that surveying actually has coherent, coordinated representation with the power of numbers and with improved finances.

The Professional Identity Issue

When ACSM was founded in 1941 (as the National Congress on Surveying and Mapping) it was understood that it was to be “broad enough to serve all fields and branches of surveying and mapping” (Walter S. Dix, 1979). It was from that breadth that it would derive its strength. The organizers were people from state and federal mapping and surveying organizations, private practice, education and industry. We have come a long way in 60 years, but we have concerns today just as critical as then and we need the strength of all our components. Surveyors, cartographers, geodesists and GIS specialists should be getting closer in our organization, not further apart.

The Efficiency Issue

When ACSM was still organized in divisions there was a single administrative level for the Congress. Even after reorganization into the three MOs the Congress was administered by an executive director and his staff who ran the programs and provided services for all. In recent years NSPS has added its own level of staff, assigned specifically to NSPS concerns. A logical extension of this trend would lead to each of the other three MOs, meaning that where there used to be one staff structure there will be five: one for each of the current four MOs and one for ACSM. But the reorganization plan provides little detail on the services to be delivered by the ACSM staff; it will be up to each MO to determine what services it wants to contract from ACSM. The ACSM executive director and staff could end up administering nothing more than themselves and their office.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

If the whole of ACSM is greater than the sum of its parts it is because its parts—the MOs—derive strength from their association with each other. When they become separate associations only loosely joined through a “forum for activities of mutual interest” some may begin looking for other, more hospitable society-homes. The geodesist members of AAGS, many of whom are already members of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Geomatics Division, may decide that is where they will devote their time and resources in the future. The members of CaGIS and GLIS may decide there is no longer any reason to belong to two organizations. Then the surveyors of NSPS will be left to their own devices and ACSM will have finally expired. The breadth and strength of the profession as visualized by the founders of the Congress will be lost. Accordingly, by the law of unintended consequences, the results from the proposed changes become the direct opposite of the intended outcome.

Surveyors in other parts of the world are building strength into their profession by broadening their activities to include such disciplines as cartography, land management and geospatial information specialties. The surveying profession in the United States seems determined to go in the other direction, separating itself even further from other elements of the surveying and mapping field.

This is no plea to maintain the status quo. If ACSM is an anachronism, let’s get rid of it. I believe, too, that the ACSM committee that drew up this proposal was earnest in its attempt to reinvent the organization. But I also believe a debate is needed at the member level and that it should include an examination of exactly what surveying is and what we want it to be before we start carving it up into its narrowest components.

*For detailed information on the “New ACSM,” see POB’s Latest News, July 2002, or visit www.acsm.net.

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