The Face of Surveying – ACSM and NSPS

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

With those words Charles Dickens, the English novelist, opened his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities. The novel depicts the apparently polar opposites of the French peasantry and the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the French revolution. He also illustrated many unflattering parallels with the society in London at the time. These were times that, seen from our perspective, suffered unnecessarily from problems that could have been bridged or at least ameliorated with a small amount of empathy.

I think those words fit the situation in which we find the practice of surveying today. Who are we? Where are we? How are we? Who are they? Where are they? How are they? The struggles to answer these questions have troubled our profession for quite some time. The struggle doesn’t come so much from its members understanding themselves. It comes more from dealing with and answering the misconceptions of those not members of the profession.

Perhaps you remember the fable of The Six Blind Men and the Elephant. The elephant, had he been told of the 6 opinions, would have found it hard to believe any of the men were speaking seriously. He would dismiss them as irrelevant. So it has been with surveying and surveyors. For literally thousands of years the profession called surveying has included an amalgamation of any and all techniques and technologies available to accomplish its charges.

Surveying has always been unique. Observers from many different perspectives have come up with their individual ideas about and descriptions of Surveying. To most, the apparent magic of surveying has garnered strong reactions. One is of amazement that anyone can with a little hocus pocus point with certainty to a place on the ground and say “this is the place.” More recently, a feeling of watching a charlatan who takes information anyone could acquire from public or on-line records and regurgitates it for a fee. A third is one of seeing a menial technician who has been trained simply to use measuring tools. It is enough to make any surveyor sympathize with the elephant of the fable.

The first successful movement toward legal regulation of surveying & engineering practice in the U.S. originated with the small group who founded the Louisiana Engineering Society in New Orleans in 1898. They were developing legislation for the regulation of the practice of Land Surveying and Civil Engineering in the 19th century. They succeeded in 1908 passing Louisiana’s first registration act. It was the beginning of an era. Wyoming passed a registration act the previous year in 1907. It may have been the best thing to happen for engineers but set in motion events leading to difficulties for those practicing surveying.

Florida joined the field in 1917 as the third state; by 1920, seven states had laws requiring registration of engineers and representatives, under the leadership of Louisiana’s Colonel Marcel Garsaud, formed the National Council of State Boards of Engineering Examiners (NCSBEE). They drafted a "Model Registration Law," and shortly thereafter most of the states had passed laws based on this Model Law. Montana finally made it complete after 40 years 1947.

Louisiana, who got the ball rolling licensing Surveyors and Civil Engineers, was different from most in that it wasn’t until 1950 that Louisiana’s law was revised to recognize all the “branches” of engineering. During those four decades, two world wars and a depression had conspired with the model law to increase the glamour of engineering while the public understanding of surveying seemed to be dependent upon those Six Blind Men. By the 1960s practically anyone who received a degree in Civil Engineering was simply handed a license to survey; with predictable results.

Figure 1 (right) Member Organizations form the "Congress" of the ACSM

Since June 1941 the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM renamed from National Congress on Surveying and Mapping) sought to better coordinate the nation’s surveying and mapping activities. Its purpose is to “advance the sciences of surveying, mapping, geographic information and related fields, in furtherance of the public welfare and in the interests of those who use surveys, maps, spatial information and those who make them, and to establish a central source of reference for its member organizations and the public.” Also, to coordinate Conferences, Governmental Affairs, Society Outreach and Public Awareness for the benefit of the members and to speak on the national and international level as the collective voice of the Surveying and Mapping professions; to contribute to education both in the technological sciences and the professional philosophies. The ACSM has suffered from time to time the strains large groups see when parochial interests overshadow the grand purposes of the organization. For a while government employees and academics ruled the roost with predictably disastrous business results. In 2004, the structure of ACSM was changed from one in which individuals were members of ACSM, and participated within their chosen interest group to one in which individuals are members of one of the four independently incorporated Member Organizations. The four MOs were: American Association for Geodetic Surveying (AAGS), Cartography and Geographic Information Science (CaGIS), Geographic and Land Information Society (GLIS) and National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS).

In the last decade or so many users of GIS technologies have grown resentful of the legal recognition afforded surveyors licensed by the states and have sought professional status separate from surveying for those who use that computer technology. One effect of that resentment resulted in CaGIS withdrawing membership in the ACSM. Recently, the imbalanced governance of the ACSM (the congress) by equally represented MOs coupled with a pair of unprofitable conventions has resulted in near fiscal disaster for ACSM. The NSPS with over 95% of the ACSM membership has picked up much of the financial burden but its own membership has begun to ask “where’s the bang for our buck?” and set in motion the process of withdrawing from ACSM also.

