Friday, February 13, 2015

"B-" for transparency: the UIC United Faculty Union website

I have already noted some of the challenges in the UICUF's new website in an earlier post.  In that post, my biggest complaint was that the new website essentially wipes clean the history of the UICUF.  (Yes, "wipes clean the history of" is a value laden, question-begging cliche about what "history" actually is....but I think my readers get my point.)  Unless the particular page has been cached in one's browser, it is almost impossible to read pages from the prior version of the website.  Therefore, it is much more difficult to know or study what the union said or did in the lead-up to the adoption of its contract.

In that post, I noted in passing  what I considered a promising feature of the new website.  It posted the minutes from its last meeting.  That was an admirable move toward transparency.

But the minutes from that meeting were also the only minutes the union has posted.  There has been at least one other meeting, on December 3, 2014, the same day the UICUF sponsored the "academic freedom panel." I believe there was a meeting sometime last week, but I am uncertain, and if there was, I didn't attend.  It would be hard at any rate to know, because the website doesn't seem to announce new meetings.  The announcement for the academic freedom council on December 3, for example, doesn't disclose that there was a meeting right before.  In fact, I'm not sure I realized there was a meeting until I went to the panel, and arrived about a half-hour early and found a meeting going on.

There are other announcements which I would have expected the union to post on its website but which it has not (at least not yet) posted.  Those announcements would have dealt with certain problems the union and the members of its bargaining unit have encountered in the last two months or so.  I don't wish to disclose them now because the announcements I received came to my email as "official" communications meant only for union members.  If I do comment on them later, I will do so using only sources available to the public or personal information about myself which I feel I have the prerogative to disclose.

To be sure, when it comes to meeting minutes and certain announcements, I can see a rationale for the union not making them public.  I don't believe it has a strict obligation disclose all or any of the minutes .  And something is to be said about reserving the privacy necessary to plot strategy and to discuss sensitive personnel or discipline issues. 

However, some of the "official" announcements sent to the union's listserv seem designed for public consumption, and placing them on the website strikes me as a good way to broaden access to them.  For example, I don't believe I"m disclosing any great secret by saying that the UICUF has a position on Governor Rauner's executive order to exempt certain state employees from fair share dues payments.  That seems like the type of statement the union would want to publish on its site.  Further, while meeting "minutes" might need to be private to cover some issues, publicity is good for transparency.  Because things tend to get known anyway, it might be helpful for the union to have its side of the story out there.  If privacy or secrecy really is a concern, it wouldn't be unheard of or particularly bad for a meeting to speak about certain sensitive topics off the record.  And for what it's worth, in the few all-member meetings I've attended, strategy and "difficult" issues were discussed in only a very general way.  And....the "minutes" from the only meeting that have been posted were not the free flowing discussion or even traditional minutes any way.  They were more like a Powerpoint presentation that the union gave and about which there was presumably discussion not noted in the "minutes."  If something like that from other meetings were reproduced for the website, it would be better than nothing.

In my last post about the website, I said that it has "a bit of an aesthetics problem."  That "aesthetics problem" wasn't something I harped on then.  But the more I think on it, the less charitably I am inclined to it.  The website is so hard to read it seems almost deliberately designed to discourage reading it.  I also wonder how its color dynamics might affect people with color blindness.  (I do not myself have color blindness or know much of anything about that condition, so maybe my objection is off-base.  But still.....) 

As far as aesthetics--and even my other points--go, I'll reiterate what I said  in my last post on the website.  There is a lot I simply do not know about web design.  I do know that there is more work involved than simply typing in something and posting it online, and my vantage point from the cheap seats might make it seem easier than it really is.  The union has limited resources and the time.  It also probably has to concern itself with the security of its site.  It's one thing for me to set up a pseudonymous blog account using a blogspot platform.  It's another thing to set up a website for a sometimes controversial organization.  I imagine there is a non-trivial danger that the site would be hijacked or somehow shunted offline.  Maybe this design is part of an effort to prevent such a development.

Still, I mean this post to be a suggestion to the union on how it might improve its website.  I realize the union has requested feedback from its members on the site.  And this blog post is my way of giving that feedback.

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