Representatives of NSPS, AAGS and GLIS have met in an effort to reorganize ACSM in a manner acceptable to all, but have not been successful in finding middle ground. The dispute seems to have boiled down to this. The AAGS and GLIS fearing NSPS leaving with a nearly total majority of the membership resent feeling like they are being dictated terms. The NSPS resents hearing less than 5% of the membership major changes in governance and operational structure. Neither group sees the other as playing fair. The 800-pound Gorilla in the room that everyone has been pretending to ignore is that NSPS has the resources and membership to survive going its own way, while ACSM without NSPS won’t likely be viable.

Figure 2 (left) Members pay dues through their geographical affiliate and indicate special interest by dues paid to S.I. groups.

Whether the future holds an ACSM that includes NSPS or an independent NSPS, (perhaps renamed to
sound less exclusive) the future success of any group that has the best interests of the fields of interest that are covered by the umbrella of surveying must serve the interests of its members while maintaining the ability to stretch the horizons of their interests. Any organization or re-organization that fails to do so will simply repeat history.

The unique difficulty faced is to recognize and to communicate the necessary breadth of that field we call Surveying. It is mathematical, astronomical, legal, optical, historical, electronic, geological, computerized, chemical, manual, biological and above all professional (in the real not necessary some legal sense). There is perhaps no other field that is such a university within itself. That is particularly why those with a more specialized mindset have failed to adequately serve and nurture it.

Presently, the organization of the NSPS, in part because of its affiliation with state societies includes primarily members who are licensed to practice surveying by state law. Those not so licensed look skeptically at claims that their interests might be fairly served in such an organization. It is obvious that a Paul Bunyanesque effort is called for to change the popular mindset that sees deep divisions between the different specialties that reside under the surveying umbrella. In the mean time it is incumbent upon whatever organization emerges that the current fears of the majority and attacks by those who would see the specialties cleft from the whole are addressed while simultaneously making room for the influence of smaller groups of specialists and has the flexibility to accommodate future change as it is warranted.

The successful solution will not be a simple one. The simple one will be doomed to isolation. We must allow for subtlety and a touch of complexity if we wish to have a viable result. All interests must be accommodated; but done so in a way that doesn’t unreasonably empower one or a few to dominate the whole, except to defend a recognized right principle. I see the in broad strokes how a successful organization will look.

At present the members of the NSPS represent over 95% of the total and as such will form the immediate core of any result. Additionally the existing successful local penetration of the NSPS affiliate structure lends organizational strength and stability. Admittedly, this group is overwhelmingly composed of state licensed practitioners that could be intimidating for those not so licensed. A welcoming, inviting attitude must prevail to specialists who don’t fall into the licensed group, including a strong persuasion aimed at the states to find ways to be inclusive locally with membership as well as broadening licensing definitions. If that can be done the future will be hopeful.

Figure 3 (right) Either body may pass a motion on to the Board of Directors for consideration. Both houses may concur on a bill that the BoD may veto.

The current NSPS organization is much like early bicameral governmental experiments. There is a lower house (Board of Governors) that is usually most responsible for initiating and forming legislation that must be passed on to an upper house (Board of Directors) for conclusive action. As long as NSPS identifies itself principally with the licensed practitioners this organization is well designed. In order to accommodate the other specialists a successful organization will have to add another body.

I envision a few “special interest areas of practice” that would have, as members, individuals whose practice includes the specialties covered by such groups. Each special interest group will be allowed to choose a delegate to a senate-like body (Board of Specialties) representing the specialties to balance the BoG that represents the individual members geographically.
I see two methods passing on legislation to the BoD. Method 1 would be for either the BoG or the BoS to pass an item without concurrence of the other. It would be treated as a motion in the BoD (much like actions passed by the BoG is now handled) to be decided by the BoD. Method 2 would allow for times when the BoG and the BoS concur by passing identical legislation on to the BoD who then must veto the action or it becomes effective. The situation will resemble somewhat the relationship between the US Congress and the US Executive but with the BoD reserving a bit more leeway to act than afforded the US President by the Constitution.

With a balance such as described the interests of all may be fairly represented. I hope pressure would be brought to bear on the state affiliates to recognize the broader definition of surveying and membership in the national ought to become a requirement to join a state organization for it to claim affiliation. The organization that can accomplish those things will have a good chance at a viable future and a best chance to represent surveying going forward.

Disclaimer: Your author is a member since the mid 1980s of ACSM, AAGS, GLIS, NSPS, LSPS currently and of GaGIS until this year; and is on the NSPS Board of Governors, serving as Secretary. The opinions expressed are entirely personal and are not represented to be those of any other than myself.